The PACT Act, passed earlier this month by Congress and signed this week by President Joe Biden, will expand access to health care benefits and services for U.S. veterans exposed to toxins during wars from Vietnam to Afghanistan. The centerpiece of the bill is the expansion of so-called "presumptive conditions" — those presumed to have been caused by toxic exposures — for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, which means they no longer bear the burden of proof in order to receive benefits and treatment.
The bill also expands presumptive conditions related to Agent Orange, an herbicide that was used widely during the Vietnam War and caused health problems including cancer, diabetes, and birth defects in exposed civilians and soldiers. After returning home from the war, many Vietnam veterans began experiencing health problems that they believed were tied to their Agent Orange exposure. For years, however, the government refused to acknowledge the connection.
In the March/April 1982 issue of Southern Exposure, journalist Celia Dugger interviewed two leaders in the fight to recognize and compensate veterans who had been exposed to Agent Orange and their families. Lynda Gwaltney, who lost her Vietnam veteran husband to blood cancer, and Rev. Tom Champion, a veteran who had recently been diagnosed with cancer, led a support group for veterans and families in Atlanta. In these interviews, they describe the devastating health impacts of Agent Orange exposure, the wins their group had secured, and what was left to fight for.
In the decades since, various pieces of legislation and regulations have expanded some Vietnam veterans' access to care and benefits for a number of conditions presumed to be connected to Agent Orange exposure. For many years, benefits were only available to veterans who had been in Vietnam, but the PACT Act expands eligibility to include veterans who were in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Guam and American Samoa, and Johnston Atoll. It also adds to the list of presumptive conditions hypertension and MGUS, a blood disorder that can lead to cancer.
Interviews by Celia W. Dugger
Officially it was named "Operation Hades," but it was commonly known as "Operation Ranch Hand." Between 1961 and 1970, the U.S. military operation dumped 40,000 tons of the defoliant Agent Orange on five million acres of South Vietnamese land. That works out to about 16 pounds per acre; the normal application for agricultural purposes is one-half pound per acre.
Agent Orange is actually a 50/50 combination of two chemicals, 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D, both of which are known carcinogens and teratogens (birth defect producing). In combining the two defoliants to produce Agent Orange, a third and far more dangerous chemical is generated: dioxin - 2,3,7,8-TPD. Dioxin is estimated to be one million times as dangerous a producer of birth defects as thalidomide.
2,4,5-T and 2,4-D were developed during World War II at the Army's center for chemical warfare research at Fort Detrick, Maryland. The war ended before the new substances could be put to military use, and U.S. chemical companies - most notably Dow and Monsanto - began producing them as weed-control agents for agricultural use.
By 1961, the chemicals were put to their original use in Vietnam, ostensibly to eliminate jungle and forest hiding places for the Viet Cong. In the process, Vietnamese farms became wastelands, and rural villagers were forced to take refuge in the cities.
As the war escalated, the toxic properties of Agent Orange became a frightening reality for American workers as well as for the South Vietnamese and U.S. military personnel. In 1965, Dow Chemical's Midland, Michigan, plant had to be closed down after 60 workers developed chloracne, a virulent skin condition, after exposure to dioxin. In New Jersey, workers at a 2,4,5-T plant also developed chloracne and a host of other initial symptoms commonly associated with exposure to Agent Orange: disorders of the central nervous system, chronic fatigue and depression.
International scientific and political protest against the use of Agent Orange began mounting. In 1966, 5,000 scientists petitioned President Johnson to halt biological warfare against the Vietnamese. The General Assembly of the United Nations followed suit by overwhelmingly passing a resolution which stated that defoliants were outlawed under the Geneva protocol prohibition on the use of chemical or biological weapons. But by 1967, the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam doubled.
In the meantime, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) - a federal agency - awarded Bionetics Laboratories of Bethesda, Maryland, a $2.5 million contract to conduct experiments into the effects of 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D on laboratory animals. Bionetics turned its initial findings over to the NCI in 1966. Three years later the first official statement on the study was released by President Nixon's science advisor: "Offspring of mice and rats given relatively large oral doses of the herbicide during the early stages of pregnancy showed a higher than expected number of deformities." That same year, 1969, Agent Orange spraying reached its peak in Vietnam.
