The Department of Veterans Affairs official site features something known as an Agent Orange Registry, which is designed to help veterans, civilians, and families of those who were exposed to Agent Orange–an herbicide used tactically during the Vietnam War against the Viet Cong.
A United States military operation codenamed Operation Ranch Hand (see below) was responsible for the deployment of more than 20 million gallons of Agent Orange and other herbicides in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos from 1961 to 1971. U.S. involvement in the region included secret operations in the Laotian Civil War from 1953–1975.
History.com reports Air Force Researcher Dr. James Clary, who was associated with Operation Ranch Hand, said in a 1988 letter to a U.S. Senator, “…because the material was to be used on the enemy, none of us were overly concerned. We never considered a scenario in which our own personnel would become contaminated with the herbicide.” Some sources report as many as 400,000 died or were severely affected by Agent Orange, a high price to pay for that lack of forethought.
Where Agent Orange Was Used
What follows isn’t meant as a comprehensive description of all tactical deployments of the deadly compound known as Agent Orange but rather as a list of duty locations where American troops may have been exposed.
Exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam
- The Department of Veterans Affairs presumes exposure to Agent Orange for those who served in Vietnam, on land, or on a vessel operating in certain portions of Vietnam and in the waters between Vietnam and Cambodia.
Herbicide Tests and Storage
- The Department of Veterans Affairs states that Department of Defense herbicide tests and storage at military installations (overseas AND in the United States) may be a source of exposure for some veterans.
Korean Demilitarized Zone
- U.S. forces that served along the demilitarized zone in Korea between Sept. 1, 1967, and Aug. 31, 1971 may have been exposed.
Thailand Military Bases
- Anyone who served at a U.S. military base in Thailand or at a Royal Thai Air Force base between Jan. 9, 1962, and May 7, 1975 may have been exposed to Agent Orange.
C-123 Airplanes and Agent Orange Residue
- The VA says there is possible Agent Orange exposure for those who served with C-123 flight, ground maintenance, and aeromedical crew members before and after Vietnam.
Why Agent Orange Is A Problem
The chemical makeup of Agent Orange included dioxin, a major toxin that causes cancer, birth defects, psychological problems, and neurological problems.
The side effects among those exposed to Agent Orange—friendly forces and foes alike–were not restricted to the geographic tours of duty where such agents were used. The war came home for veterans and families as symptoms (see below for a list of medical conditions caused by Agent Orange) from exposure made themselves manifest in troops and non-combatants alike at home.
Operation Ranch Hand=Chemical Warfare
A lot of people won’t believe (at first) that the United States engaged in chemical warfare. But it did, in the form of Operation Ranch Hand, mentioned above. This aggressive herbicide program officially ran from 1961 to 1971. The United States military deployed multiple herbicides including Agent Orange across more than 4 million acres of Vietnam. Why?
The official reasons given were to destroy cover and crops, denying the NVA and Viet Cong troops shelter and resources. Operation Ranch Hand was not limited to airborne spraying or “bombing.” Trucks and other land vehicles were also used.
And the damage was not limited to areas held by NVA or Viet Cong troops. Crops and water used by allies in the southern portion of Vietnam also suffered from the U.S. deploying Agent Orange without considering or respecting the lethality of the chemical warfare used.
Operation Ranch Hand actually began as Operation Hades in 1961 when the initial test deployment of Agent Orange was performed. The operation was re-designated as Operation Ranch Hand and C-123 cargo planes were tasked with spraying by air.
Agent Orange, Agent Pink, Agent Green
Agent Orange was not the only compound used in Operation Ranch Hand. Those examining this issue for the first time might be horrified to learn that Agents Pink, Green, Purple, Blue and others were also used. These compounds, as reported by The History Channel, were manufactured by companies such as Dow Chemical, Monsanto, and others.
Agent Orange itself is said to be one of the most or the most widely used and came in four strength levels from one to three and a “Super Orange” according to History.com. Agent Orange was deployed so frequently that it wound up being used most of the time compared to other versions mentioned above.
The Lingering Problems Associated With Agent Orange
Because Agent Orange contains dioxin, anywhere it is deployed will be contaminated for years. It will be found in the water, the ground, and the food chain. Dioxin can be consumed via contaminated fish, birds or other animals eaten for food–in cases where dioxin was used as part of Agent Orange, indirect human exposure to dioxin (regardless of its source) is often via the food chain according to some sources. Dioxin is very toxic even at low doses.
General symptoms of Agent Orange exposure can include
- Changes in skin appearance
- Liver problems
- The skin disease Chloracne
- Type 2 diabetes
- Immune system disorders
- Nerve disorders
- Muscular problems
- Heart disease
In the United States, veterans and their families affected by exposure to Agent Orange may experience a variety of illnesses and diseases including but not limited to the following as described by the Department of Veterans Affairs:
- AL Amyloidosis
- Chronic B-cell Leukemias
- Chloracne (or similar “acneform” disease)
- Type 2 Diabetes
- Hodgkin’s Disease
- Ischemic Heart Disease
- Multiple Myeloma
- Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma
- Parkinson’s Disease
- Early-Onset Peripheral Neuropathy
- Porphyria Cutanea Tarda
- Prostate Cancer
- Respiratory Cancers
- Soft Tissue Sarcomas (other than osteosarcoma, chondrosarcoma, Kaposi’s sarcoma, or mesothelioma)
What To Do If You Are Concerned
Agent Orange and the diseases associated with it are a serious concern for the veteran community. If you are concerned about possible exposure (yourself or a loved one) the Department of Veterans Affairs can help.
The VA Agent Orange Registry is one resource vets and families have–eligible veterans may qualify for a free Agent Orange Registry exam to identify potential health issues associated with exposure. Dependents and survivors may also be eligible for VA benefits associated with Agent Orange depending on circumstances. Visit the VA official site for more information.
Agent Orange Today
Agent Orange was banned by the United States government in 1971. Remaining stockpiles of the substance were removed and relocated to Johnston Atoll and destroyed in 1978. Agent Orange is no longer used as a tactical defoliant by the United States military.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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