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‘Okinawa bacteria’ toxic legacy crosses continents, spans generations

U.S. veterans who served in Okinawa believe Agent Orange caused their children's ailments

by Jon Mitchell

[Warning: Some may find this story's content and images to be disturbing.]

Tu Du Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City houses one of Vietnam’s busiest maternity clinics, but hidden in a quiet corner, far from the wards of proud new mothers, is a room stacked floor to ceiling with every parent’s nightmare. In dozens of glass jars lie the bodies of deformed babies preserved in formaldehyde — some have no heads, others have two, several are so scrambled that their faces jut from their stomachs and their arms are where their legs should be.

The doctor who delivered many of these children was Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong. Forty-five years ago she was a young intern at Tu Du Hospital when the city was known as Saigon, capital of war-torn South Vietnam.

“In 1966 or 1967 I started noticing an unprecedented increase in the number of birth defects at the hospital. There were too many deformed babies to count. They were born in areas sprayed with defoliants by the U.S. military,” she told The Japan Times.

During the Vietnam War, the Pentagon drenched South Vietnam with 76 million liters of herbicides — including Agents Blue, White and Orange — in a bid to destroy its enemies’ crops and jungle hiding places. The U.S. government assured Vietnamese people and their own troops that these “rainbow herbicides” were perfectly harmless to human health. But it was lying.

Agent Blue, the Pentagon’s preferred chemical for killing rice crops, included a poisonous compound of arsenic. Among the ingredients of Agent White were the carcinogens hexachlorobenzene and a cocktail of nitrosamines. Agent Orange, the best known and most commonly used herbicide, contained dioxin. Categorized as one of the deadliest poisons on the planet, dioxin has a lethal dose measured in the millionths of grams; it is also teratogenic, meaning it can damage the growth of the fetus.

Dr. Phuong was one of the first doctors to link South Vietnam’s soaring number of birth defects to the U.S. military’s defoliation campaign. But even when the herbicide flights ended in 1971, the health problems continued to grow.

“For example, those who were directly sprayed by Agent Orange passed the dioxin to their children in their breast milk. Then the problems were passed from the second to the third generation through damage to the cells and the DNA,” Phuong explained.

These second- and third-generation victims of Agent Orange suffer from illnesses ranging from cancers and diabetes to autoimmune disorders. Maj. Gen. Tran Ngoc Tho, chairman of the Ho Chin Minh City branch of the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin, explained that 3 million people are currently suffering from the effects of herbicides in Vietnam — and the numbers are rising every year.

However, according to Tho, when these birth problems first began to emerge in the late-1960s, the government of South Vietnam had a special name for the source of this scourge.

“They called it ‘Okinawa bacteria.’ During the war, Okinawa had many U.S. Air Force bases, and American planes came from there to bomb South Vietnam. There were stories that the planes that used to spray these chemicals came from Okinawa, too.”

From 1945 to 1972, Okinawa was under U.S. jurisdiction, and during the Vietnam War the island served as the Pentagon’s forward staging post for the conflict. Used to train troops, store supplies and ship them to the war zone, Okinawa also hosted the more clandestine side of the American war machine, including at one point as many as 1,200 nuclear warheads, as well as a massive arsenal of nerve and mustard gas.

Given the presence of these weapons of mass destruction, the storage of rainbow herbicides on Okinawa should come as no surprise. Dozens of U.S. veterans and Okinawa base workers claim these substances were warehoused on the island and sprayed around the bases’ fences to keep back the vegetation, a practice also common in South Vietnam at the time. Although the Pentagon denies such allegations, many of these former service members have illnesses consistent with dioxin exposure. Moreover, their children — and grandchildren — are sick, too.

One of these veterans is Rick Dewess. A former U.S. marine stationed on Okinawa between 1969 and 1970, he currently suffers from multiple illnesses — including diabetes, ischemic heart disease and respiratory problems — that he blames on dioxin poisoning. He believes his exposure has also damaged the health of his children.

