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A Toxic Legacy: The Generational Effects of Agent Orange

1975.

That is the year that the Vietnam War ended—almost 50 years ago.

A nation was left ravaged.

Battles were fought. Millions of lives were lost. Millions more affected forever. During the twenty-year conflict from 1955 to 1975, rest assured that by the end, there were no winners—only losers.    

Those fortunate enough to make it back home, did so walking away from one war, and into another one.

A war with themselves—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually for some. Agent Orange has not only affected those with direct contact, but it has affected their families as well. Future generations are left to fight the residual effects of a war that ended nearly five decades ago.

The U.S. sprayed millions of gallons of Agent Orange on the jungles of Vietnam, as part of “Operation Ranch Hand” and lasted from 1961 to 1971. Parts of neighboring Cambodia and Laos were also affected. The effects of the chemical weapon are still being felt to this day. Image courtesy of Cempaka Health, Welfare and Society

One such individual who has inherited the harsh legacy of Agent Orange is 40-year-old, Melissa from California and daughter of a Vietnam veteran. The mother of two has a uterus anomaly, which makes it more challenging to have children, and grew up with a growth hormone deficiency which required her to take human growth hormone injections for four to five years after her growth was stunted around the age of eight—along with a host of other medical conditions.

Enter the third generation.

Melissa’s youngest daughter (8) was born with a duodenal atresia in her stomach, which required surgery when she was a day old, to remove a constricture in her duodenum, which is the first part of the small intestine immediately beyond the stomach; she also required cardiac surgery after she was four years old. Melissa’s oldest daughter (12) has a tic disorder, and both of her daughters are dyslexic.  

Many second and third generation off-spring of Vietnam veterans suffer from a variety of a long list of medical conditions. The problem however, is that as of now, there are still a severe lack of knowledge and studies as it pertains to conditions that can reliably be traced to Agent Orange exposure among the following generations.

When asked about what are the biggest emotional challenges as being an off-spring of the effects of Agent Orange, the mother of two had a few telling and passionate comments to share:

Guilt

“I know that my father feels guilty looking at the genetic and medical impact that his service in Vietnam has had on the family.”

“The Guilt of I brought my daughter into this world and then had her suffer through all of these surgeries.”

“The guilt that {the U.S.} has these resources and we’ve been able to identify at least the medical impact that we have, whereas everyone still living in Vietnam and surroundings areas is still dealing with new contaminations and triggering a whole generation and another generation {of genetic complications due to Agent Orange}.

Anger

“…over the lack of knowledge and the secrecy, specifically, to not take the ownership {of the extent of the medical effects of Agent Orange} which makes the process of this discussion much more heart wrenching.”

Shame

Melissa has a Vietnamese co-worker with a shortened leg, and possibly other medical issues.

“In five years, I haven’t come up with a way to open that conversation to ask if its {Agent Orange} connected to have that comradery {as two individuals who’ve both been affected} … but we (the U.S.) did this to you.”

“That’s a component of shame that I feel carrying this legacy in an isolated bubble.”

“I can’t help his family get the care that I found 30 years ago for my growth hormone deficiency. I can’t help his family back home clean out their environment… but we did this.”

Children of Verts Exposed to Agent Orange

Agent Orange is linked to serious health issues including cancers, severe psychological and neurological problems, and birth defects, both among the Vietnamese people and the men and women of the U.S. military. The VA recognizes 18 medical conditions for children of women who served in Vietnam. However, studies have yet to establish a link between those 18 conditions/birth defects and maternal Agent Orange exposure, though Veterans Affairs does compensate the families of veterans for those conditions. Additionally, for the children of the men who served in Vietnam, only Spina Bifida, a spinal cord defect developed while still in the womb, is recognized as being directly connected to Agent Orange exposure.

So, as it currently stands, Spina Bifida is the only birth defect/condition that the U.S. government acknowledges as related to Veteran exposure to Agent Orange, through paternal exposure to dioxins, a group of highly toxic compounds in Agent Orange.