The "higher than expected number of deformities" found in the Bionetics study turned out to be 39 percent deformed fetuses at the lowest oral dosage — an amount comparable to that which would be absorbed by an average-sized Vietnamese woman drinking two quarts of contaminated water per day. The larger doses in the Bionetics study produced fetal abnormalities at 90 to 100 percent.
Birth defects found in the Bionetics test animals have a haunting familiarity for Agent Orange vets and their families: cleft palates, cystic kidneys, enlarged livers, intestinal hemorrhages, miscarriages and stillbirths.
Today — 16 years after the Bionetics research — the U.S. government and the Veterans Administration (VA) maintain that there is no evidence that Agent Orange causes birth defects or cancer or neurological disorders or anything except chloracne. Dow Chemical, on the other hand, argued recently before the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals that the corporation should not be held liable for the medical problems of Vietnam vets who were exposed to Agent Orange; Dow had warned the Department of Defense of the chemical's potential hazards and therefore it was the government's responsibility to warn its military personnel of the dangers they were being exposed to. The Second Circuit ruled that the veterans in this case had no claim in federal court, but left open future possibilities for such suits if they are filed on behalf of plaintiffs from several states. In December, 1981, the Supreme Court let the Second Circuit's decision stand.
In January, 1982, 26 Agent Orange victims and their families from Georgia and other Southern states filed suit against the government on behalf of themselves and the approximately 2.4 million American servicemen exposed to Agent Orange between 1962 and 1971. They are using Dow's defense as part of their grounds for litigation.
In Atlanta and many other areas of the country, Agent Orange has become the focal point for organizing among veterans of the Vietnam War. Through the support gained in uniting around common concerns, these vets and their families have extended their organizing to gain other basic rights as veterans and as citizens.
The veterans, many of whom came to the suit through Agent Orange Victims of Atlanta, have demanded that the VA stop using powerful mood-altering drugs to treat them, provide adequate medical care, including genetic counseling, and notify veterans of potential health hazards connected with exposure to Agent Orange. They charge the VA with medical malpractice in treating the diseases and illnesses caused by exposure to dioxin.
The VA is only willing to concede that chloracne is traceable to Agent Orange. So veterans receive no special disability for more serious illnesses and diseases they believe have resulted from their military service.
Until December 2, 1980, Lynda Gwaltney and Reverend Tom Champion had never met, but they had both become part of the unending, unseen toll of the Vietnam War. Mrs. Gwaltney's 34-year-old husband Robert, exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange while serving in Vietnam, had died in April, 1980, of a blood cancer usually suffered only by elderly men. Reverend Champion, a 37-year-old Vietnam veteran, had learned in September that he too had a cancer of the aged. His doctor gave him five years to live.
At first neither the Gwaltneys nor the Champions connected their plight with Vietnam and Agent Orange. They shared only the isolation, loneliness and fear common to those who fight alone against physically and financially devastating disease.
A week before her husband died, a Veterans Administration employee made a private visit to Mrs. Gwaltney's home to tell her Robert was a victim of a poisonous herbicide used in Vietnam to defoliate the countryside and destroy food crops that supposedly sustained the Viet Cong. Reverend Champion later heard Mrs. Gwaltney on television describing the symptoms of Agent Orange exposure. He saw himself in her words.
Mrs. Gwaltney listed off the problems complained of by too many veterans: chronic, severe acne known as chloracne, stomach and lymph cancers, children born with genetic defects, inexplicable depressions and rages, extreme susceptibility to colds and viruses, liver damage.
Mrs. Gwaltney, a mother of two and a housewife, decided to become an activist, a role that took her by surprise and changed her life. Her first tentative step was to place a blind ad in the newspaper quietly announcing a meeting for Vietnam veterans who believed they had been exposed to Agent Orange. A radio reporter picked up her story, as did a television reporter and the effect of her small notice was magnified. On December 2, 1980, sick veterans, black and white, came to the meeting with wives, children and friends.
Tom Champion, a tall black minister with a resonant voice, was among those present at the first meeting. The group elected him chairman, a post he has held since.
