Vietnam Veterans and the Bitter Harvest of Agent Orange
Vietnam veteran Paul Reutershan said on the Today show, “I died in Vietnam, but I didn’t even know it” (Wilcox x). For the veterans that survived the Vietnam War without major physical injuries, there were still other problems to endure. After the war, many veterans faced disapproval for fighting, serious psychological problems, and for some, diseases believed to be caused by herbicides used in the war. Many veterans didn’t even think that Agent Orange could have been the cause for their diseases since the effects show themselves many years later. Reutershan was the first to publicly attribute his diseases to the herbicide Agent Orange he was exposed to during the Vietnam War. Many veterans, along with Reutershan, sought compensation from the government for diseases they knew were caused by Agent Orange.
Agent Orange was an herbicide that was widely used between 1962 and 1971 in Vietnam. The use of Agent Orange and other defoliants was referred to as Operation Ranch Hand. The objective of this operation was to defoliate the lush vegetation of Vietnam and deny cover to the Viet Cong. Agent Orange was regularly sprayed along roads and canals to prevent ambush because trucks commonly used the roads to transport supplies. Operation Ranch Hand employed 1500 soldiers who regularly sprayed defoliants by plane, helicopter, truck, riverboat, and on foot with a backpack (Dunnigan and Nofi 136). The most heavily sprayed areas were the forests near DMZ (demilitarized zone), forests at borders of Cambodia, Laos and South Vietnam, forests of north and northwest Saigon, mangrove forests on the southernmost peninsula of Vietnam, and mangrove forests along the major shipping channels southeast of Saigon (Anderson 67). It wasn’t until 1970 that reports of the toxicity of Agent Orange were widely released. These reports sparked questions of how the toxicity would affect the people exposed. In January 1971, planes stopped spraying the chemical and by the end of the year, use of Agent Orange was terminated in Vietnam.
Dow Chemical Company developed Agent Orange at Fort Detrick in Maryland. The chemical got its name from the color-coded stripe that was painted on its 55 gallon storage drums. There were many different herbicides used in Vietnam, such as agents blue, white, purple, and green. Agent Orange was the most successful herbicide, quickly killing broad leaf vegetation; therefore, it was the most widely used. The defoliant worked by accelerating the growth in plant cells until the plant prematurely dies (Wilcox x). Agent Orange was composed of an equal mixture of the herbicides 2, 4-D (n-buytl-2, 4-dichlorophenoxyacetate) and 2, 4, 5-T (n-butyl-2, 4, 5- trichlorophenoxyacetate) and it was developed for chemical warfare. Altogether 90,000 tons of herbicides were used: of that 90% was used for defoliation, 8% was used for crop destruction, and 2% was used for clearing base perimeters (Dunnigan and...