A Slow Walk with Death: The Lingering Legacy of Agent Orange
“If the surviving lions don’t tell their stories, the hunters will get all the credit.”
Decades after the final shots were fired, the war in Vietnam continues to claim victims. It is the war that will not end for Americans and Vietnamese. A Slow Walk with Death is the story of those who were sprayed and later betrayed. It is also the story of chemical warfare. Between 1962-1971 over 19 million gallons of chemical herbicides were sprayed in Vietnam. The dispersion of Agent Orange over vast areas of central and south Vietnam poisoned the soil, river systems, lakes and rice paddies of Vietnam, enabling toxic chemicals to enter the food chain. To date, there has been a conspiracy of silence, collusion, lies and corruption of medical science and a betrayal of public trust with respect to the truth that these toxic exposures have killed more military veterans than any of America’s enemies and are still killing innocent family members. The Department of Veterans Affairs has continually dragged its feet regarding the acknowledgement of any correlation between exposure and illness. Veterans have had to fight the government for every benefit. Lost lives and untold human suffering have followed for generations of American and Vietnamese families.
A Slow Walk with Death takes the reader behind the scenes into the backrooms of political power and industry where the debates about the use of Agent Orange and its potential side effects raged. It shares the human anguish of how unwitting exposure to dioxin destroyed the lives of those who served and then, in the cruelest of ironies, vanquished the hopes of their innocent children and grandchildren. American veterans and their families were not the only ones to suffer. The legacy of Agent Orange/dioxin continues to haunt the Vietnamese in terms of ill health, shortened lives, birth defects and poisoned landscapes. Approximately 15 percent of all Vietnamese with living with mobility impairments and mental disabilities are Agent Orange victims.
Agent Orange was a blend of tactical rainbow herbicides sprayed from 1962 to 1971 to remove the leaves of trees and other dense tropical foliage that provided enemy cover in Vietnam. Leaves died and fell off, transforming a thick forest into a mass of barren trees. Once green areas turned black. The name Agent Orange came from the orange identifying stripe used on the 55-gallon drums in which it was stored. The Department of Defense developed these tactical herbicides specifically to be used in combat operations. They were not commercial grade herbicides. Agent Orange was sprayed at up to 20 times the concentration manufacturers recommended for killing foliage. It took an aircraft four minutes to empty a 1,000-gallon tank and cover an area 10 miles long and 260 feet wide. Heavily sprayed areas included forests near the 17th parallel, forests at the junction of the borders of Cambodia, Laos, and South Vietnam, and mangroves on the southernmost peninsula of Vietnam and along shipping channels southeast of Saigon.
Unlike the effects of napalm which caused painful death by burns or asphyxiation, Agent Orange exposure did not affect its victims immediately. It was one of three herbicides contaminated with dioxin. Agent Orange did not simply manifest in the bloodstream of veterans and Vietnamese, it was passed into their DNA. After the war, many veterans became ill from a variety of diseases that made no sense given their ages or health histories. Veterans exposed to Agent Orange were given lowest priority and usually referred for psychological counseling. First generation impacts were mostly visible in high rates of cancer among U.S. soldiers and Vietnam residents in areas that were heavily sprayed. But then children were born suffering from serious birth defects like spina bifida, cerebral palsy, physical and intellectual disabilities and missing or deformed limbs. Agent Orange is now debilitating its third and fourth generation. After years of advocacy on their own behalf and with the support of key congressional leaders, the Department of Veterans Affairs now assumes, as a blanket policy, that all of the 2.8 million troops who served in Vietnam were exposed to chemical defoliants but provides only limited medical coverage and compensation for children of veterans. More than 400,000 Vietnamese have been officially registered as 2nd generation Agent Orange Victims in Vietnam.
A Slow Walk With Death provides a modern history of Agent Orange controversies intermixed with the personal stories of those whose lives were impacted and those still living each day with the legacy of dioxin. The Agent Orange cover-up is documented through hundreds of the author’s Freedom on Information (FOIA) requests involving previously classified documents. The Veterans Administration and later the Department of Veterans Affairs used false studies to deny claims made by the first wave of sick veterans. The book exposes how Dow and Monsanto, the major government contractors supplying Agent Orange, knew from their own secret lab tests that the dioxin levels in Agent Orange were harmful, yet kept this from government regulators. Surviving veterans, reaching the ends of their lives, are increasingly haunted by thoughts of the full cost of their service and continue to fight for benefits relating to their own exposure and coverage for their children and grandchildren. These stories are told through extensive in-depth narrative interviews with over 200 American veterans, spouses and children as well as their Vietnamese counterparts. The Vietnamese voices are from interviews with victims across 17 provinces in Vietnam. The tragic irony emerging from these interviews is that former enemies serving in areas where Agent Orange was sprayed, share similar illnesses and family tragedies. A Slow Walk With Death is the story of dioxin’s destructive lingering presence throughout the world.