In the beginning, the veterans and their families and friends met several times a month just to talk to each other and take comfort from shared experiences. They named their group Agent Orange Victims of Atlanta and began to reach out to educate the community about the thousands of veterans in the area whose service in Vietnam was boomeranging on them. The Atlanta press was increasingly receptive to airing their side of the story.
In the spring of 1981, Mrs. Gwaltney and Reverend Champion approached Cable Atlanta and proposed a show on the public access station that would focus on the situation of the Vietnam veteran. Their request was granted, and week after week Mrs. Gwaltney gently persuaded veterans to tell their chillingly similar stories on camera. Ironically, Reverend Champion used the television training he received in the military for the production aspects of "Vet's Forum."
Here Lynda Gwaltney and Tom Champion tell their own stories, testimonials to the power of the human will to transform personal tragedy into a force for justice. Champion was interviewed just after being released from the hospital.
I met my husband here in Forest Park, Georgia. He was 17, I was 18. He had just entered the service and was stationed at the Atlanta Army Depot. He went on to Vietnam from here. When he came back we were married on the depot by a Green Beret chaplain on November 5, 1966. He was 20, I was 21. He was from the North Carolina mountains. His family was very poor and as soon as he turned 17 he went into the Army. He would never have gone to college. There was no money for that. So the only choice he had was to work in cotton mills the rest of his life or go in the army.
As soon as he came back, he had a rash on his body. He complained of getting it while he was there. He had lots of complaints about his stomach, also. But his psychological problems were what I had to notice most. He would go into depressions. He was paranoid. He kept a little black book of people he thought were trying to do things to him. Before he had been so easy-going, a gentleman. He was raised to be a very calm and loving man.
We had two children. And then his two teenage brothers came to live with us. He was trying to support us all and just coming back from Vietnam he had his own problems. There were problems with our marriage we could never understand. And then it got to the point where he would get angry over almost nothing. He would fly into a rage and hit me. I had black eyes. Finally, as an abused wife, I did go to a hospital. It was the hardest thing I ever did. The doctors asked, "How did this happen to you?" When I told them my husband did it to me, they were disgusted.
In about 1976, he discovered he had a knot on his neck. It started off very small and it kept growing and growing and growing. He didn't have hospitalization and put off going to the doctor. Finally he went to the VA. It didn't take them long to figure out he had a type of blood cancer that usually occurs only in very old men [non-Hodgkins lymphoma].
He was susceptible to anything that came around. If the kids had something, he was sure to get it, too. As the disease progressed, he had tumors all over his body. Under his arms. On his neck. Between his knees. His lungs were full of them. He had two in his groin that were just massive. And then they started chemotherapy.
He was afraid to kiss me, afraid that I wouldn't want to touch him. I can't say the tumors never bothered me. He knew he was dying and tried to become distant from me.
Four years later, it was like he was 80 years old. He looked like a living skeleton. He had always been a tall, lanky man, a handsome man. I experienced the total decline of a healthy young man of 17 to a 30-year-old skeleton. There is no nightmare that could have been as horrible. In the end, he had no skin because of the radiation treatment, I guess. For his skin to come off under my Fingernails and you realize it's your husband. To have him under my fingernails!
He would scream in such pain. They would make me bathe him in vinegar water and he had no skin on him. I'd have to put him in that tub and he would just scream, "Don't do it! Don't do it!"
About a week before he died in April of 1980, a man from the VA came to our house to talk to us. I won't mention his name because he was overstepping his limits in coming to talk to us. This man came to talk to us about Agent Orange. I'd never heard of it. Never heard of it. He told me my husband was a dead man.
My husband's fever was so high there was nothing more I could do. I have no qualifications to take care of somebody so ill. I put a cot next to him. I would take my work breaks and go home just so he could have a drink of something. He couldn't even lift a glass with a straw in it.
Finally it got so bad that I took a few days off. The days blurred into endless pain. Then one day we knew there was nothing else we could do. So I called the VA hospital and they wouldn't admit him. They just would not admit him. They would say he could be treated at home. He would go out there again and again and they would say it was a slight cold and send him home. I was working as a courier at Clayton General Hospital at the time, so I took him there for a second opinion. They said he had pneumonia. They called the VA and told them there was no choice but to admit him. He was transferred, but by then he was completely helpless.
