The government’s responsibility to victims of chemical weaponry in wartime
Exposure to chemicals during wartime can cause lifelong disabilities for those who fought and those who were close to the fighting. Few know these issues better than Veterans For Peace (VFP) member Paul Cox, a former U.S. Marine who served in Vietnam between 1969 and 1970. Cox visited Vietnam in December 2008 to meet with Vietnamese who live with the effects of chemical warfare. He discussed his experiences and upcoming actions to raise awareness of chemical exposure and disabilities in an interview with Access Press.
The topic is timely because it is being raised by VFP and its Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign (VAORRC) as an effort is launched to seek humanitarian aid from Congress. “I am confident that we will secure legislation to provide humanitarian assistance for Vietnamese affected by Agent Orange and dioxin,” Cox said.
The topic also is timely because of the wars U.S. troops are currently involved in. Use of depleted uranium or DU munitions has been criticized because of the potential for long-term health impacts and disabilities. Cox said, “The use of these newer chemical weapons is likely to produce ill adults as well as deformed children in Iraq, Kuwait, and Kosovo, and among our exposed veterans.” Cox believes this merits the same response as Agent Orange has been given.
The effects of Agent Orange and the dioxin it contains are all too well-known. Two young people Cox met with during his recent trip to Vietnam suffer from a rare skin condition, causing painful seeping sores that cover much of their bodies. Cox believes these young people are only two of many who suffer from lingering effects of poisonous chemical weapons on the descendents of civilians and soldiers.
“There are many American civilians who have been exposed to dioxin, mostly at and around the Dow, Monsanto and other chemical companies’ plants, and U.S. Department of Defense storage and shipping sites that handled herbicides. I cannot address the measures that are being taken by those communities to secure some type of remediation and compensation for the damage to their environment and health.”
“On the other hand,” he continued, “Nothing has been done to help the Vietnamese civilians affected by Agent Orange.” Lack of health care access is a huge barrier in such a poor country. “Their plight has not been recognized by the chemical companies, and only lip service has been offered by the U.S. government,” said Cox.
Cox questions whether the American people “have the courage to look at the reality of Agent Orange. It is not a pretty history and it is in some ways an horrific present.” VFP has identified medical research about how Agent Orange caused drastic change to the genetic code that resulted in horrific and untreatable disabilities in humans. Exposure to toxic chemicals disrupts the lives of the individual and family because of the irreversible permanent physical and mental disability in children born to some former Vietnam War veterans and Vietnamese citizens who were exposed to hazardous chemical weapons.
“I am working on the Agent Orange campaign because we have a debt to repay to the Vietnamese for our country’s behavior, and because I recognize that the wounds of war last long after the shooting has stopped,” Cox said. These wounds include additional studies, remediation of the 40-odd dioxin “hot spots” in Vietnam, testing of pregnant women for birth defects, testing of people known to have sustained dioxin exposure and the surgery, prosthetics, accessible environments and other accommodations.
The descendents of chemically exposed war veterans should be provided with custodial care for the permanently disabled, said Cox. He also wants to see medical care and compensation for ill Vietnamese.
According to Cox, the Veterans Administration (VA) last year spent about $1.5 billion in compensation and $56 million on health care for veterans exposed to AO. There are about 15 diseases in Vietnam veterans that the VA recognizes as presumptively related to dioxin poisoning. “This is an inadequate list that is based solely on demographic studies, not an understanding of the real scientific effects of Agent Orange,” he said. “Many questions about Agent Orange remain unanswered because the Department of Defense, the VA and the chemical companies have consciously blocked the scientific studies needed to more clearly define the effects of dioxin. One burning question that veterans have about dioxin is whether it will affect the health of their children and grandchildren; that is did it do damage to their DNA that will be passed down through the generations? “
Veterans’ class-actions lawsuits against the chemical companies for peddling a defective product (herbicides) that unnecessarily contained dioxin poison are ongoing. The lawsuits have been dismissed at the lower courts and unsuccessful in reinstatement attempts at the appellate court level. Cox said it remains to be seen if attorneys will appeal to the Supreme Court.
The Vietnamese Association of Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin has also filed suit against the chemical companies. VAVA’s claims have met a similar fate but that group is forging ahead with a Supreme Court appeal.
To learn more about the 2009 Veterans For Peace conference in Washington D.C. Aug. 6-9, check, www.veteransforpeace.org. To learn more about lawsuits against companies that produce poisonous chemicals, contact John LaForge at www.nukewatch.org