Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Agent Orange

I met Don, in 1966. He was a C-123 pilot

with the Ranch Hands in Vietnam. The Ranch Hands flew the planes aerial spraying herbicide Orange.

The herbicide was used to defoliate the vegetation, to prevent our troops from being ambushed.

I had gone over to their hanger and talked to their Commander about joining their unit. I was trying to avoid a desk job in a new Air Division Headquarters. It didn't work, my new General nailed me. On one of my subsequent trips to see Don, I noticed a mechanic cleaning tools in a bucket of Orange. I knew it was Orange because I had previously been exposed to it several times and the odor was distinct. I told him he shouldn't do that, but he replied that they use it all the time. It's great for cleaning up grease and they even clean the hanger floor with it.

The side effects of Orange were not known at the time, but there sure was a lot of it being used.

Several years later, Don and I were both stationed at Andrews Air Force Base outside of Washington D.C. One day we had coffee together he told me he had just been grounded, because he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. He was only about 35 years old. He asked me if I thought Orange had anything to do with it. I said I'd bet money on it, even though I didn't have all the facts. Don was later given a medical discharge.

I never saw Don again, but I did learn more about Orange, and I thought about him often. In my next assignment, I was the DOD director of a family of air-to-surface missile development at Eglin AFB, Florida.

After a few years the program office was to be moved to the Pentagon and I didn't want to return to Washington.

I was offered an interesting alternative for my last 1 ½ in the Air Force, to study the effects of Orange on wildlife on the test ranges at Eglin.

What a wonderful soft landing, I immediately accepted.

I learned a lot about Orange and got a lot of help from Monsanto Corp and Dow Chemical. Orange was a 50-50 mixture of common herbicides, 2-4-D and 2-4-5-T. The trouble came when they were mixed they formed an additional chemical called a dioxin. This dioxin was highly toxic and known to be teratogenic (cause birth defects).

I collected specimens of all sorts of animals, including insects, reptiles, amphibians,birds, mammals and even fish from areas exposed to the herbicide. I even went out with a Game Warden and collected 3 deer one night.

Fun job—huh.

These specimens were analyzed for the dioxin. It was found that the damaging dioxins would accumulate in fatty tissue, like fat, glands and nervous tissue. There was one colony of mice on a test range that still had a high concentration of orange, but we didn't find any birth defects in that colony over the period of study.

The Air Force was a little hesitant to publish the technical report I wrote, but it eventually came out, highly edited, and with distribution restrictions about a year after I left the Air Force.

After a number of court cases, the Veterans Administration began offering veterans exposed to Agent Orange special access to health care and eventually in 1985, disability compensation for certain illnesses including certain types of lymphoma, leukemia, Hodgkins disease, and prostate cancer. Parkinson's disease was not included, so I doubt if Don got any help.

I developed prostate cancer in 1999 and have been battling it for 12 years. The VA finally gave me 100% disability, and determined it was incurable, but they're helping me fight it.

A couple of weeks ago I got called in to the VA for a special exam. I didn't know why because I already had 100% disability, from them. It turns out, that statistical analysis had conclusively determined that three new diseases had qualified as being caused by Orange: B-cell lukemia, ishemic heart disease and Parkinson's. Finally Parkinson's. I doubt if Don is still around to benefit from this determination, but I immediately thought of him when I learned the news. He certainly could have used their help.

Turns out that I got another 100% disability from the VA for ischemic heart disease. I wonder what good 200% disability is??? Also, for some time I have wondered late at night, if Orange on my clothing might have contributed to my smokin' hot trophy wife coming down with Parkinson's Disease about 8 years ago.

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