At the end he was literally coming apart. He didn't have any skin left on his body. He couldn't see. After he died, they had to put him in a body bag.
The coroner who examined my husband's body advised me that I might have a legal case at some point and suggested I go to former governor Carl Sanders's law firm. They told me about Agent Orange and referred me to Sanders's associate, Anne Meroney. In July, we filed suit against the chemical companies that produced Agent Orange.
For a few months things were in limbo. I stayed with my parents awhile and just existed. In November, I was invited to speak to an Agent Orange group in Brunswick. When I stood up and looked at their faces, I saw the rashes and tumors they had. There was one fellow that sat in the back of the room who had eyes like my husband. I have no idea what I said. I was terrified.
I came back to Atlanta asking questions, reading, meeting people. At the Veterans' Outreach Center, I heard the same things over and over. Putting two and two together, I decided there was definitely a need for a group in Atlanta. If there was me and my family, there were plenty more like us.
If you had told me before my husband died that I would organize anything I would have thought you were crazy. But out of loneliness and need to find people who had been through the same things, I did it. I would never have dreamed that from the need for a rap session would grow a group that faced one of the biggest human tragedies of our time, the wiping out of men who fought for us.
So I put a blind ad in the newspaper asking people to come to a meeting for veterans at the Jewish Community Center. Several radio and TV people called and we got the word out that way. Anne Meroney sent letters to the veterans she knew.
On a cold, rainy night in December, my father and I held the first meeting. We had a good turnout. About 40 people — men, women and children — came. The veterans were very hesitant. They wanted to know if we were connected to the government. But I was a woman whose husband had died, a widow. I was not threatening them.
One of the people who walked in was Reverend Tom Champion, a tall black minister wearing a clerical collar. We elected him to run the meeting. We decided we'd name our group Agent Orange Victims of Atlanta and meet once a month. Reverend Champion helped reach the black community. We knew it was not a time for prejudice. One of the men said, "We fought in Vietnam together, and it looks like we're all going to be buried together and soon."
Women were the backbone of the group. The men often felt if they admitted they were sick they would lose their macho image. The wives had had enough of children born with birth defects, enough of their husbands being so angry and so sick.
I've found that women will ask questions. Many nights I've had phone calls from women who say, "Please don't tell my husband I called. But why does he beat me like he does? Why am I afraid to leave my child with him? Why is my husband so sick he can't work? Who can I get help from? I go to the VA and they tell us they don't know what we're talking about."
They are women who never thought they'd find anyone who understood. They are so relieved just to have someone who will listen.
And our group has grown. Not all our meetings are big. We don't have any dues. There are no qualifications to belong. We had so much to learn ourselves.
And we educated the public. Before Agent Orange Victims of Atlanta, I don't think people had even heard of the problem. We tried to tell them it was their problem, too. They think it's just veterans who suffer from exposure to dioxin. But look at Love Canal! On our cable TV show, we called in people from Georgia 2000, an environmental group concerned with hazardous waste dumps. They were semi-regulars on our show. We had pictures of toxic waste sites that were so highly contaminated people had to put on plastic gloves to pick up the debris around them. We showed public parks where people picnic that were contaminated.
We made these comparisons so that people identified with the problem right here in our own state. It doesn't only happen in Vietnam. It happens right here. And we provided moral support to our own. We took people to the hospital. We babysat so women could take care of their husbands. We gave them food, if they needed it — anything like that. When vets got in trouble with the law, we went to judges and tried to explain the situation to the court.
In the spring of 1981, a couple of the men and I decided we weren't reaching enough people. So we went to public access TV, that's what it's there for. We went to Cable Atlanta with our idea to do a show for veterans. They agreed and for 13 weeks we interviewed veterans on TV. It was the same story over and over. People began to make a connection. People could realize the vet wasn't just some jerk who wanted to get VA money because he was too lazy to get a job. Now the reruns are on until we go back to the studio and start taping again. I still get men who call and say, "I saw Vet's Forum and heard what you said."