The most thorough research available regarding the relationship between male veterans exposed to Agent Orange and children with birth defects was ProPublica’s analysis of VA registry data conducted in 2010. The researchers divided the data into two groups: veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange, and veterans who were not.

In both groups, children who were conceived before the Vietnam War had low rates of birth defects: 2.6% for unexposed veterans and 2.8% for exposed veterans. Birth defects in children who were conceived after the Vietnam War increased in children of both groups of men: 9.8% for unexposed veterans and 13.1% for exposed veterans.

Since 1990, Birth Defect Research for Children has collected data on birth defects and developmental disabilities in the children of Vietnam veterans, in their National Birth Defect Registry.

When compared to non-veterans’ children in the registry, the children of Vietnam veterans have shown consistent increases in learning, attention, and behavioral disorders; all types of skin disorders; problems with tooth development; allergic conditions and asthma; immune system disorders including chronic infections; some childhood cancers; and endocrine problems including thyroid disorders and childhood diabetes.

According to Linda Birnbaum of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, dioxin can modify growth and development. In the embryo and fetus, dioxin-altered programming can result in malformations and terrifying, unusual birth defects—such as missing, shortened, and extra limbs, abnormal head growths, and physical and mental defects– fetal toxicity, and functional and structural complications that often are not detectable until later in life.  

Betty Mekdeci, the executive director of Birth Defect Research for Children, a Florida-based non-profit says she’s collected data since 1986 on birth defects from toxic exposure. Because more men served in Vietnam, Mekdeci says she has received more data specifically showing birth defects in the descendants of male veterans.

Her organization has collected data from nearly 10,000 veterans, 2,000 children of Vietnam veterans and 300 grandchildren of veterans. Many of the medical conditions she’s seen in grandchildren of veterans aren’t physical.

Mekdeci says she’s seen issues with ovaries, endocrine, learning and attention deficit disorders and cancers and that the majority of the generational studies done by the scientific community regarding agent orange have been focused on women and not men.

She claims studies to date are insufficient and she scolds the VA for “dragging its feet” on research mandated by Congress.

“I know that industry doesn’t want these connections made, but if it’s happening. It’s happening.  It isn’t going to go away because you don’t like the answer,” said Medkeci.

She also believes not enough research exists to confirm Agent Orange exposure to veterans caused birth defects in their grandchildren.

“We need to solve questions about the effects on the first generation before we jump to grandchildren,” she said.

Children of Verts Exposed to Agent Orange

Agent Orange is a term that is used to describe a series of odorless herbicides that were used by the U.S. military to destroy cover and food supply used by the Viet Cong for survival. Almost 20 million gallons of Agent Orange was sprayed in Vietnam, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Hundreds of thousands of American veterans of the Vietnam War have died, or are still suffering because of exposure to dioxin, the deadly toxin in Agent Orange. It is estimated that nearly 2.8 million U.S. military personnel were exposed to the deadly toxin.

As for the Vietnamese? The American government’s refusal to acknowledge that Agent Orange has caused the same damage to the Vietnamese as it has to Americans—despite the overwhelming evidence—has left the Vietemese in an endless struggle against the terrors of the deadly toxin, as the Vietnamese government and human rights groups are left to largely cover the cost and effort of providing for those suffering from lasting effects.

The Vietnam Red Cross estimates that Agent Orange has affected 3 million Vietnamese people, including at least 150,000 children. Babies in Vietnam are still being born with birth defects due to Agent Orange—some extremely severe. Vietnamese soldiers with perfectly healthy children before going to fight, came home and produced offspring with deformities and horrific illnesses. Villages repeatedly sprayed have exceptionally high birth-deformity rates.

Additionally, according to the estimates of the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Agent Orange affected at least 4.8 million Vietnamese people, out of which some 400,000 were killed or injured, and thousands of women suffered miscarriage and stillbirths. Livestock suffered similar fate as well with the destruction of rural land and crops on a massive scale.

In 2004, a class-action lawsuit was filed by some Vietnamese citizens against 30 chemical companies, who are known to have manufactured Agent Orange to be used in the war. Unfortunately, the claim was rejected by the US court.

