A Personal Story: Agent Orange

By Rosalie E. Leposky

Last year the Air Force released the results of a 1997 Ranch Hand physical-examination study of 1,000 Air Force veterans, proving more of the consequences of exposure to Agent Orange and its dioxin contaminants. This announcement did little to help my former neighbor, Robert Wallace Calvert, a retired U.S. Marine Corps Sergeant who died at the age of 49 on September 27, 1997, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

        Dr. Joel Michalek, principal investigator of the Air Force study, said in a released statement that "at the end of 15 years of follow-up, we have still found no consistent evidence in the Ranch Hand population that dioxin exposure is related to cancer."  Others have long suggested that in laboratory animals dioxin has been shown to be carcinogenic. aologo.jpg (98670 bytes)

The Department of Veterans Affairs and National Academy of Sciences now will discuss the finer points of the results of the Ranch Hand Study about adding diabetes to a list of diseases possiblye linked to Agent Orange exposure.

On April 15, 2000, then-VA Secretary Togo West Jr. rejected a departmental recommendation from the VA's Agent Orange Task Force that the federal government should compensate thousands of veterans believed suffering from adult-onset diabetes.

Huge Healthcare Expenses

While the studies go on, veterans and their families are saddled with huge healthcare expenses and continue to be turned away by federal agencies that should help them, including the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Between 1962 and 1971, U.S. Air Force planes sprayed about 11 million gallons of herbicides. The one used most often was given the code name Agent Orange. Others had the code names Agents Blue and White, CS, and Malathion. (The latter is a common insecticide.)

Our neighbor, Bob Calvert, fought as hard to get on the Agent Orange registry as he did in Vietnam. "Bob wished to be included on the registry," says his widow, Becky Calvert. "For historical reasons, he had to go to the Veterans Administration and prove he was exposed to Agent Orange. He wanted the Veterans Administration and the Department of Defense to know how men and their families are affected."

Calvert, a qualified parachutist and scuba diver, served in the I Corps area of northern South Vietnam in 1969 and 1970. Until he became too ill, Calvert used his Marine training as a diving member of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientific-research team. When finally diagnosed by his private physician in 1994, multiple myeloma covered 80 percent of Calvert's six-foot, four-inch body.

Most Won't Talk

The Calverts are exceptional in their willingness to discuss their concerns. Far too often, Vietnam veterans are unwilling to talk about their experiences. In some cases, relatives may not know that a husband or father served in Vietnam. For veterans' children, the terrible possibility of mysterious medical problems exists.

           Perhaps the best-known Agent Orange victim is Lieutenant Elmo R. Zumwalt III, who died of cancer in 1988. He was the son of Admiral Elmo R. "Bud " Zumwalt Jr., USN (Ret.), a Chief Naval Officer during the Vietnam era, who died at the age of 80 early in 2000. The Zumwalts co-authored My Father, My Son (MacMillan Publishing Co., 1986) on their Vietnam experiences. Adm. Zumwalt lobbied for Agent Orange research. Because of Zumwalt and others' efforts, the Department of Veterans Affairs now provides treatment to veterans and their families for certain cancers and other Agent Orange-related diseases.  


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Admiral Elmo R. "Bud " Zumwalt Jr., USN (Ret.)

Bob Calvert and his wife, Becky, shared a strong conviction that Vietnam vets and their family should get regular, comprehensive medical examinations. Today Mrs. Calvert encourages all Vietnam vets and their families to contact Agent Orange support organizations to learn their legal and medical rights. These organizations include the Agent Orange Resource Center in the National Veterans Legal Services Program, 2001 S Street, N.W., Suite 610, Washington, D.C., 20009-1125, telephone 202-797-8364, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, and Vietnam Veterans of America.

Listen to your body

No symptom or pain is too small. Becky Calvert recalls that her husband's first signs of a problem were constant back pain and itching. "Bob thought he was allergic to something in our yard. Later he had a golfball-sized growth removed from his leg. Bob's surgeon couldn't determine what it was. He kept tissue for later identification.

"Nothing showed up on Bob's X-rays or blood test," she recalls. "Later when a black light was used, we could see the Chloracne fungus that covered his body, and eventually a urine test indicated his problem."

Rosalie E. Leposky is managing partner of Ampersand Communications, a news-features syndicate based in Miami, Florida. 

For More Information

Department of Veterans Affairs - http://www.va.gov/
I Corps  - http://www.lewispublishing.com/map1.htm
National Veterans Legal Services Program - http://www.nvlsp.org
Ranch Hand - http://www.brooks.af.mil/AFRL/HED/hedb/afhs/afhs.shtml
Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund - http://www.vvmf.org
Vietnam Veterans of America - http://www.vva.org

Ampersand Communications