Agent Orange: A Toxic Legacy

Agent Orange exposure remains a haunting legacy of the Vietnam War, impacting not just those who served but stretching across generations. This insidious herbicide, deployed by the U.S. military to devastate the enemy’s resources, has left a trail of health issues that persist to this day. Nearly 2.8 million U.S. military personnel were exposed to the deadly toxin during the conflict, with devastating consequences.

The Endless War with Agent Orange

The Vietnam War officially ended in 1975, yet its repercussions persist nearly 50 years later. The toll was immense—countless lives lost and millions more forever altered. But the aftermath of this conflict extended far beyond the battlefield. Agent Orange exposure triggered a new battle, one fought within the bodies and minds of those who returned home, affecting not only veterans but their families for generations to come.

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:


“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}.


“…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.”


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.”

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.

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

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.