According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, exposure to even small doses of Agent Orange may be harmful and can pose some serious health risks, such as cancer, muscular dysfunction, and disorders of the nervous system. Even today, as many as two million Vietnamese people are suffering from cancer.

You Can Do Something for your family!

Vietnam veterans who would like to add information about their children’s birth defects or disabilities to the National Birth Defect Registry sponsored by Birth Defect Research for Children can register online at www.birthdefects.org

For more information on Agent Orange exposure, service-connected illnesses, and to see if you can get disability compensation or benefits, visit the Exposure Ed app.

The info from Betty Mekdeci is from this article from abc News in 2018: https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/vietnam-war-veterans-kids-agent-orange-impact-nightmare/story?id=59059570

Comments(11)

  1. REPLY
    Royson Stapleton says

    I’m a son of a Vietnam vet my dad who was diagnosed with lung cancer and died very fast in 1991. It took the VA 22 years to finally admit that agent Orange causes lung cancer to my mom and gave her a petty lousy 250,000 in compensation for the wrongful death of my dad a father to 5 young boys all raised by my mom with no father . Mind you his compensation did not come until 22 years later so in 2012 is when they admitted . A fathers life a man who proudly served his country as a helicopter medic dies a horrific extremely suffering death even more by the lies of doctors saying they will cure him with shit tons of chemo and radiation which didn’t do anything but sucked the life out of him from maybe months or a year not sure how long you can live with terminal lung cancer but however long it is the treatments from the va chose that decision for him and made it a month and half from diagnosis to taking his last breath while my mom tells him to close his eyes and walk to the light and let go and be with god while all 5 of us watch this skeleton yellow colored hairless bones and skin body suppose to be a living human being treated take his last struggle of a breath and died infront of us all leaving a house wife with 5 boys and not a single penny to her name and no insurances or any help denied government help aswell for welfare snd a mortgage and bills plus hospital bills snd had to go from a house wife to a working mom supporting a household of 5 boys and all the financials thst come with it with no all denies from any type of program to help not a dollar in savings no life insurance no retirement no nothing but hospital bills . Anwyays you can imagine the struggle , so im 32 now at the age of about 25 I was perfectly healthy loving life until one day I was sitting down in a chair and stood up felt a big shock threw my body that dropped me to my knees and was unable to walk for a week and since that day I have been in unbearable paralyzing horrific nightmare life if pain ever since . I’ve never been injured never been in an accident I’ve never broken a bone or ever been to the emergency room I have never hurt myself . But frim sitting to standing the mri shows I have dengeneritive disc disease , scoliosis, narrowing of the spinal canal, multiple missing , herniated , buldging discs , disc fragments stuck in my nerve roots , none stop constant back pain , body gets jolting electrical pain that paralyzes my movement and increases the pain times about 1000 that makes me scream in agony even by moving a finger and only way to make it stop to go back to my normal constant unbearable lesser pain is to torture myself to stand up until I do that it won’t stop. I have a mri paper if my results it’s 3 pages long of problems yet I was 25 perfectly fine one second stood up and now I’m a crippled disabled chronic pain which is unfixable by the way I’ve done every procedure possible to lessen the pain yet nothing has helped it or changed it it’s still the same nightmare pain that has not stopped since then not even for one second I’m about to be 33 in March. I’ve had the best of the best tell me I cannot be fixed the tech do y exist I will just get worse and worse and since pain meds take off the edge which is the only reason I’m still here is cause of them which is a whole another nightmare with dependency , insurance , aqquring them . So here I am at 32 thinking of suicide daily because I have not been living life for many years now I’ve only been surviving solely because I need to be here for my mom make sure she’s ok with me taking care of her she’s about to be 73 . Yet all my brothers have back pains and problems unfortunately me being the worst of the worse and bone of us had injuried our selves ever however I have two half brothers with different dad then mine ones the oldest the other the youngest both have zero health issues especially back issues none what so ever only the 5 with the vet father . Says A lot right there , but yet the va still does not admit to anything else so I suffer life hating every second of it and no compensation or help . Gave up my dream of wanting to start a family too because the problems get worse 3 gens down in the males and since we’re a family of males I would never bring Somone into this world knowing they will suffer worse then me . Also oldest of us 5 has a son who is very autistic and mentally affected but why it was all a surprise , oh cause he’s the 2nd gen of agent Orange male offspring thats why . It sucks.

