Spring 2010 | Online Exclusives

Agent Orange: Pressing the Government to Take Responsibility

Words and Photographs by Wendy Watriss
Even when you aren’t sick, you’re afraid. Afraid you’re going to get sick, or that your children will be born sick. You live with this fear all the time. RELATED ARTICLE
"Steps Learned Along the Way: Redefining Photojournalism’s Power"
- Wendy Watriss

—Al Marcotte, Vietnam veteran

Thousands of men, their wives, and children still live with this same fear in the United States, in Australia, in South Korea, and in Southeast Asia. It’s the fear of having children born with birth defects, fear of developing cancer, partial paralysis, symptoms of premature aging, severe skin rashes, impaired circulation of blood and oxygen, and deterioration of the immune and neurological systems. (Story continues below.)

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For another photojournalist’s contemporary project on Agent Orange, see "A Personal Project: Third-Generation Victims of Agent Orange" by Justin Mott »

For many Vietnam War veterans and their families in the U.S. and elsewhere, this fear is a reality.

As a photojournalist, I became involved with veterans and their battle to find answers about Agent Orange. When I saw that getting my pictures about their situation published in prestigious magazines was not enough to make a difference in their lives, I took the photographs into the political arena. With veterans’ groups, we used the visual images as testimony before state and federal officials to finally get action.

Although the cause of these symptoms may never be totally defined, the nature of the veterans’ illnesses and the way they develop are closely related to the well-documented effects of toxic chemical poisoning. Factory workers, agricultural laborers, and civilians exposed to dioxin have experienced similar problems. Dioxin was a byproduct present in the tons of chemical defoliants, such as Agent Orange, used by the U.S. military in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia from the mid-1960’s to the early 1970’s. But no special precautions were taken to protect U.S. infantrymen who came in contact with the chemical.

For U.S. veterans who began to voice their fears in the late 1970’s, it has been a lonely and tragic struggle. For years, government agencies, many scientists, doctors and politicians dismissed their claims. The burden of proof was placed on them and their families. The 1984 $180 million class action U.S. court settlement with the chemical companies that produced Agent Orange gave the appearance of justice. In reality, it served to hide real evidence of responsibility and protect the U.S. government and U.S. military from further liability. The division of money from the settlement has barely covered the medical care and research needed for the thousands of veterans and their families who were part of the lawsuit.

Today many of the Vietnam veterans still endure health and psychological problems related to the chemicals used by the U.S. in Vietnam. Many are organizing again—engaging with a new generation of U.S. veterans to fight for the long-term medical and psychological care that they need for health problems related to the first Gulf War in the early 1990’s and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

5 Comments on Agent Orange: Pressing the Government to Take Responsibility
Lattie Payne says:
June 16, 2013 at 7:39pm
I was on the DMZ in Korea where Agent Orange was sprayed as well and have been working on benfits since 2003 and if you or anyone else thinks I will give up and I feel the same way about my V. Veterans as well and yes the wonderful goverment we have are the ones that sent us into harms way and now they all want to turn the check and have no idea what it is like for they never served.


Cathy Green says:
August 14, 2012 at 12:39pm
I have watched my husband age dramatically in the past 5 years. I am wondering if premature aging has anything to do with agent orange.
Lisa says:
February 23, 2012 at 4:11pm
Hi Wendy, I am writing to a myriad of politicians, press and Google for Veterans and Secretary of the VA. Can you please contact me to see if we can form an alliance?

My father died a week ago on Valentine's Day. He had 44 documented issues related to Agent Orange exposure.

He suffered for 44 years after returning from Vietnam War, mentally and physically. It was his dying wish that I bring focus and attention to this issue for others so they don't needlessly suffer going through the VA claims process as he did. He was in the claims fight process for 8 of the last years of his life and many times he almost gave up. He was hurt, frustrated and many times felt helpless to keep it up. He kept fighting for my mother who stood by him for 32 years through all of his illnesses, hospitalizations, surgeries, treatments and doctor appointments.

Together, perhaps we can make a difference of our armed forces past, present and future!

Thank you,

Lisa Klinkhammer

CEO of SargesList
ronald mcmahon says:
October 20, 2011 at 8:23pm
I am a veteran who served in vietnam. In 1996 i had tonsil cancer but could not get compensation for it as it is not on their list. I have since been diagnosed with copd, thyroid problems, and skin disorders, and also ptsd. I am still waiting for compensation in which the va is in no hurry to adress. I am told to be patient because they are backlogged on claims. In my opinion the backlog is all their fault because they don't want to admit to our problems on agent orange. If i live long enough maybe i'll get justice on my medical issues.
kepaa41 says:
October 8, 2011 at 5:47pm
I have seen first-hand agent orange's effects. I posted this on my facebook...our soldiers infected by this are growing old but it affects their offspring also...support is nessary to them..God bless them all
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