Effects of Agent Orange, burn pits take center stage in veterans' town hall in Montana

A panel of experts look on during a briefing at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Tuesday, April 30, 2019, at the start of a short documentary video on troops who suffered from exposure to toxins released from burn pits at overseas locations.


By MIKE KORDENBROCK | Billings Gazette, Mont. | Published: June 1, 2019

(Tribune News Service) — Jeff Ferguson wants local veterans to be proactive in seeking help for themselves and for future generations whose lives could be affected by exposure to Agent Orange and burn pits.

That's why he's hosting a town hall meeting from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday at Petro Hall at Montana State University Billings. Other organizations involved with the town hall event include Vietnam Veterans of America and the MSUB Military and Veterans Success Center.

"There's a lot of medical problems going on from generation to generation, so we're encouraging all the dependents and veterans to come on out and hear all the effects that are happening," Ferguson said. "There's a lot of stuff out there that was totally unsafe for soldiers and it's affecting more than just the soldiers. It's being carried down the line."

Ferguson is the chapter commander for the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association Chapter 46-3. He is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, military operations that were part of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that began in 2003 and 2001.

Those wars remain ongoing today.

A main topic will be getting veterans and their dependents to submit information to registries documenting medical issues they believe are connected to Agent Orange or exposure to burn pits.

Agent Orange is a chemical mixture the United States sprayed in massive quantities as an herbicide during the Vietnam War. The mixture is now known to be harmful to humans, containing chemicals like dioxin, a carcinogen.

Ferguson also wants to encourage people to submit information to the VA's burn pit registry, an information collection program meant to better understand health effects of waste and trash disposal burn pits and other airborne hazards for veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation New Dawn, Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. The same registry also collects information from military members who were in Djibouti, Africa after Sept. 11, 2001, or in the Southwest Asia theater of operations after Aug. 2, 1990.

Knowing how long it took for Vietnam Veterans to get government assistance for Agent Orange exposure gives Ferguson a sense of urgency.

"We don't want to sit here and go through what the Vietnam Veterans did," he said. "In reality we have not even begun to scratch the surface when it comes down to the burn pit (effects) and the causes."

The Department of Veteran's Affairs now acknowledges exposure to Agent Orange as a cause of several cancers including prostate cancer, respiratory cancers, soft tissue sarcoma, multiple myeloma, Hodgkin's disease and chronic B-cell leukemia.

Additionally, the VA believes other diseases caused by contact with Agent Orange include Parkinson's disease, ischemic heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, perhipheral neuropathy and chloracne. There are also two "rare illnesses" the VA says are caused by exposure to Agent Orange.

One of those is poryphyra cutanea tarda, which is described as an illness that causes thinning and blistering of skin due to liver problems. The other "rare illness" is AL amyloidosis, caused by amyloid buildup in body tissues. Amyloid is an abnormal protein, and its buildup in nerves, the heart, kidneys and liver can cause damage over time.

The VA does allow people to file disability claims for illnesses they do not list as being caused by Agent Orange exposure.

Addressing the effects of Agent Orange on dependents, including the wives and children of Vietnam Veterans, is a topic that continues to gain momentum.

In 2016 the nonprofit news organization ProPublica published an analysis with the Virginia-Pilot newspaper showing they found "the odds of having a child with birth defects were more than one-third higher for veterans exposed to Agent Orange than for those who weren't."


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