The month of October has been designated as Agent Orange month so I can’t let this month pass without commenting on it. I’m no scientist, so it is not my intent to offer any scientific data.
My first contact with Agent Orange was invisible. I didn’t know I had met Agent Orange, but I and several thousands of Vietnam veterans were exposed to the defoliant in Vietnam without our knowledge.
When I was in Vietnam in 1968/69, I had never heard of Agent Orange; nor had any of my fellow infantrymen. I can recollect only a few instances upon reflection where I saw areas which were once green with vegetation that had turned brown. I can tell you with all honesty we obviously noticed the color changes in a few instances, but I can’t remember a single person commenting about it or why it had happened. We had two much to worry about trying to stay alive that a fluctuation in the color of some vegetation really didn’t enter into our consciousness at that time.
It was maybe ten years after the war, that I was talking with a county veteran service officer in Maryland who suggested that I get a medical check up for Agent Orange. I had to ask him about Agent Orange because I was still ignorant about it. He explained what he knew and he mentioned the VA was giving free physicals to Vietnam veterans. I made an appointment with the VA and I received the most thorough physical examination I have received in my life. At the end of the exam, I asked the attending female physician why I was receiving such a comprehensive examination and she said because they suspected Agent Orange was a carcinogen.
Following the medical exam, I started receiving quarterly newsletters from the VA with information about Agent Orange and what illnesses they would cover and today they cover up to ten or 12 different very serious medical issues.
The reader may wonder how was I or other soldiers exposed to Agent Orange. The chemicals within Agent Orange were designed to be used as a defoliant (like Round-Up) to kill the dense vegetation in areas of Vietnam. The idea was to kill a lot of the vegetation in specified areas so the enemy had fewer places to hide. The chemicals were sprayed overhead by planes and helicopters so the residue fell to the ground into rivers, streams, rice paddies and onto vegetation of all kinds. Anything below the spray area including soldiers walking on the ground would be impacted by the chemicals.
Often we wouldn’t get resupplied on a timely basis and existing in a tropical climate we had to get water from other sources. Often we filled our canteens wherever we found water. We would dip our canteens into a river for instance keeping two fingers over the inlet portion of the top of the canteen narrow enough to allow water to enter but tight enough so leeches could not enter the canteen (blood sucking leeches were a horrible problem in Vietnam). Then we would drop a water purifying tablet into the canteen and shake it a bit and the operating theory was the water was safe to drink. All of us drank the water because besides being very thirsty we were assured the water was safe to drink provided we used the purifying tablet. We also used the river water to wash our faces or occasionally to bathe. We didn’t know at the time that the water had been contaminated by our own government with Agent Orange.
In the central highlands where we operated, we encountered high elephant grass on a regular basis. Because of the tropical heat, we either rolled our fatigue shirt sleeves up or we opted to wear a flak jacket without a shirt. When we walked through the elephant grass four to five feet high on our patrols invariably because of the shape of this grass, we would suffer slight cuts to our arms (I likened these cuts to irritating paper cuts you can get on occasion). These cuts, if not treated with Neosporin, would fester and get infected. Most of us just ignored them because we deemed them so insignificant. However, they were open sores and when brushing against vegetation these openings could have been a port of entry for Agent Orange.
At night, we would hunker down, and when not on guard duty, or in a foxhole, we slept on the ground. If we were operating in an area that had been sprayed with Agent Orange, then unknowingly we were sleeping on vegetation that had been contaminated.
Additionally, the air that we were breathing, was air in some cases, air that could have been contaminated by Agent Orange.
So, the reader now understands, there were many ways infantrymen could have been exposed to Agent Orange. Today, anyone who served in Vietnam is considered by the VA to have been exposed to Agent Orange.
About five years ago, my platoon mate Al Torsiello and Ricki E. Bellos and I wrote ten songs about the Vietnam experience and snippets of these songs can be heard at www.vietnamthereandback.com. We all felt we had covered most of the issues covering our time in Vietnam and we did cover the issues we knew of at that time. After the CD was released, I regretted not having addressed Agent Orange.
I composed a melody and contacted my co-writer/lyricist at the time Ricki E. Bellos and expressed my concern that I felt we needed to address. She crafted the lyrics and a buddy of mine from Ft. Myers Beach, Dave Collaton, sang and recorded the vocals to a song we titled “Dear Agent Orange”. Instrumentation and production was done by Appleton, WI native Jim Hendrick and his fellow band member Gary Shaw performed the “Beatleish” sounding guitar work.
In my opinion, the song came out so well that I thought it, and the topic, was deserving of a music video. I contacted my sister Colleen Miller who together with Jim Hendrick and myself produced a very thought provoking video about the effects of Agent Orange on U.S., soldiers and the Vietnamese people. Colleen secured the rights to use photographs from renowned national and international photographers for use in our video and this video called Dear Agent Orange is almost entirely her vision.
I stated at the beginning of this piece that I am no scientist, but I know from my reading that Agent Orange was a very dangerous chemical. I’ve seen reports on Agent Orange Facebook websites that the number of people who have died from exposure to Agent Orange is approaching the number of soldiers we lost in battle in Vietnam. I’m not going to comment anymore in this particular blog about Agent Orange. Since my blog is titled Viewing the War through Music, I’ll let our music and video do the talking. Go to YouTube and enter Dear Agent Orange in the search engine.