By Lori Weber at the VVA Veteran
In early February Americans became aware of COVID-19. Within a few short weeks the nation joined the pandemic. To illustrate the virus’ deadly effects, the media began reporting that COVID-19 had taken more American lives than the Vietnam War did.
As the number of cases and deaths rose, our leaders were asked why they were not prepared for this crisis, how they were going to help, and what they knew about COVID-19. At his first press conference on the issue, President Trump said he “understood the virus and that it would soon be gone by April.” Yet, by the end of April more than a million Americans had tested positive. And we know that number did not represent the true figure because many thousands more had been denied testing or chose not to get tested.
Should we be surprised that the Trump administration was not forthcoming with all of the facts? Should we be shocked that they hid information and that they were unprepared? That they offered false hope?
Not if you ask Vietnam veterans, their children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren. They are well aware that the U.S. government has lied, held back health information, and has balanced the federal budget at the expense of the health and well-being of veterans and their dependents.
For more than 45 years Vietnam veterans have demanded answers from our government after they were exposed to defoliants while serving in Vietnam. After coming home from the war, significant numbers of veterans began experiencing serious health issues including rectal bleeding, skin conditions, and cancers. Even more devastating, many also noticed a high incidence of birth defects in their children. Yet they were told this was a coincidence.
Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon told them Agent Orange was researched, tested, and safe. They were told the defoliant would, in fact, help them because the enemy wouldn’t have a place to hide. The American public was told that Agent Orange was never directly sprayed on American troops. That was a lie: Not only had Agent Orange rained down on them, but Americans fought in fields saturated with this poison, grilled over empty Agent Orange containers, and showered from barrels that once held Agent Orange.
Today the VA acknowledges that more than one million Vietnam veterans returned home with illnesses connected to Agent Orange. It took more than 40 years for our government to acknowledge its wrongs, resulting in many Vietnam veterans dying without answers and without compensation. How long will it take the government to admit its wrongs or correct its errors when it concerns COVID-19?
MALE VS. FEMALE
Today the offspring of Vietnam veterans are still being denied health care and compensation for birth defects and illnesses—the same health problems suffered by many Vietnamese children. The United States currently compensates the children of female Vietnam veterans if they suffer from one of 18 presumed birth defects, yet the VA’s justification is as skewed as the government’s position that it had a handle on COVID-19 since the very beginning.
“The VA recognizes a wide range of birth defects associated with women veterans’ service in Vietnam,” its website claims. “These diseases are not tied to herbicides, including Agent Orange, or dioxin exposure, but rather to the birth mother’s service in Vietnam.”
How does this make any sense? If the birth defects are not caused by exposure to dioxin or Agent Orange but simply the mother’s service in Vietnam, then why are the benefits not applicable to the children of male veterans? The answer is simple: money.
While some 15,000 women served in Vietnam, more than 2.7 million men did. The financial obligation of providing benefits to male veterans’ children would be enormous. But how can the government turn its back on people who were willing to give everything for their country and, through no fault of their own, are now suffering physically and emotionally as they watch their children suffer because their government unleashed poisons on them?
The U.S. government only provides health benefits and compensation to the children of male Vietnam veterans who have the two worst forms of spina bifida—and only after a family history has been thoroughly searched. I was born with bilateral acetabular hip dysplasia and pars defects of the spine (spina bifida occult). There is no history of either of these birth defects in my family. If my mother had served, I would be receiving health benefits and monthly compensation from the government. Instead, my husband and I have been responsible for paying for my health care and absorbing lost wages of my 14 hip surgeries, including three arthroscopies, four total hip reconstructions, and six total hip replacements, as well as a spinal pars reconstruction followed by a spinal fusion after the reconstruction shattered.
Due to COVID-19, the unemployment rate is 15 percent higher than it was during the Great Recession. Economic activity has slowed and many nonessential businesses are closed, some for good. Americans are struggling to pay mortgages and utilities, buy groceries, and pay for medications. The government sent many Americans stimulus checks designed to help make ends meet until they could return to work. But the sick children of Vietnam veterans like myself ask: What are you doing for me since Agent Orange stole my life and I am no longer employable?
In 2000 I graduated with a degree in elementary education and for 14 years put my heart and soul into my job. I served on the science committee, the school improvement team, six years as collegial chair, and spent countless hours designing exciting hands-on lessons. Year after year my students received high marks on standardized tests. By 2004 I had earned a master’s degree and was making more than $70,000 a year at a job I loved.
But at the age of 30—just seven years into my dream job—my body began to break down, surgeries started, and I had to take unpaid leaves that resulted in greater and greater debt. In November 2014 I took yet another medical leave for yet another hip replacement. Due to more complications, a second leave was required for another hip replacement. Three weeks later my spinal fusion broke.
In light of the unexplained and accelerated breakdown of my body, my doctors would not allow me to return to any form of work. Without a say or a choice, my career was gone, my income was gone, and—unlike many Americans who will return to work as our country comes back from COVID-19—I never will work again.
Agent Orange robbed me of my career and my ability to provide for my family. My disability pay is only a quarter of what my teaching salary would have been; my family and I lost the potential of nearly a million dollars in income.
Some Americans have set money aside during the COVID-19 pandemic for an unpredictable future. Others have begun planning for when the world reopens. I wish I could do the same for my family. But each disability check I receive is allocated for medical tests, procedures, medications that our insurance will not cover, and medical equipment essential for my safety and survival that most 40-year-olds never think about: raised toilet seats, shower chairs, ramps, canes, and braces.
