Agent of Doom

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

"It is extremely easy to find elevated levels of dioxin in areas where Agent Orange spraying had occurred," he concluded.

The trip marked the first of 23 Schecter would make to Southeast Asia. He has used air force records to determine where Agent Orange spraying occurred, and has collected blood and tissue samples from more than 2,500 people across Vietnam. He has analyzed breast milk, fish, meat and dairy products, as well as sediments and soil, relying on the generosity of a worldwide consortium of chemists to help with the lab work.

More than three decades after the spraying stopped, Schecter says, Vietnam remains "the largest dioxin lab in the world."

Schecter meets with Vietnamese Vice President Nguyen Thi Binh and two of his aides.
Schecter meets with Vietnamese Vice President Nguyen Thi Binh and two of his aides.

After being discharged from the air force in 1967, a restless John Kahler returned home to the Detroit area. He became a cop and then a private investigator. Then he tried his hand as a service station owner and insurance salesman. The one thing he did not do was become active in any veterans organizations, preferring to put the war behind him.

A large laconic fellow with pale blue eyes, Kahler says he "came out of the closet" as a veteran in 1985 after meeting fellow ex-servicemen at a bowling alley and reminiscing about the war over a few beers.

"It gave me a good feeling," he says in a Midwestern patois.

But he got a grim dose of reality that same year when he was diagnosed with diabetes. Kahler first believed the disease was just the latest manifestation of a family curse, one that had afflicted both his father and grandfather. But after going to work for the Vietnam Veterans of America in 1988 and becoming versed in dioxin, he wasn't so sure.

Health studies began to make clear that dioxin was more than just a skin irritant, as the military maintained. In 1985 research, the EPA found that dioxin likely was a human carcinogen. Later, a lawsuit brought by the National Veterans Legal Services Program caused a judge to force the VA to draft new rules for Agent Orange claims and reconsider many of the thousands that it had denied.

In 1990 the VA announced that veterans who had developed certain kinds of cancers would get disability compensation. The following year Congress passed the Agent Orange Act. Authored by Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the law directed the National Academy of Sciences to make biennial reviews of the latest research on the herbicide's effects, opening the door for veterans to be compensated for a variety of conditions.

Kahler's own health continued to decline. By 1991 the bearish man had developed hypertension. He also was troubled by several strange knots that had developed under his skin. Increasingly, his mind turned to that mysterious liquid splashed on the tarmac at Tan Son Nhut. But like many veterans, he could not be completely sure it was the cause.

"You can't really say where it would have come from," he says. "I would assume it is…related to Agent Orange."

Veterans with dioxin-related afflictions acquired an unlikely ally. Elmo Zumwalt Jr. had been the top naval commander in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970. He had ordered the spraying of the herbicide against guerrilla snipers who were picking off his sailors at a rate of six per month. By dousing thick foliage at the water's edge, Zumwalt felt he was able to push back the unseen gunmen and greatly diminish casualties.

After retirement, Zumwalt realized the dark side of the defoliant. His eldest son, who had been a patrol boat skipper in the heavily sprayed Mekong Delta, died of cancer in 1988. The admiral believed that Agent Orange was responsible for his son's death, as well as his grandson's birth defects.

Zumwalt became chairman of the Agent Orange Coordinating Council, which comprised numerous veterans groups. He frequently conferred with Schecter and shared the scientist's belief that more comprehensive research was needed in Vietnam -- with U.S. aid. The issue, however, was not a clear-cut matter of science. The Vietnamese government held the United States liable for the massive contamination. The United States, for its part, has a policy of not compensating for damages caused in war.

"It definitely becomes politicized," says Christopher Portier, director of the environmental toxicology program for the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

In 1994 Zumwalt took Schecter on his journey back to Vietnam to lay the groundwork for future collaboration between the two nations. The duo met with the country's top leaders and scientists, and saw the malformed and sick patients.

"He was obviously very moved by this," Schecter says of Zumwalt, who died last year.

Zumwalt helped put the effort to normalize relations with Vietnam on even surer footing with his high-profile trip. In early 1995 the two countries established low-level ties.

At the behest of Congress in 1995, Portier of NIEHS led a delegation of government scientists going to Vietnam to confer with scientists there and to assess Vietnamese research on dioxin. Nobody guessed this journey would end in a bizarre international incident, with Schecter smack in the middle.

Portier says the World Health Organization had signaled to the American team that issues of pesticides and herbicides would be up for discussion. That was the case during the first week in Ho Chi Minh City when the delegation met with longtime colleagues of Schecter's. The next week, a group of Vietnamese officials in Hanoi steadfastly declined to discuss Agent Orange.

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