Sunday, February 23, 2014

The New Trail of Tears: The Agent Orange Story [Part 1 of 3]

For the Sake of Comparison
One of the worst acts of inhumanity the government of the United States has committed is referred to as “The Trail of Tears.”  In 1830, the US Congress passed the Indian Removal Act which was the basis for the forced relocation of Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Seminole and Chickasaw Nations from the southeastern US to the eastern part of Oklahoma, known as “Indian Territory."   Thousands died of disease, and/or starvation on the long walk to “Indian Territory."   Some refer to this as a ‘death march.’

Set in the framework of anti-indigenous sentiment and white supremacy pervasive in the US, which though greatly diminished is still with us today, this action was one of the worst among many mistreatments of the Native Americans. 

While of a different sort, we will chronicle here a new “Trail of Tears,” one that rivals the heinous nature of the 19th Century Bureau of Indian Affairs, but was a modern creation by two of the most dastardly parts of the United States government, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, and the United States Department of Defense. 

The VA
On balance, the “VA” does a lot of good work.  But considering the numbers involved, their record when dealing with the issue of exposure to “Tactical Herbicides” [Agent Orange, Agent White, Agent, Blue, and so on, also known as the “Rainbow Herbicides based on their code names and the corresponding colored bands painted around the barrels in which they were shipped] used via spraying to defoliate the jungles and swamps of the Republic of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War rivals the “Trail of Tears”, described above, in its effects. 

Not a forced relocation, but a flat denial that the herbicide spraying in South Vietnam [about 20 million gallons it] had any effects on the health of those who handled it, sprayed it or were exposed to it.   From before the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, Veterans were coming home with all manner of strange and often deadly diseases.  Back in the day, such physical manifestations were often ascribed to “unknown tropical parasites”.  Indeed, one of the main problems in finding the cause of these mysterious illnesses in men and women so young and in such good health only months earlier, was the shotgun effect on their bodies – no one physical ailment stood out among the many we now know are caused by exposure to dioxin, the toxic agent in the herbicides that does the damage.  It did not cause just one disease, but well over a dozen.  And they were not all cancers.  Some were skin diseases, others heart disease, and diabetes.  And Veterans were shoing up with multiple diseases.

There was more than one common factor in the background of all those suffering these issues.  First was their presence in a tropical country, often in the field under harsh or primitive conditions for long periods of time, easily long enough for some tropical disease to take hold, and indeed, many tropical diseases did manifest in our Soldiers, Marines, Airmen and Sailors serving in South Vietnam, and Thailand.  But dengue fever, malaria, and the like did not cause cancer, diabetes, and long term skin issues. 

The only other commonality, which began to be noticed by the troops themselves was their exposure to herbicides, either through direct spray or by walking through sprayed areas.  Still, everyone had been assured there was no danger from the herbicides, they were deadly only to plant life.  The troops indeed were amazed that in a matter of days after spraying, whole sections of forest or jungle were devoid of anything green…no leaves, no vegetation at all.  They welcomed the lack of cover for their enemy. 
What was once a thick jungle canopy now allowed clear and abundant sunshine to reach the ground.  And there was no danger to our troops, or so said the United States Department of Defense [DoD]!

Records show that herbicide testing had been going on for decades.  In a report of DoD herbicide testing outside of Vietnam, the earliest listed dates and locations are in 1944 in Texas and Florida.  The Beaumont, Texas test in June of 1844 was done on rice crops.  Subsequent testing was conducted on just about every Air Force Base and proving ground in the Country, and of course Fort Ritchie. 

Most of the tests were done without public knowledge, and over public and private property, in Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Montana, Arizona, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, North Dakota, Kansas, Washington, and California. 

Testing was conducted also in Korea, and in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos during the Vietnam war and in 1945-46 in Southern India.

The test in Brawley, California in 1951-52 was “…to determine means of accomplishing defoliation of tropical forest vegetation by application of a chemical agent.  Here, irrigation water studies were done with the agent.” 

The Agent was 2, 4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, which when added to an equal amount of 2,4,5-Trichlorophenoxyacetic acid which had been contaminated with 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, formed Agent Orange. 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, also known as TCDD is a dioxin compound, and is extremely toxic.

In a 1998 court case, Winters v Diamond Shamrock, et al, [149 F.3d 387, US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, 97-40113] a nurse named Winters who served in Vietnam was suing the chemical manufacturers of the “rainbow herbicides.”  Testimony in court by one of the representatives of one of the defendant companies, Hercules, was summed us thusly:

“The district court determined that the Defense Department had contracted with the chemical companies for a specific mixture of herbicides, which eventually became known as Agent Orange… The court further found that the defendants were compelled to deliver Agent Orange to the government under threat of criminal sanctions. Id. at 1199.”

