Ted Minnick has been a military man all his life. You can see it in his disciplined posture, his purposeful gait, his even gaze. What you cannot see, however, are the wounds he suffered as a result of his service — not from gunfire or shrapnel, but from exposure to a deadly, now-infamous herbicide known as Agent Orange.
Minnick served as an artillery battery commander in Vietnam and now suffers from leukemia — one of many illnesses linked to exposure to the dioxin-based chemical. But during an Oct. 25 Agent Orange Town Hall held in Asheville, he spoke not for himself but for his daughter and the many other children of veterans who illnesses might be linked to what happened to him in Vietnam. Minnick addressed a room filled with other veterans and their families: “I don’t hold any grudge against the U.S. government,” he said. “What I hold is guilt for bringing it back.”
While his illness has been covered by the VA, Minnick’s had no success getting help for his youngest daughter, Sarah, who was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1997. “I’m scared – I’m not mad,” Sarah said. “I want the government to realize that we need centers to do research to find where these conditions come from.”
Joining more than 400 Vietnam veterans and their families at the Enka Campus of A-B Tech, the Minnicks urged passage of the Toxic Research Act of 2014, which would, among other actions, call for researching the health effects caused by exposure to toxic substances like Agent Orange.
The Minnicks’ testimony was one of several presented at the town hall, hosted by Chapter 124 of the Vietnam Veterans of America. The meeting was part educational referendum and part town hall-style meeting. The day’s overarching purpose, however, was to demonstrate the generational effects of Agent-Orange exposure and to push for passage of legislation aimed at helping the people who bear that legacy.
As Spider Trantham, president of VVA Chapter 124, said, “We are fighting a silent enemy.”
The afternoon’s first speaker, Mokie Pratt Porter, talked about the generational impact of Agent Orange exposure. National director of communications for the VVA, Porter explained, “We needed to put a human face on the problem.” To that end, she showed videos of both Vietnam veterans and their children speaking about the illnesses they had experienced as a result of exposure to the dioxin-based chemical. Porter also talked about the Toxic Research Act, which would establish a research center and a board of advisors charged with determining what health effects are caused by Agent Orange, declassifying documents regarding Agent Orange usage and launching a national outreach and education campaign.
Following Porter was Jack McManus, a member of the Air Force who participated in Operation Ranch Hand — the program through which Agent Orange was dispersed in Vietnam. In addition to explaining what the toxin was, McManus provided a firsthand account of how it was used by the military. Military commanders ordered frequent “defoliation campaigns,” because killing off the foliage resulted in fewer casualties for U.S. forces, he said. Agent Orange was one of a number of herbicides the military used, but it was the most popular because it was the most effective, McManus said.
But he was never told at the time that the herbicides were toxic. “When I say I had Agent Orange up to my lips, that’s completely true,” McManus said. “I think it happened to a lot of guys over there. We were told it wasn’t harmful.” To demonstrate his point, McManus said, “I personally watched a Master Sergeant put a cup of Agent Orange in his mouth and gargle with it.”
Now, McManus and the rest of the world know that the exposure wasn’t safe. “This is international. Dioxin (the chemical responsible for so many of the health problems caused by Agent Orange) messes with the DNA chain. It causes birth defects and miscarriages — there’s no doubt of that,” McManus said. He pressed for large-scale research (a provision of the Toxic Exposure Act) and called on the government to be more honest with its service-members. “We as a country have to stand up and take care of our soldiers,” McManus said. “This is for our children and our children’s children,” he added.
Following the presentations, Minnick, Herb Worthington (the VVA Region Two Director and the National Chair of the VVA Agent Orange/Dioxin Committee) and Nancy Switzer (founding president of the Associates of Vietnam Veterans of America) told their stories too.
Worthington – who served in Vietnam from 1970-1971 — said that his daughter also had MS. He mentioned a suit that was brought by nurses who served in Vietnam because of the higher incidence of MS they noticed among children of veterans. Worthington also said that his son was born with asthma and a number of allergies. “It’s just too much of a coincidence,” Worthington said.
Switzer talked about how her husband, who served in Vietnam from 1968-1969, was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer. She also shared that both her son and her granddaughter were born with birth defects. Switzer mentioned higher rates of miscarriage, stillbirth, learning disabilities and asthma among the children of veterans as well. “All you vets out there, we need you to get your medical records and give them to your family. And us — we need to put down on our own medical records that our husband or father was in Vietnam and exposed to Agent Orange,” she said.
During one emotionally charged session, audience members testified about their own experiences. One after another, veterans and their families expressed anger, frustration and sadness at the devastation Agent Orange had wrought on them and their loved ones. They shared stories, bearing witness to tragic birth defects, a range of cancers, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and other disorders.
As one veteran exclaimed while he choked back tears, “I want some damn answers! This corrupt government is killing us and our children.”
After a short break, Tom Berger, executive director of the VVA’s Veterans Health Council, outlined some of the major health problems associated with Agent Orange exposure: Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange during their tours face a greater risk of acquiring Hepatitis C, prostate cancer, lung cancer, Type II diabetes, pancreatic cancer, brain cancer and other disorders. Veterans need to mention their service history during all doctor visits, he emphasized, adding his voice to the chorus of support for bills like the Toxic Research Act. “That’s why we’re here – we’ve got to get that legislation passed,” Berger said. “But if you don’t take care of yourselves, you can’t take care of your kids,” he said.
Piggybacking on Berger’s message, Tony Mussolino — a VVA certified veterans’ service office who works out of Wilmington — led a discussion about how veterans and their families could file claims for benefits. While he was at it, he added, “The government doesn’t give a damn about us, and it’s about time we made them.”
Mussolino accused the government of minimizing, altering or covering up studies that indicated the health problems caused by Agent Orange exposure in order to save money on treatment costs. He also said that the VA had failed to recognize all of the health problems caused by herbicide use. “I’m not too well-liked by people in the VA,” Mussolino explained. “And you know what? Thank you.”
Nevertheless, Mussolino provided instructions on how to file a claim with the Veterans’ Service Office and how to seek assistance from groups such as The Children of Vietnam Veterans Health Alliance. In his closing remarks, Mussolino was blunt: “We need to say to the government: Get off your asses and take care of our children.”
The message conveyed at the Agent Orange/Dioxin Town Hall Meeting was relatively simple: Veterans who have been exposed to toxic substances need support and legislative help. Sarah Winnick’s treatment for MS costs $17,582 every month, and the VA has denied the two claims that she has filed thus far, she said.
Worthington summed it up, saying that many “Vietnam veterans have contracted a presumptive condition from their Agent Orange exposure — or they have passed away because of it. And both they and their families did not know the reason. We implore all of our elected officials to stop the carnage and promote the two bills.”
The two bills being considered are S.2738 and HR.5484. VVA representatives hope that Congress will take them up when it re-convenes on Nov. 14.
Chapter 124 of the VVA can be reached at http://ashvva124.org/. The national institute for the VVA can be reached at http://www.vva.org/. The Associates of Vietnam Veterans of America can be reached at http://www.avva.org/.
For information on filing a claim with the VA, visit http://www.veteranshealth.org/.
To sign a petition telling the EPA to finalize a Dioxin Cancer Study, visit http://org.salsalabs.com/o/852/p/dia/action3/common/public/?action_KEY=14268.