Members of Asheville’s 124th Chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America want to break through perceptions about Agent Orange and the effects of war. And they want to help the men and women of their generation, as well as their families and those affected by more recent military actions, so they’re hosting a Saturday, Oct. 25, town hall meeting.
“We will have presenters, then a kind of storytelling and testimonial session where a veteran and his family will talk about the health effects of Agent Orange,” says Allan Perkal, president of the Asheville VVA and moderator for the town hall meeting, the third that’s been held across the state this year.
The stigma attached to Agent Orange has become nearly as toxic as the substance itself, says Perkal, a Vietnam veteran and a retired PTSD therapist with the VA. From 1965 to 1970, the United States dumped some 13 million gallons of the dioxin-based compound on Vietnam. Although it was intended to poison that country’s foliage, the chemical wreaked equal havoc on the American service members who were exposed to it as they handled the orange-striped barrels it came in, dispersed it and worked cleanup details on their equipment.
“We want to tell veterans what help’s available,” says Jack McManus, who served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War and took part in Operation Ranch Hand: “I sprayed Agent Orange. That was my job,” he says. “I have been sprayed up to here,” McManus adds, pointing to his eyebrows. Since then, the Vietnam veteran has had firsthand experience with several of the health problems linked to Agent Orange exposure.
Studies have linked exposure to heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, leukemia, lymphomas, a range of other cancers, Parkinson’s disease, fertility problems and more. Moreover, birth defects — such as spina biffida — can also result from Agent Orange exposure. “This is our legacy,” says Parkal.
The Oct. 25 town hall meeting, he hopes, will educate veterans and their families about the various health issues, as well as the benefits and treatments that are available. Mokie Porter, Herb Worthington and Tom Berger — all affiliated with the national office of Vietnam Veterans of America — will lead an expert panel providing an overview of the problems linked to Agent Orange exposure. Tony Mussolino, a VVA Certified Veteran Service Officer — along with accredited veteran service officers from Western North Carolina — will give instructions on how victims and their families can file benefit claims with the VA. McManus will be a featured speaker.
A key segment of the meeting, though, will focus on the actual experiences of veterans and their families, says Perkal. And he will encourage audience members to ask questions and share their own stories. “We’re trying to get families to participate. Our families are on a treadmill — with our children and their children having birth defects — and we’re trying to work out a solution,” Perkal explains.
The meeting is part of a series of Agent Orange panels that have been going on since 2009 at various locations around the country. “This idea has been catching fire lately, in part because the population is aging,” Perkal said. “Legislation is afoot, it is a joint bill and the timing is right. These town hall meetings have been going on all over the country.”
The legislation to which Perkal refers is the Toxic Exposure Research Act of 2014 (S.2738), introduced by two senators, one Republican and the other a Democrat (Jerry Moran of Kansas and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, respectively). The bill calls for the establishment of a national center that would research, diagnose and treat descendants of veterans who were exposed to toxins during their time in the Armed Forces, Perkal mentions.
He emphasizes the need to spread the word to veterans in other communities — especially in Tennessee and South Carolina — as well. “This meeting is for people who have never been to the VA, people who have been treated at the VA and people who are receiving benefits,” he says. “We want to look at what the health issues are and what’s available for treatment.” The VA will have a booth at the meeting, Perkal notes.
Although the fighting stopped more than 40 years ago, the damages — be they physical, psychological or spiritual — incurred during the Vietnam War continue to challenge this country today, say McManus and Perkal. Events such as the Agent Orange Town Hall Meeting are an important step in helping veterans and their loved ones repair those damages and navigate a way toward a brighter future — and not just for the older folks who served in Vietnam.
“It’s not just [about] us,” says McManus of Vietnam veterans. “We want to help the next generation. … We as a country have to recognize if we’re going to war, there are consequences.”
As Perkal put it, “This meeting gives us an opportunity to do what we need to do.”
WHAT: The Agent Orange/Dioxin Town Hall Meeting. ashvva124.org or call Allan Perkal at 808-383-7877.
WHY: Educate veterans and their families about the dangers of exposure to Agent Orange and the resources available to help them.
WHEN: Saturday, Oct. 25, noon-6 p.m.
WHERE: The Haynes Building at A-B Tech’s Enka Campus (1459 Sand Hill Road)