The actual testimony was a bit more specific, stating that Hercules tried to warn the Pentagon that the formula they contracted for was far too strong, too dangerous, too toxic, and required warnings to be printed on the barrels that were used for shipping.  The Pentagon countered that Hercules would provide the chemicals in the formulaic strength stipulated, and without any markings on the barrels other than the corresponding colored band.  The Pentagon also warned Hercules that failure to adhere to those contractual stipulations would result in “criminal sanctions” against Hercules!

Essentially this testimony almost takes the chemical companies off the hook for liability except that they could have done more to alert the world to the pending danger of this highly toxic substance. 

The testimony also places the greater burden of negligence, actually criminal negligence on the Department of Defense.   And a later autobiography of sorts by Vietnam Era Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara admitted to lies told by him that distorted and extended the Vietnam War, and resulted in the deaths of many US soldiers.   [See Time Magazine “Apology”.]

The reality was that our troops were getting slaughtered by ambushes from the heavy cover provided by the jungle vegetation in South Vietnam.  The Pentagon decided on defoliation as a means to reduce the cover, and thus reduce the casualties among our forces. 

The problem with that decision is that DoD knew that it was kicking the can down the road, and a greater number of casualties would eventually get sick and die from Dioxin exposure than the number we were likely to lose in Vietnam through enemy action without defoliation.   Reliable estimates of both were attainable.  So were tactical changes to take away the advantage of cover from the enemy.   That makes the decision, ultimately, purely political.  [See remark on Robert McNamara above.]

Spray Missions
The principal use of herbicides was to defoliate large areas of land, usually around bases and fire bases, to clear approaches and lines of fire, along trails [including the Ho Chi Minh Trail as it weaved in and out of western Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and back into North Vietnam] and roads, and a great deal of it along the rivers, creeks and estuaries of the Republic of South Vietnam, where the US Navy’s Riverine forces operated on the Swift Boats, and PBR Patrol Boats.  Army forces were often housed in barracks barges parked along river banks, or anchored in mid-stream between operations. 

The Republic of Vietnam’s Army divided the country into four tactical zones, I Corp from the DMZ south in 5 provinces ending in Quang Ngai province. II Corps from Kontum Province south almost a third of the length of the country.  III Corps and IV Corps split the Mekong/Saigon River Delta area with III Corps comprising the Saigon area, the IV Corps the bulk of the Mekong River Delta south and around to the Cambodian Border.   [See the Map at Wikipedia.]

20 million gallons of tactical herbicides were sprayed in the Republic of Vietnam during the war.  The highest concentration was, naturally  around the capital of Saigon, and III Corps.  The second highest concentration was in I Corps, a natural location due to the presence of the DMZ between North and South Vietnam, which the North Vietnamese used with near impunity to make incursions into South Vietnam. 

Over half of the spraying was done by the Air Force under Operation Ranch Hand, which utilized Fairchild C-123 Provider aircraft to spray the jungle canopy.  Strict records of the location of the Ranch Hand spray missions was kept.   After meticulously charting all those missions for a recent study, Dr. Jeanne Stellman of Columbia University came to the conclusion that if, at any time while spraying was going on in South Vietnam, that is from 1962 to 1971, if you were anywhere in the Republic of Vietnam, it could not be said that you were not exposed.  [Here is a link to a rough map of the spray missions, as created by the US Army.  It is not exact, and appears to be incomplete, but it does give a good indication of where the spraying took place and where the heaviest concentrations were.] 

Herbicides were shipped in barrels from the United States, and from other countries whose chemical companies were contracted by the Pentagon to manufacture the herbicides.  Shipment was made by ship, mostly on cargo ships of the merchant marine, and never on US Naval commissioned vessels. 

Shipments were delivered to the Republic of Vietnam [RVN – the government of South Vietnam] almost exclusively.  [Small amounts were side tracked to Army and Marine Corps bases and some  MACV [Military Assistance Command - Vietnam]  naval operating areas for spraying by helicopter, or truck or by hand.]

Operation Ranch Hand spray missions were requested by local commanders, and went up the chain of command all the way to the Pentagon, across town to the Department of State, then to the Republic of Vietnam Embassy in Washington.  Approval came back the same route.  Once it was received in MACV, orders went out to the Ranch Hand Aircraft who would request sufficient quantities form the RVN stockpile.  The RVN Government would release the requested amounts and the Ranch Hand missions would be scheduled, supplied, flown and sprayed, often with a fighter-bomber escort.  The requests laid out the specific path to be sprayed, width and length based on capabilities of the C-123 spray aircraft. 

It was a cumbersome, time consuming process.  It would take, at the least, days, and sometimes weeks or even months to get the requisite approvals. 


”It is a stain on this nation's honor that the Department of Veterans Affairs has become a deadlier and more difficult adversary to the American veteran than any they have ever faced on a battlefield."-- VNVets

"The concept that Agent Orange, and its effects, stopped dead in its tracks at the shoreline is simply too illogical, and too ludicrous to accept. What does that say about the Obama Administration and his Department of Veterans Affairs?"--VNVets

"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations." --President Abraham Lincoln

"It follows then as certain as that night succeeds the day, that without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honorable and glorious."--President George Washington

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