Agent of Doom

Former enemies unite against the continuing fallout from deadly defoliants of the Vietnam War

John Kahler didn't know much about the chemical that dripped from the C-123s he guarded at Tan Son Nhut air base as a strapping lad of 18. His air force job in Vietnam was to help keep the base secure, and he did so with a minimum of fuss.

Throughout his tour in the mid-'60s, Kahler watched the ungainly silver "spray birds" take off to spread defoliants on the sheltering forests and sustaining crops of the Vietcong, and return bullet-ridden -- the mysterious liquid dripping from the spray nozzles to form puddles on the tarmac. It was some kind of weed killer, that much Kahler understood. It came from the 55-gallon drums casually stored on the sprawling base with no signs to warn of potential hazards.

"I remember it smelled exactly like Weed-No-More," says Kahler, referring to a gardening product. "I remember using that as a kid around the house."

As a soldier in Vietnam, Kahler never suspected Agent Orange to be an enemy.
As a soldier in Vietnam, Kahler never suspected Agent Orange to be an enemy.
Schecter, accompanied by retired admiral Zumwalt, discusses his research with Senator Daschle.
Schecter, accompanied by retired admiral Zumwalt, discusses his research with Senator Daschle.

Those were the hopeful early years of the war, when the United States was just beginning to commit its full might to South Vietnam. To expose the wily guerrillas in their jungle redoubts, the air force launched Operation Ranch Hand. Between 1962 and 1971, the American military sprayed 18 million gallons of defoliants, 11 million of them Agent Orange.

The effects were not subtle, leaving entire swaths of forest and farmland brown and desolate. Khai Dao-Le, the owner of a Houston machine shop and a former infantryman in the South Vietnamese army, recalls vast stands of coconut and banana trees devoid of leaves, "like everything was burned." The spectacle of the desolation so enraged the American public that the Nixon administration halted the use of Agent Orange in April 1970.

When the United States withdrew in 1975, the humbled giant left more than a battered country in which one-fifth of the South Vietnam forests had been decimated. Agent Orange contains 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD), commonly referred to as dioxin. Three decades after the spraying stopped, Vietnam remains awash in one of the most dangerous man-made substances.

Not just the Vietnamese experienced a sustained spike in cancers, birth defects and other health woes associated with dioxin. Before anyone had ever heard of Gulf War Syndrome, American servicemen carried back puzzling afflictions from the jungles of Southeast Asia.

Now, with "the first war of the 21st century" under way in Afghanistan, some wonder if the United States has learned from the fallout of past conflicts. For years America turned its back on the deadly quagmire of Vietnam, resisting claims by U.S. veterans demanding compensation for diseases related to Agent Orange exposure.

One man, however, was less willing to close the book.

Dr. Arnold Schecter, a professor of environmental science at the Dallas campus of the University of Texas-Houston School of Public Health, has visited Vietnam more than 20 times since the war to study dioxin exposure. He has found that postwar politics can be more potent than the pollution itself. Schecter's research has made him a central and often controversial figure on the front lines of a diplomatic chess match as Vietnam and the United States have moved closer than ever to addressing the toxic legacy of Agent Orange. He also has worked closely with veterans to help them understand their continuing problems.

"Wars are not good for people's health," Schecter says. "Agent Orange contamination in Vietnam occurred 30 to 40 years ago, [but] it's not history for children nursing daily. It's not history for men and women eating contaminated fish daily. It's not history. It's a public health crisis today."

Schecter sits in his corner office, looking and sounding at 56 somewhat like Alan Greenspan, only with more hair. The clutter around him -- disheveled bookshelves and overrun desk -- reflects a blustery intellect focused on matters unrelated to housekeeping. His manner is generally subdued until the aggravations of the modern office intrude.

"This is bullshit," he barks into a telephone at a computer technician wrestling to guide the scientist through a kink in his desktop machine.

A pronounced humanitarian streak runs through the married father of three. But he often yields to a penchant for self-aggrandizement. He is not above boasting how his work has "changed the world" and played "such an important part in American history."

From 1967 through 1969, the Chicago native served in the Army Medical Corps at Fort Knox in Kentucky, tending to wounded soldiers. Like most Americans, he was ignorant about Agent Orange when it was being used to eradicate 1.5 million acres of forest and farmland a year in far-off Vietnam.

"I don't ever remember hearing the words 'Agent Orange' or 'dioxin' being mentioned," he says.

In 1981 Schecter was a professor of preventive medicine in the State University of New York system and health commissioner for a county in upstate New York. In downtown Binghamton, a fire broke out in an 18-story government building, spewing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Hundreds of people frightened about exposure turned to Schecter to find out the risks.

Schecter discovered that the PCBs, themselves carcinogenic, had been transformed by the fire into the far more hazardous dioxin. He recommended that cleanup efforts be halted immediately, and the building was closed. Then-New York governor Hugh Carey ridiculed the action. In a moment of bravado, he offered to come by and drink a glass of the PCBs.

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