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Some Vietnam Vets Left to Wonder Whether Agent Orange Made Them Sick

Erin Toner

More than four decades ago, the U.S. military blanketed Vietnam with Agent Orange and researchers continue to find ways the toxic herbicide has sickened the nation's veterans.

The U.S. military used Agent Orange to deforest land during the Vietnam War.

To date, researchers blame Agent Orange for causing 14 illnesses in veterans, who are eligible for federal compensation and health care.

But some Vietnam vets are sick with conditions not on the official list, but insist Agent Orange is the cause.

However for many purported connections, there is no proof, at least so far.

Jim Gumm lives in the small house he grew up in on the west side of Milwaukee. Photographs of his parents dot the living room walls. His old dog tags hang over one frame.

Forty-five-years ago, Gumm was stationed at a small air base tucked between rice paddies in southwestern Vietnam. He recalls U.S. transport planes spraying Agent Orange around the base, to defoliate the land.

“This was not gentle stuff and you know, we had to walk through it. And you didn’t know what it was. That’s the problem. Some people got boils, some people got sick,” Gumm says.

Agent Orange is named for the color of a band painted around barrels that stored the herbicide. The military claimed it would not hurt humans. That turned out to be dead wrong – for Vietnam, where hundreds of thousands of children have had severe birth defects. And for U.S. servicemen and women.

Gumm says after walking through areas sprayed with Agent Orange, his pants would be soaked, and his legs became dry and itchy. They got worse over the next 45 years.

“The color of my flesh has changed. The skin does not grow properly. It dries out and flakes. Sometimes I lose feeling in my feet. You get up and you go, Whoa! It itches, can be painful,” Gumm says.

Credit Erin Toner
Jim Gumm says skin problems on his legs started in Vietnam and have gotten worse over the past 45 years.

He pulls up his pant leg, revealing purplish, scaly skin from his knee down to his ankle. Gumm says doctors blame old age.

“I think personally it’s chemical related. What else could it be? The rest of my body’s fine,” he says.

Unless Gumm can prove a direct correlation between his ailment and Agent Orange, he doesn’t qualify for disability benefits.

Right now, the list of 14 so-called “presumptive” illnesses includes Type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, such as lung and prostate, and a skin disease called chloracne. The secretary of the VA decides whether to add new conditions based on biennial reports from the Institute of Medicine, an independent agency that advises the government.

Brad Flohr of the VA says the federal government itself also studies the health of those who served in Vietnam.

“Developing information as to particular types of diseases they’re experiencing, which may not be on the list of the 14 Agent Orange presumptives. But going down in years from now, should there be an increase of some significance in this category of veterans, then VA could potentially take some action based on those studies,” Flohr says.

Flohr says veterans with conditions not on the list can submit evidence from doctors or scientific journals that indicate a link.

“And we have granted, I don’t know the numbers, but we have granted claims like that,” Flohr says.

Flohr assures vets that the potential cost of compensating them is never a factor in declaring new, presumptive diseases.

But John Margowski is skeptical. He was a young airman in the early 70s and says he was exposed to Agent Orange while serving on a base in Thailand.

“I guess I have to say we were probably pretty ignorant about it,” Margowski says.

Margowski points out that 25 years ago, the Reagan administration blocked a federal study on the health effects of Agent Orange fearing a potential, extraordinary cost of compensation. And, recently, revelations rocked the VA about vets waiting months and even years for health care and disability payments.

Margowski is an officer with Vietnam Veterans of America. It wants the U.S. to fund an independent commission that would take over Agent Orange research.

“Where they would look at all the studies that have been done internationally for dioxin exposure, and let’s really try to medically find out what’s going on,” Margowski says.

Margowski says he understands good research takes time, but vets such as Jim Gumm don’t know if they have that luxury.

“I’ll probably be dead by then but you never know,” Gumm says.

Some vets are also worried about decades into the future. They wonder whether their exposure to Agent Orange was the cause of health problems in their children or grandchildren. Right now, the government provides compensation for offspring with specific birth defects that resulted in a permanent physical or mental disability.

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