Public access cable is there for the community to use. [Editor's note: Public access to cable channels is usually determined by local city councils.] You take a short course on how to use the equipment, pass a test, and they give you a certificate. Then you can use the equipment for free. You just have to pay $15 per videotape. Anyone who has things they want to express can use it. It was like a blessing just waiting for us. At first I didn't think the group was anything for me. I felt I was just doing it for other people. Then I realized I was changing, too. I believe the best therapy for a person is talking to someone else with the same problem. Not only did it help them. It helped me. It gave me a purpose. I had never really done anything in my life besides producing beautiful children and cooking good suppers until I was 30 years old. At the time I thought, "Now my husband's dead. There's not much left for me except to raise my children and exist from day to day." And I find out life has a whole new meaning. I miss my husband, I still love him, but I'm a person now. Here's Lynda. I love life now, every minute of it. Thank goodness that my heart hasn't grown hardened to other people's tragedies. My heart grows softer with each person affected by Agent Orange. We have to cry for other people. We have to feel it in our heart. More people should cry. They should just sit down and look at things like they are and cry. If people think one person can't make a difference, they're wrong. I have found that out. One person can change lots of things. First it's one and then it's one more that joins them and then another one and then you can change things. And how can you feel sorry for yourself at a time like that? We have to sit down and cry together and then figure out, now what do we do to make it better?
Reverend Tom Champion:
I was born in 1943 and raised up at the corner of Broomhead and Henry Streets in Atlanta. My father was a traveling salesman. In those days it was hard to find a black traveling salesman, but that's what he did. My mother ran a boarding house for 10 or 12 men who worked at a fertilizer plant.
During high school I was very athletic and had a lot of scholarship offers to college. But the thing to do was to go in the military. We had a lot of men from World War II and Korea around, and they said, "Go be a soldier." So I didn't go to college like I should have done. In 1960 I jumped into the Air Force at the age of 17. I got some benefits out of it. I went into armed forces radio and TV. I went to college in the military. I learned to be a pilot. I really wanted to stay in the service 20 years, I thought.
In November, 1966, I was sent to the Da Nang air force base, where I ran the stateside mail terminal. I was there for one rough year. I would rather have been a dope addict on the corner than to be in Vietnam that year. I saw a lot of men lose their lives.
The first time I was aware of Agent Orange was when the trucks came around. You remember when you were a kid they'd spray for mosquitoes? They did that at Da Nang. We thought they were just spraying for insects. But where they sprayed that stuff the trees withered and fell over. They told us it wouldn't hurt us. I breathed it. When the wind blew, I breathed it.
I got there on November 15. On December 5, I was treated for a severe case of acne, which I now know is chloracne, the thing that Agent Orange brings down. I had ulcers on the outside of my skin, severe stomach problems. I got to one point when my skin was so sensitive that I couldn't shave. They allowed me to grow a beard.
I got discharged August 16, 1968. Friday at 12:20 p.m. I loaded up my car and I put that Plymouth toward Atlanta and I haven't looked back since.
I still suffered from the problems of Agent Orange and didn't know what caused them. When I got out of the military I had my Bachelors degree in electrical engineering. I was a certified radio and television producer. I got a job at Channel Five TV, and in about a year quit for no reason. I worked at the Post Office for three months, and I know why I quit there. It was still military. Couldn't handle it. I went to Channel 46 and couldn't deal with the people. I went back to school and took some courses and was able to get my Masters degree equivalence. I taught vocational education in a high school. I left there and started a cab company. In two years I sold my portion because I couldn't deal with the stress. In the last 14 years I've had about 14 or 15 jobs.
All of my children have suffered from birth defects. My oldest boy, man, every weekend we'd have him at the hospital. They said it was asthma or bronchitis, but they never really knew. My daughter has unexplained stomach problems. When my youngest son was born they wanted to do open heart surgery on him and I said no way. You suffer. Then your children come and they suffer.
In December of 1979, I was working at a local gospel radio station and I found myself going downhill. I felt real sick and didn't know what to do. I was really dying. Finally I got so sick I couldn't keep nothing on my stomach. In September the Lord spoke through my wife, and she said, "Why don't you go to VA and let them check you out?"
They tested me for everything. Finally, they made me take barium, the stuff that makes your insides light up and shows up anything that's abnormal. The doctor said, after the x-rays were taken, "We got to put you in the hospital. Something's blocking your small intestine." I was taken in for exploratory surgery. I'm laying in there and feel like somebody got their TV stuck in my gut. If my hair moved, I hurt.
