Agent of Doom
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."
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.
"That was obviously meant as a joke. A humorous quip. I'm certain of that," an incredulous Schecter told The New York Times. It wasn't, and Carey came to regret his brazen remark. Schecter also would have regrets. He wasn't reappointed to the post later that year, possibly because of his criticisms of state actions, he says.
Nevertheless, he continued on as a professor at the university and pushed ahead with his dioxin research. Information about this class of hydrocarbon was extremely limited at that time. Studies had shown that it caused a range of cancers, immune system deficiencies, reproductive problems and other maladies in animals. Less was known about the effects on humans.
Looking at blood and fat samples from those exposed to the hazardous fallout from the fire, and comparing them with a control group, Schecter made a startling discovery: Everyone, including individuals in the comparison group, bore traces of dioxin.
"There is no such thing as an un-dioxin-exposed person living in the world today," he says.
By 1983 Schecter was presenting the results of his research in medical journals and at scientific meetings. As his profile rose, he received a call from the Vietnam Veterans of America inviting him to return with them to the old battlegrounds to study dioxin damage. Determining the extent of exposure across Vietnam would help veterans understand the effects on their own health, says Paul Sutton, chairman of the VVA's Agent Orange committee.
"You have to understand what the health effect has been on Vietnamese who have been living in the hot spots," Sutton says.
Veterans who suspected that they had grown ill from Agent Orange had not been faring well. While the Veterans Administration (now the Department of Veterans Affairs) recognized a link between the herbicide and a skin condition called chloracne, it had denied tens of thousands of claims for death and disability benefits. Science was on the VA's side. The leading study on Agent Orange to date was an ongoing examination by the air force, which found the chemical's health impacts inconclusive.
Those who believed the defoliant was responsible for a host of ills concentrated their battle on another front: a civil action against chemical companies, including giants Dow Chemical and Monsanto, which manufactured Agent Orange. But the presiding federal judge in Brooklyn took a dim view of the claims, prompting a 1984 settlement for a fraction of what the plaintiffs had sought.
With the government and industry notching success after success in containing liability, an independent scientist's study could be dangerous. Schecter was undeterred. While he says that "Vietnam might as well have been Mars" to him then, he felt he could not pass up an opportunity to go where dioxin contamination was the worst in the world.
In contrast to their U.S. counterparts, Vietnamese officials were eager to expose problems caused by chemical warfare waged by the superpower. Still, Schecter and veterans' representatives were not expecting red-carpet treatment. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam remained hostile territory in 1984, an old adversary with no formal diplomatic relations with the United States. Their airplane in Hanoi was greeted by scowling men with guns.
The two-week tour turned out to be a whirlwind of bureaucratic pageantry in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). Schecter sat through tea ceremonies and tedious readings of communist policy statements. He saw hospital patients suffering from cancer. He also was guided to the countryside, where he viewed barren landscapes in place of once-lush forests, and peasants with hideously deformed babies.
What Schecter observed was typical, says Thong Nguyen, a spokeswoman at the Vietnamese embassy in Washington, D.C. She estimates that more than one million people in her country have suffered from Agent Orange, including 150,000 babies with deformities.
"You can see that in every city in [certain] provinces in Vietnam," she says. "The victims could be the veterans or the simple people who just lived in the area at that time."
As horrific as the suffering was, Schecter was not convinced that Agent Orange was the culprit.
"Every country in the world, unfortunately, has children born with malformations," he says. He wondered if he was being used "as part of communist propaganda against our own government" and remained determined to base any conclusions on hard science.
To that end, Schecter met with several of Vietnam's foremost dioxin researchers, among them Le Cao Dai, now director of the Agent Orange Victims Fund for the Vietnam Red Cross. A small professorial type with thick glasses and unruly hair, Dai had supervised underground hospitals for wounded Vietcong along the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the war and similar operations against the French decades earlier. Schecter immediately took to his cerebral counterpart, dubbing him the Albert Einstein of Agent Orange researchers.
Schecter collected human tissue samples in the areas of heaviest spraying in the South and comparison samples from unsprayed regions in the North. What he discovered astounded him. People in the sprayed areas below the 17th parallel -- the old dividing line between North and South -- had dioxin levels higher than 100 parts per trillion. Americans, by contrast, average two parts per trillion.
"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."
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.
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.
"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."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.
- Chron Endorses a Homophobe for the HISD School Board, Again
Mon., Oct. 19, 7:00pm
Wed., Oct. 21, 7:00pm
Sat., Oct. 24, 11:00am
Wed., Oct. 28, 7:00pm
- Ratings Wars: 5 Reasons the Texans Will Outpace the Astros on TV Thursday Night
- Colts-Texans, Week 5 — Four Things to Watch For