Jim Hackbarth was a helicopter door gunner in the Vietnam War.
“Some people asked me one time, ‘Were you ever in contact with Agent Orange?’ ” he said. “I said, funny you mentioned that. We landed in it, we breathed it, we got sprayed with it.”
Agent Orange was a powerful defoliant that the U.S. military used to destroy Vietnamese jungles and deny ground cover to enemy forces. For decades, the flora-killing chemical brew has been linked to cancer and other health problems for veterans, but new research is showing the effects can run for generations.
“I’ve seen forests of dead trees,” said Hackbarth, of West Bend, Wis. “On guard duty at night, we’d be on the perimeter and there would be no vegetation for 200 yards out beyond the perimeter. You ever ask the question why?”
Hackbarth has diabetes.
“My first daughter was born with her intestines outside her stomach,” he said. His second daughter was born with chronic hearing problems and learning disabilities. Both daughters were born with the birth defect Ankyloglossia, commonly known as “tongue-tied.”
And his wife lost a baby at 61/2 months, with severe birth defects.
His story was typical of those told by dozens of Vietnam veterans who testified Thursday at a town hall meeting in Wichita on the effects of Agent Orange and other toxins used in the war.
About 200 veterans from across the nation attended the meeting, sponsored by Vietnam Veterans of America, at the Hyatt Regency hotel.
One after another, they cataloged a long list of ailments – children born with birth defects, learning disabilities, asthma, rare cancers, skin diseases, severe allergies and a host of other health problems – they think are related to their wartime exposure to toxic substances.
Others privately conceded they have similar problems but didn’t speak, either for privacy reasons, because they’ve already told their story in other meetings, or because the meeting had a set time limit and they didn’t get the chance.
The veterans want to open a new front in the war on Agent Orange, seeking research and treatment for genetic damage they believe was passed down to their children and grandchildren.
They have at least one powerful ally in Washington.
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., urged the group to call their representatives in Congress to support Senate Bill 1602, the Toxic Exposure Research and Military Family Support Act.
The bill would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to set up a research center to examine the long-term consequences of Agent Orange exposure, Moran said.
It would also require the VA to provide treatment for children, grandchildren and future generations affected by Agent Orange, even if they didn’t serve in the military, he said.
“That would be a relatively new experience when it comes to health care within the Department of Veterans Affairs,” which is “Can we care for our children and grandchildren who, as we heard, through no fault of their own, suffer from emotional, medical and physical conditions as a result of exposure to toxic substances?”
Moran said one problem veterans and their families have is proving that their health conditions are service related.
“We have been an advocate for the Department of Veterans Affairs expanding the benefits of health care they provide … for circumstances that sometimes haven’t been able to be proved scientifically, medically,” Moran said.
“We ought not be legalistic about this, we ought to be caring and compassionate,” he said. “And we ought to be able to infer people who were healthy before their service who are no longer healthy that there is a consequence to their military service and the Department of Veterans Affairs ought to recognize those conditions and afflictions.
“We’ve made some progress, but we’re certainly short of all the progress that needs to be made.”
Organizers urged veterans who think they may have an Agent Orange-related health problem to contact an accredited veterans service officer and file a claim.
Roland Mayhew, a Marine veteran who served as a radio operator on reconnaissance missions, said that can be a hard sell to Vietnam veterans who want to put the war behind them.
“We have a lot of veterans who don’t like to step forward,” he said.
The consequence of that can be a loss not only of health benefits for the veteran, but also death benefits for a surviving spouse, he said.
Advocates have learned they can often get better results when they reach out to the veterans’ wives, he said.
“Vietnam veterans are not joiners,” he said. “The women are probably more likely to listen to you.”