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WENY News Special Report: Fighting for a Change

May 10, 2019
In The News

ELMIRA, N.Y. (WENY) -- For four local Vietnam veterans, they are proud of their military career and say, without hesitation, they'd do it again. But they have more in common than their years of service. Like many soldiers, they came in contact with a herbicide known as "Agent Orange". 

"Agent Orange was a chemical that was utilized by our military in southeast Asia and primarily in Vietnam to defoliate heavy vegetation on an instant basis," said Vietnam Veterans of America Museum director, and Vietnam veteran, Denny Wolfe Sr..

Decades after their service, several local Vietnam veterans say they are dealing with the side effects from their contact with Agent Orange. Under current VA regulations, 14 presumptive conditions are related to its exposure. Of those 14, three of those conditions have end dates and must be at least 10% disabling within 1-year of contact with the herbicide. Those conditions are Cloracne, which is a skin condition, Porphyria Cutanea Tarda, which is liver dysfunction, and Peripheral Neuropathy, which causes a variety of things like tumors and cancers. 

"This Agent Orange is one of the most toxic chemical products that we were put on," said Vietnam veteran, Bob Brill. "If it'll take a plant in 24 hours and turn it into nothing, what will it do to human beings body?"

The end dates mean if you didn't come down with any symptoms, and weren't diagnosed after a year of exposure, you most likely won't be covered through the VA. Gerry Wright is a Vietnam veteran from Connecticut who has all three of those end date conditions.

"There's no paper trail that we were treated in Vietnam for skin rashes, whatever, but it was never entered in our files," said Wright, "So we didn't know about it and we didn't hear about it, Agent Orange, until 1979. In 1980 I filed my first claim and I was denied."

Wright now travels the country, speaking with Vietnam veterans and government officials through his Agent Orange awareness organization, "Sprayed and Betrayed". Recently, Wright visited Elmira to speak with local veterans dealing with these health issues. He's also worked with federal lawmakers on the creation of House Bill 566 and Senate Bill 332 to get those end dates lifted. That includes Congressman Tom Reed.

"This is why we do this," said Rep. Reed. "It's to make sure that those voices are never forgotten. When it comes to our veterans, when they are deployed you stand with them. But most importantly, you also stand with them when they come home. That means from the day they come home, to the day they go back to their creator."

Wright is still working to get more congressmen and senators to sign onto the bills and push them through this year. But the fight doesn't stop there. Through research and talking with numerous local veterans, it became apparent that Agent Orange not only affects their health, but the health of their families. Men exposed to the herbicide can pass health conditions when they have children, who can then pass it on for several generations. 

"One son with ADHD," said Brill. "I have a granddaughter, her blood platelets should be 130,000 and hers are like 13. Gone through a pretty rough life at age 3. They were giving her steroids that you wouldn't give to a football player."

According to the VA's website, they only recognize birth defects associated with women who served in Vietnam and not men. WENY news spoke with the executive director of Birth Defect Research for Children, Betty Mekdeci, out of Orlando, Florida who has been studying birth defects from male and female Vietnam Veterans for over 30 years. 

"We have found impressive increases in learning, attention, immune, endocrine, childhood cancers, auto immune problems in the children of Vietnam Veterans when we compare them to the children of non-veterans," said Mekdeci.

As of right now, there is no legislation to address birth defects coming from male Vietnam veterans. WENY news reached out to out to the VA in Bath who issued a statement saying, in part: "...VA encourages all Veterans who feel their military service has affected their health to submit a claim, which will be adjudicated using the latest scientific and medical evidence.  VA has granted service connection for ailments associated with agent orange, and does so on an individual, case-by-case basis after a physical examination and a review of a Veteran's case, if the claimed condition is not one of the presumptive diseases."

While the veterans risked their lives in Vietnam decades ago, they're still willing to go to war to make sure one of their own isn't left behind. 

"I wish I could help more people," said Vietnam veteran, Dr. Steven Salsburg. 

"I think we have today," replied Wolfe. 

Without hesitation, Salsburg responded, "I hope so."