Back in the late 1970s, I reported on a growing number of Vietnam War veterans whose recollections and sometimes their medical records said they’d been exposed to a defoliant spray containing a chemical called Agent Orange, whose secret ingredient turned out to be dioxin.
Back then there were still people who doubted dioxin could damage your health and among the doubters was the Veterans Administration. The VA was holding out for much stronger proof of an Agent Orange-health damage connection before they were going to start paying out benefits.
In addition to doubting that dioxin could be bad for you, the VA wondered about the wide variety of symptoms and ailments veterans blamed on exposure to Agent Orange. How could so many problems be traced to one little chemical, they sniffed. And the wait for recognition and for benefits got longer. More than 20 years after the military’s widespread use of Agent Orange had been stopped, the VA had received disability claims from close to 40,000 soldiers. They had awarded compensation to 486.
Today, the VA has a long list of diseases where the “proof” against Agent Orange is strong enough to make a victim eligible for benefits. From Amyloidosis and B-cell leukemias to Hodgkins and non-Hodgkins lymphomas, to cancers of the skin, lung and prostate, Parkinson’s Disease and Diabetes … and five more diseases from which veterans of Viet Nam are known to have suffered and in some cases, died from.
Veterans have a formula to describe this: delay, deny, until they die.”
Critics of today’s VA say, it’s stuck to that disastrous formula despite remarkable scientific progress in understanding what has long been presented as the mysterious and possibly spurious Gulf War illness. Turns out it is not so mysterious — its causes are well-identified and the biomechanics of how they cause its — again — wide range of human symptoms has been explained. And here’s the most important thing science has established about Gulf War illness: it’s real, it’s physical, and it causes all the kinds of health damage that has been recognized and has triggered benefits for other, once-dismissed battlefield ailments like those produced by Agent Orange.
Kelly Kennedy is the Managing Editor for The War Horse. Kelly is a bestselling author and award-winning journalist who served in the U.S. Army from 1987 to 1993, including tours in the Middle East during Desert Storm, and in Mogadishu, Somalia. She has worked as a health policy reporter for USA TODAY, spent five years covering military health at Military Times, and is the author of “They Fought for Each Other: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Hardest Hit Unit in Iraq,” and the co-author of “Fight Like a Girl: The Truth About How Female Marines are Trained,” with Kate Germano. As a journalist, she was embedded in both Iraq and Afghanistan. She is the only U.S. female journalist to both serve in combat and cover it as a civilian journalist, and she is the first female president of Military Reporters and Editors.