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More on Homeless Veterans and Corruption

The Vietnam Veterans MemorialWith several posts already covering corruption as it impacts homeless veterans,  wouldn’t you think the subject would be exhausted? Apparently not. Let’s recap and then catch up.

In 1962, in Southeast Asia, the U.S. Military implemented Operation Ranch Hand, which sprayed herbicides to defoliate the area so there would be fewer places for the enemy to hide. Nobody even knows how much herbicide was involved. For Agent Orange alone, somewhere between 12 and 20 million gallons is the best guess.

Damaged veterans who tried to sue Monsanto were out of luck, partly because the company claimed that the military used the defoliant in Vietnam at “six to 25 times the rate suggested by the manufacturer,” so it wasn’t their fault. The military claimed it didn’t know how damaging the chemicals would be, either to the people of Vietnam whose hearts and minds they were supposedly trying to win, or to the American servicemen and servicewomen deployed there, and nothing can lessen the infamy of that untruth.

This information comes from a very long and detailed report published by the U.S. Veteran Dispatch, which says:

There are strong indications that not only were military officials aware as early as 1967 of the limited effectiveness of chemical defoliation, they knew of potential long-term health risks of frequent spraying and sought to keep that information from the public by managing news reports.

What’s the point of all this history? Tonight, there are Vietnam veterans in alleys and shelter beds who never were able to hold a job or pull themselves together, because of health conditions resulting from Agent Orange exposure for which they were unable to get any help.

Task force

In 1979 the National Veterans Task Force on Agent Orange was created, and charged with discovering just how many vets had been exposed. The Centers for Disease Control spent $43 million tax dollars on that project and ended up with results that the Institute of Medicine characterized as either “monumentally bungled” or “politically rigged.” All along, the occasional veteran had tried to sue the government for medical problems resulting from Agent Orange, but they were always blocked by something called the Feres Doctrine, which basically says no one can sue the government for anything that happens to them in the service.

In 1984, a new law required the Veterans Administration to get to work on establishing compensation standards for both soft tissue sarcoma (frequently associated with Agent Orange exposure) and atomic radiation damage. The VA did not, as the saying goes, get the memo. The agency that was created to help veterans continued to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to Agent Orange exposure claims.

Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Jr. was among the officers whose direct orders had caused Agent Orange to be sprayed. His son, also a Vietnam veteran, became fatally ill with Hodgkin’s disease and lymphoma and Zumwalt got on the case. He said the government “intentionally manipulated or withheld compelling information on the adverse health effects.” When this grieving, high-ranking father charged the government with denying justice to veterans, things began to happen.

Authority speaks

Military scientist Dr. James Clary was one of the team that initially green-lighted Agent Orange. These lines are from a letter he wrote in 1988 to answer congressional questions:

We were aware of the potential for damage due to dioxin contamination in the herbicide. We were even aware that the ‘military’ formulation had a higher dioxin concentration than the ‘civilian’ version… However, because the material was to be used on the ‘enemy,’ none of us were overly concerned. We never considered a scenario in which our own personnel would become contaminated with the herbicide.

Wait, what? Hel-lo! Duh! And every other colloquial expression of utter dumbfoundment. Say that again? How could they not have noticed that the grunts — tens of thousands of them — were crawling around down on the ground, just like the Viet Cong? Here is what else Dr. Clary said:

And, if we had, we would have expected our own government to give assistance to veterans so contaminated.

Hah! Might as well expect assistance from the Tooth Fairy or a genie in a bottle. And then along came Tom Daschle, a senator from South Dakota, who cast all kinds of aspersions on the 1984 report about Operation Ranch Hand and the birth defects afflicting the children of service members who had encountered Agent Orange. An earlier version of the document showed certain results, but then there was monkey business, and Sen. Daschle said:

The Air Force deleted these findings from the final report at the suggestion of a Ranch Hand Advisory Committee set up by the White House Agent Orange Working Group.

Plus, there were two different versions of the minutes of the meeting in which that pressure was applied. Daschle called foul. The U.S. Veteran Dispatch says:

Part of the fraud appears to have been perpetrated by the Monsanto Corp., which produces a number of chemicals containing dioxin. Monsanto knowingly rigged test results of employees who had been exposed to dioxin to make the effects of it appear far less than it actually was… This type of fraud appears to have been perpetrated regularly in connection with Agent Orange research…

(To be continued…)

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Source: “The Story of Agent Orange,” November 1990
Image by Ben Schumin.