A couple of days later, the surgeon came into me and said, "Mr. Champion, I got something to tell you and I don't know how." He closed the curtains and said, "You're going to die. You have terminal cancer of the small intestine and you've got six months to five years." He didn't give me much hope. "It's going to be a very slow, somber passing," he said. "So I suggest you go home, do what you want to do and enjoy yourself."
Medically there's no reason I'm still alive. I'm just depending on the Lord. I was very attentive trying to find out why I had tumors at 37 that usually only a 90-year-old man would get. But that's what Agent Orange do for you. It gives young men tumors that are only found in men twice or three times their age.
About that time — October, 1980 — I started hearing about Agent Orange on the TV and in the newspapers. I saw Lynda Gwaltney and Orville Blackmon on TV. And they said anyone in Vietnam from 1961 to '71, these are the symptoms you can look for. And I had every one of them. In December they had the first meeting of Agent Orange Victims of Atlanta at the Jewish Community Center down on Peachtree.
I came in simply to tell the people about my diet and how it was helping my health and I ended up being the chairman. I had no intention of being the chairman.
There were about 10 or 12 blacks and about 50 or 60 whites. I noticed they were there discussing voting. So first thing they said was, "I know a good chairman." Nobody knew me. "The Rev, let's make the Rev chairman." Someone seconded it and it was done.
When I go out, I do wear my clergy because that's what the Lord has given me to do. I started to preach in Vietnam in 1966. That's where my ministry started. I've been preaching now for 15 years.
The accomplishments that I can attribute to Agent Orange Victims of Atlanta are, one, the Veterans Administration board that rates you for service-connected disability, we've softened their shell. They were very prejudiced against the Vietnam vet because they're World War II and Korean soldiers. The Vietnam vet is unpopular because we lost an unpopular war. They would deny a Vietnam veteran without even checking his records. Now we get a reasonable shake. It's not fair, but it's reasonable. They still don't give us what we deserve. They've told me my cancer isn't service related so I get no disability for that at all.
We've softened up the hospital as far as treatment is concerned. The Vietnam veteran was nothing. Men would get there at eight a.m. and still be in the waiting room at 11 at night. We had a doctor tell one of our men, "Hey, we're doing you a favor treating you." I hit the ceiling. Now when a Vietnam vet goes in, he's out in two or three hours.
We've been able to inform men about what's wrong with them. We've talked to about 4,100 people and led them in the right direction. We've showed them how to get on the computer for the Agent Orange screening exam. That's an exam the federal government requires all Vietnam veterans to take. They go in a mass computer in Washington so if and when any benefits come down that's what they're going to pay by. We've had about 900 men get into that.
The people involved in the lawsuit filed in January came to it through our group. We also have an Agent Orange bill in the Georgia legislature modeled on the one passed by Texas. This week we're going before the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify.
Agent Orange Victims of Atlanta has been a refuge for a lot of people. The first Monday night of the month we have a meeting and every Tuesday night we have a rap session. I don't think a lot of these men would have survived without that support. They could always get in touch with me. I'm on the phone eight, sometimes 10 hours a day, just talking with guys. Get in jail, run out of gas, no food, we help them out.
I think the Vietnam veteran is going to catapult in the future because we have society on our side now. When we came back, people literally hated our guts. They'd spray shaving cream all over you at the airports. We were mobbed on college campuses. We came back to being the last hired and the first fired. You find now that society realizes that they done us a great injustice. The political pressure is on the government. Agent Orange is real. The society knows that. You got people now who don't mind standing with the Vietnam veteran. We're going to win this thing.
Personally, the Atlanta Agent Orange group has meant a lot of comfort and self-satisfaction to me. I like to help people. I've had a lot of men call me and say, "Man, if I had not met you I don't know what I would have done. I was cracking up. I was about to lose my mind. But when I sat down and talked to you, things changed."
Often people don't give you any flowers, and to hear someone appreciate what you do is satisfying. Agent Orange Victims of Atlanta has been another church. We had no money, just people who needed help. For some strange reason, the Lord chose me to be their minister. I know why I'm here. In order for me to live, I have to be here.