Unlike most Americans, who are itching for freedom and thinking of what they will do when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, I have had to let go of those dreams. Due to Agent Orange and our government’s denial of my claim, my dreams of saving enough money to pay for our son’s college are gone, as are plans for getting much-needed house repairs and home modifications to help me ambulate or ease my pain, and my fantasy of renewing my 20-year wedding vows at Disney World.
We have no idea how long COVID-19 will keep many of us from working. As our debts grow, please heed my warning: The government says it will help. But what does history say? The children of Vietnam veterans know our government will continue to turn a blind eye and ignore the science and facts of an epidemic it created and hopes will go away as the remaining Vietnam veterans die. Who will the government blame for the debt of COVID-19? Will it be the individual states? Will it be business owners? Or will it blame China?
When we were told to remain sheltered at home, it first was a novelty, a vacation of sorts. People pulled out board games, watched Netflix, and used their free time to tackle home improvement projects. But as weeks of isolation grew longer, social media began to blow up with complaints. In my home state of Michigan protests hit the state capital. People began feeling depressed. They felt alone and missed human contact.
Pushed by President Trump and many Republicans, some states began lifting their stay-in-place orders. Many Americans have begun to socialize and return to their pre-COVID social settings. They have begun to take walks, ride their bikes, picnic outside, and hit the golf courses.
But for me, the isolation started seven years ago, and it has not nor will it ever end. With my broken-down body, I can’t bike ride, run, or take a hike. I can’t shoot baskets with my son or play a round of golf. In fact, I can’t step outside the walls of my home without my braces or wheelchair. When I do go out, people stare.
The home improvement projects people have been working on are no longer something I can physically do. All this drives me deeper into depression as I lay in bed seeing what needs to be dusted, painted, patched, and upgraded. My coworkers I loved as family no longer call; I only see their faces on Facebook.
For most people, COVID-19 will eventually pass, but many children of Vietnam veterans will only become more restricted and homebound over time. As COVID-19 cripples our health care system, we watch health care professionals work tirelessly, putting their lives on the line. Sadly, their best efforts are many times not enough, and as the COVID-19 cases and the death toll rise, many first responders have begun to suffer from PTSD. I pray that, unlike Vietnam veterans, these doctors, nurses, and other hospital workers receive the help and support they need.
I was raised by a Purple Heart Vietnam veteran. I woke many nights hearing my father screaming, his nightmares vivid. His screams and anger were part of my daily upbringing as he drank away his demons. Some nights, his eyes blank, he screamed, threw things, and even struck me because his anger was so displaced and overpowering.
The VA acknowledges that PTSD can be passed from parent to child and even between generations. I suffer from secondary PTSD from my childhood, and as well as PTSD due to the trauma related to my hip dislocations attributed to my birth defects. I hated my father for his behavior until I understood what it was. Now I see a lot of his behaviors in myself. My pain causes me to scream and lash out. I worry for the pain it causes my husband and son, and I pray my son does not adopt these behaviors.
PTSD needs to be addressed by the government. What are you doing for our veterans? And what are you doing for our first responders and their families who are fighting the PTSD war of COVID-19? When this ends, do you believe their memories, guilt, and scars will simply fade away? Will you be there to support their families?
HELP FOR HEALTH ISSUES
Although the country is again trying to open, COVID-19—like Agent Orange—is not going to go away. Our president tells us that more testing is being done, but the truth is we are in the infancy of fully understanding this disease. This is what Vietnam veterans and their children have known for years. Why is it that on April 22, 2019, the U.S. government launched a $183 million clean-up at a former airbase in Vietnam that stored Agent Orange, but it will not complete research on the children of male veterans?
Tens of thousands of children of male Vietnam veterans have sought help for health issues, yet most doctors know nothing about Agent Orange. Our government needs to extend the benefits for the presumed 18 birth defects that are given to the children of female Vietnam veterans to the children of male Vietnam veterans. Then it needs to complete research, including surveys sent to children of Vietnam veterans.
In addition to bilateral acetabular hip dysplasia and pars defects of the spine, I also have been diagnosed with an unspecified metabolic bone disorder, an unspecified connective tissue disorder, Reynaud’s syndrome, and Hashimoto’s disease. Although I meet many of the criteria for Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, my genetic tests show there is no exact diagnosis.
I have met others who share these symptoms without a specific medical diagnosis. What do we have in common? We are all the children of male Vietnam veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange. If our government is willing to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up residual Agent Orange at airbases and airports in Vietnam, then shouldn’t it also grant money for research and health care to the children of Vietnam veterans in our own country?
In the United States, the weed killer Roundup is still sold, although many countries have banned it. Roundup is Agent Orange. Class-action lawsuits have been won on behalf of those who developed cancer after using it, yet the U.S. government still denies that health issues and birth defects of the children of male Vietnam veterans were caused by their fathers’ exposure to Agent Orange. How is this justice?
Keep that in mind as you purchase Roundup and use it around your family. Many schools use it on their grounds, and many communities use it on their landscaping.
How do we get through these pandemics together? First we raise our voices, demand that our government tell the truth, and take action based on scientific evidence, not guesses. I challenge the U.S. Congress, President Trump, and President-Elect Joe Biden: Who among you is willing to accept fault for letting COVID-19 spread through our country? Who among you is willing to stand up and do the right thing for Vietnam veterans and their children? Who among you will put the citizens of this great country before politics?
If you are a child of a Vietnam veteran or have questions about Agent Orange and birth defects and other health issues, visit the Children of Vietnam Veterans Health Association at www.COVVHA.net
Lori Weber has written the inaugural article for “Speak Out,” an occasional series of opinion pieces. Next up: A call for universal service.