Agent of Doom

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

Portier speculates that with the two countries on the cusp of normalizing trade relations, Hanoi was reluctant to reopen the political Pandora's box of Agent Orange.

"We were just normalizing relations and there were a lot of touchy issues associated with it," Portier says. "Too much was happening too quickly."

Schecter already was troubled by what he recalls as a "schizo" trip when matters worsened shortly before the group's departure. He was making his way through the Hanoi airport when several men in unfamiliar uniforms ordered him into a side room. There, grim-faced customs officers rifled through his luggage and seized clinical records and dozens of samples of food and human tissue. Others in the American entourage received similar treatment. Schecter was furious.

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.

"Someone made the decision to really in a very clumsy way give the American government a slap in the face," he says. "The ironic thing to all of us was that after the Vietnamese wanted Agent Orange research to go on for so long and America resisted with a vengeance…all of a sudden positions were reversed."

He left without his materials. When the plane made a stopover in Bangkok, Schecter called reporters and vented, raising doubts about any future binational work.

"If Vietnam wants us to help with health research, they can't confiscate scientific papers at the airport," he groused to The Associated Press.

Some found the "big stink" that Schecter raised almost as damaging as the actions of the Vietnamese. "Arnie's not very smart politically," says Sutton of the Vietnam Veterans of America.

Despite the incident, Congress normalized trade relations that July. But lawmakers were clearly alarmed. Senator Daschle urged the Vietnamese to return the confiscated materials, which would not happen for more than two years. Health and environmental collaboration would not go forward until policy makers could establish protocols to avoid future misunderstandings, says Clint Highfill, a Daschle aide.

"Once the samples got seized, everything got put on hold and everyone became a lot more wary of the project," Highfill says.

On the domestic front, veterans continued to make gains. The National Academy of Sciences connected herbicide exposure to spina bifida. In 1996 Congress required the VA to provide compensation and care for veterans' children affected by that neurological disorder.

The following year, the World Health Organization made a definitive finding that dioxin causes human cancer. Two years later, the National Institutes of Health added dioxin to its list of carcinogens.

Schecter, who moved from New York to his position at UT in 1999, continued making annual trips to Vietnam. A 2000 visit yielded a startling discovery: In Bien Hoa, a city northeast of Ho Chi Minh City, residents who ate locally caught fish had dioxin levels 135 times higher than those of a comparison group in the North. Rather than being flushed from the ecosystem, dioxin had become more concentrated in the three decades since the spraying stopped.

More than ever, Schecter saw evidence of an ongoing public health "emergency."

Meanwhile, Daschle and a handful of other lawmakers continued to iron out the details of a comprehensive binational study in Vietnam. The breakthrough came this summer when both countries agreed to undertake a joint investigation of dioxin contamination. It will begin with a workshop in Vietnam next year. Congress set aside $850,00 for the initiatives.

"I'm delighted we're finally moving in the right direction," Schecter says. "I would expect in a few years this would be $10 million."

Portier of NIEHS says that American scientists will help their Vietnamese counterparts understand the extent of the contamination and offer ideas about dealing with it.

"We're certainly not going to clean up the problem," Portier says.

Sitting in his cozy workspace at the VA regional office building on Almeda, John Kahler clearly has come a long way for a man who once was determined to bury his Vietnam past. The numerous plaques and certificates of appreciation for his work as a benefits advocate with the Paralyzed Veterans of America reflect his commitment to his fellow veterans.

These accolades have lifted his spirits, but Kahler's body is racked with trouble. The 56-year-old says he can barely feel his feet, which he keeps clad in special VA-issued dress shoes. He fears that his diabetes may cost him his legs.

The VA announced last year that it would add diabetes to the growing list of ailments for which veterans could receive compensation. About 9,700 veterans are receiving benefits for a range of diseases related to exposure to defoliants, according to the Vietnam Veterans of America. But that represents a mere fraction of the roughly 350,000 diagnoses of chloracne, cancer and other Agent Orange-related complications, VVA officials say.

Despite his slow road to justice, Kahler reveals patriotic sentiments. He says he supports the new U.S. war against terrorism. And despite his condition, he is ambivalent about the use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

"If it saved lives, it was worth it," he says. He pauses before adding, "But knowing the problems that have been created by it, I don't know."

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