    • REPLY
      neil lichtman says

      I have reached out to several Vet experts for you and the best and most consistent advice is:

      “I would suggest referring him to the suicide hotline of 800-273-TALK for his mental health needs.
      The person who left a message is not a Veterans and claiming back issues because his father was exposed to Agent Orange is not a presumptive condition, nor is autism for grandchildren. If he gets a doctor to say it is related, then he should talk to his VSO to file a claim.”

      You should know that the strong suggestion of calling the suicide hotline is because the question of suicide is Not a yes or no answer. There are many other avenues that experts have learned to help people who are in severe pain navigate a better course. They can offer many alternatives that would allow you to keep going and with your fight, joining others with generational issues, make a difference for at least thousands more.

      If you email me your zip code I will be happy to get you the contact information you need for your local VSO. [email protected]

      Good luck. Keep in touch.

    • REPLY
      Kelsey says

      My grandfather died from things caused by ancient orange. I don’t know much besides all of his children have muscle and bone problems. Believe fybermaliga is what one of my aunts has. I’m almost 25 now & about 22 I started having HORRIBLE pains in my neck and shoulders. Like pens and needles sometimes. I’ve had my entire body go numb. My head goes numb. it’s chronic every day. It may not be tied to ancient orange idk I’m the oldest of the grandchildren & I’m gonna go back to the doctor soon. I have 2 kids myself now & it makes every day life difficult. I had no clue that it could effect generations like that. I don’t really talk to my biological father at all. but when I went looking into all this it makes since

  2. REPLY
    Jason Green says

    I am the son of a Vietnam veteran. My father was sprayed several times. I was born in 1973 well after my father’s service. When I was 13 I had a seizure while on a camping trip. After having a few visits with a neurologist he determined that I had a stroke before birth. Showing damage of the left lateral ventricular of my brain. Resulting in a life of uncontrolled seizures. As well as spinal tumors and early onset arthritis

    • REPLY
      neil lichtman says

      You should definitely be working with your local VSO. The criteria for service is constantly changing and they will know when you can get compensation and treatment. Our new locator would be up and running by mid February.

  3. REPLY
    Angela Wright says

    I am very interested in learning more about this. I am a first generation offspring of a vietnam vet. In 1992 I was diagnosed with Primary Adrenal Insufficiency(Addison’s Disease) as well as Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. My hypothyroidism has been in remission since 2005.

    • REPLY
      neil lichtman says

      Keep an eye on exposure ed, where they update risks based on place and time of service, for info on what can be done.

  4. REPLY
    Elsie sadler says

    My father died from a form of leukemia and had been exposed to agent orange. I have all kinds of problems with nerves that causes chronic pain, numbness and tingling in my hands and feet. Now I am having more problems and the doctors can’t find any cause but have had over 20 surgeries trying to fix me but has only got worse. I have always wondered if it was passed on to me.

    • REPLY
      neil lichtman says

      You should definitely be working with your local VSO. The criteria for service is constantly changing and they will know when you can get compensation and treatment. Our new locator would be up and running by mid February.

      • REPLY
        Lisa Dickinson says

        I am the daughter of a Vietnam vet exposed to agent orange. He currently has terminal cancer at 79 yrs old. I was diagnosed with a blood disorder at age 25 then turned into leukemia. What sort of information should I be looking for with a connection to the exposure?

        • REPLY
          Steve Thompson says

          Lisa

          Thank you for your inquiry. I am not sure where you live, but I would like to recommend that you contact your local Veteran Service Office – If you and not sure of where this is or how to find, please respond to this E Mail with your city and state and I will be happy to find this information for you

          Best of luck and hopefully you will find the answers you need and I am saddened to see another Vietnam Veteran suffering from terminal cancer. He has my deepest appreciation

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