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IOWA CITY - Unlike warmly welcomed veterans of earlier and later wars, Vietnam vets got the parting gift that keeps on giving: Agent Orange - a plant defoliant that mistakenly included the carcinogen dioxin.
Nearly 40 years after the war's end, disability claims for often-deadly ailments caused by the ubiquitous toxic spray continue to mount, as do wait times for disposition of disability claims.
Though it would be difficult to confirm with government statistics, the number of veterans suffering Agent-Orange-related afflictions almost certainly exceeds the more than 358,000 U.S. military personnel killed or wounded in combat with the enemy during the Vietnam War.
“We track things by the condition itself, not by the cause of the condition,” said Randal Nollen, a spokesman for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C.
“The number one population that we handle for disability claims is Vietnam veterans with Agent Orange-related ailments,” ahead of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Don Tyne, director of the Linn County Veterans Affairs Office.
During the past eight months, Tyne said his office has helped more than 1,000 Vietnam veterans apply for disability benefits.
Tyne said the Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs has 7,000 pending disability claims, with an average wait for disposition of 18 months.
“This is the longest wait period since I've been here. Ten years ago it was 90 days,” Tyne said.
Named for the orange-striped barrels in which it was shipped, Agent Orange is a toxic herbicide widely used by the U.S. military in Vietnam to destroy food crops and kill jungle vegetation that concealed North Vietnamese troops.
Manufactured primarily by Monsanto Corporation and Dow Chemical, the blend of herbicides was inadvertently contaminated with the dioxin TCDD, a toxic chemical later linked to numerous fatal diseases.
From 1961 to 1971 U.S. and South Vietnamese forces sprayed 20 million gallons over vast areas of South Vietnam and parts of Laos and Cambodia, exposing millions of U.S. troops and Vietnamese civilians to its ill effects.
Waiting for help
Navy veteran John Wilkinson, 67, of Marion, attributes the cancer that resulted in the 2008 surgical removal of his prostate gland to his exposure to Agent Orange in 1966 and 1967. Eighteen months after applying for disability benefits, Wilkinson is still awaiting a determination, and he is far from alone.
“I am convinced their (method of operation) is delay. The longer they can delay, the more likely (the applicant) will give up or die,” said Wilkinson.
Though Wilkinson is now considered cancer-free, he said his peace of mind was shattered forever when his doctor first told him he had the disease.
“Our country had no reluctance to send us to war, but it has dragged its feet following up on the war's impact,” he said.
Richard Davis, a VFW service officer who helps veterans file disability claims at the VA Hospital in Iowa City, said he can relate to his clients' frustration.
“I know exactly what they are going through,” said Davis, who retired from the Army in 2002 and subsequently spent 18 months awaiting approval of his disability claim.
Davis said the list of “presumptive illnesses” related to Agent Orange exposure includes several kinds of cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, Parkinson's disease and neuropathy, which is characterized by tingling or loss of feeling in the extremities.
Since 2010, the VA has presumed these conditions are service-connected to herbicide exposure in Vietnam, enabling veterans with those illnesses who served in Vietnam from 1962 through 1975 to claim benefits without having to prove the connection. That presumption has not yet been extended to “blue water” sailors who served well off the coast.
Ron Williams, 67, of Marion, who was exposed to Agent Orange during his Army service in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967, suffers from diabetes and neuropathy.
Williams said he felt the same frustration as Wilkinson during his more-than-two-year quest for disability benefits, which entailed several appeals.
“They try to see if they can wear you out. You've got to outwait the suckers,” said Williams, who volunteers to help veterans twice a week at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Iowa City.
Both Williams and Wilkinson said their criticism of VA bureaucrats does not reflect on the excellent care they have received at the VA hospital in Iowa City.
“Dioxin is bad stuff - one of the worst carcinogens ever made,” said Dan Gannon, 67, of Ankeny, a member of the Iowa Veterans Affairs Commission and a victim of the toxic chemical.
Gannon said he saw “a lot of defoliated jungle” during his 1969 service as a Marine platoon leader in Vietnam's central highlands region.
“Agent Orange was the least of my worries. We loved it. It eliminated ambush sites and saved lives,” he said.
Gannon was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2003. Though three of his friends have died of the same illness, Gannon survived and has since been engaged in helping other veterans secure their rightful benefits.
“One day they would spray. The next day half the foliage would be dead,” said Denny Myers, 63, of Marshalltown, a Navy cryptologist engaged in special operations in Vietnam from 1969 to 1972.
A rash appeared on Myers' arms and torso shortly after he left Vietnam, and more serious ailments began to surface 10 years later, said Myers, who, like Gannon, helps other vets secure disability benefits.
“It's not been fun,” said Myers, who considers himself “300 percent disabled,” with diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson's disease, neuropathy and chloracne, a skin disease.
The VA is 1 million claims behind, resulting in long waits that add to already stressful situations, Gannon said.
Ed Gaudet, 69, of De Witte, who served in Vietnam with the Army's 1st Infantry Division in 1965 and 1966, suffers from three of the Agent Orange “presumptive” ailments - heart disease, diabetes and neuropathy.
“I remember having it sprayed on me. We slept on our ponchos when we were on patrol. We didn't think twice about it. We ate the fruit and drank the water,” said Gaudet, who also helps veterans secure disability benefits.
Gaudet said 60 percent of the Vietnam vets he knows have ailments related to Agent Orange.
“Uncle Sam did that to us. It hurts when you know your own country did it to you,” he said.