“Our first child was a miscarriage. Then our next try, a son, had a kidney removed and needed another two surgeries by the time he was 5 years old. My second son had problems with his spine and my daughter has thyroid issues,” Dewess told The Japan Times.

Neither he nor his wife has any family history of the medical issues his children have been diagnosed with.

Dewess believes his exposure to dioxin occurred at Naha Military Port, where he was assigned to off-load equipment damaged during combat in Vietnam. He worries that this work put him in contact with dioxin-contaminated soil. Such fears were supported by a 2008 ruling from the Department of Veterans Affairs — the federal agency responsible for awarding compensation to sick service members — which recognized that another former G.I. on Okinawa had been exposed to rainbow herbicides while handling contaminated gear in the same circumstances.

A second marine veteran alleging dioxin exposure — and consequent damage to her children’s health — was Caethe Goetz. Featured in The Japan Times in August 2011, Goetz had developed multiple myeloma — a rare form of cancer usually found in men in their sixties and seventies — when she was 49 years old. She passed away in November 2012 at the age of 58.

During her service on Okinawa, Goetz was pregnant and often used to take walks near the perimeter fence of Camp Foster. She recalled walking through foliage that had recently been treated with herbicides and, on one occasion, even being sprayed in the face. “I didn’t think much of it at the time — I just wiped the liquid away,” she said in an interview shortly before her death.

As with the other veterans claiming dioxin exposure on Okinawa, the Pentagon denied that the substance Goetz was exposed to was one of the rainbow herbicides. But in a recent interview, marine Sgt. David Robinson, a member of one of Camp Foster’s maintenance crews, seemed to confirm Goetz’s suspicions. “I sprayed the base perimeter. When filling up my fogger [a handheld spray machine], a barrel with an orange stripe was in the stand. I asked the sergeant in charge what it was, and he said, ‘Agent Orange.’ ”

Antonia, the child Goetz was carrying on Okinawa, was born with a number of problems.

“I have deformed knee caps and then, at the age of 32, I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. The only family history of this illness is my grandfather, who was diagnosed in his sixties,” Antonia told The Japan Times.

Goetz’s second daughter, Catherine, also shows signs of her mother’s suspected dioxin exposure; she suffers from recurring infections, chronic fatigue syndrome, reproductive problems and a fused pelvis.

Antonia explained that these problems are now becoming apparent in the third generation of the Goetz family. Her oldest daughter has a defect with her eyes and was diagnosed with cataracts at the age of 10. Her young son suffers from developmental delays and a congenital problem with an artery in his neck.

Other U.S. veterans who believe they came into contact with rainbow herbicides on Okinawa also have children with similar diseases. Kris Roberts — a New Hampshire state representative who claims he unearthed a large cache of Agent Orange on Futenma air station in 1981 — has a daughter who suffers from health problems he suspects were caused by his exposure to dioxin on Okinawa.

Likewise, Joe Sipala — a former air force sergeant now leading veterans’ demands for an independent inquiry into Agent Orange on Okinawa — has also witnessed the sufferings of his children. While serving at Awase Transmitter Site in 1970, Sipala was tasked with spraying Agent Orange around the installation to kill weeds. As a result of this work, Sipala soon fell sick. His first child died in the womb, so misshapen that the presiding doctor told him he was lucky the baby hadn’t survived. His two surviving children were both born with birth defects — including a daughter whose deformed feet required multiple operations.

Even though the Pentagon kept information about the toxicity of these chemicals hidden, Sipala and many of his fellow veterans feel responsible for their children’s illnesses.

“It makes me feel guilty. At the time we didn’t know the dangers of spraying these herbicides, but it was my damaged DNA that caused my children’s issues,” Sipala said in a recent interview.

According to Heather Bowser, co-founder of Children of Vietnam Veterans’ Health Alliance, such feelings are common among former service members who were unwittingly exposed to poisonous herbicides during the 1960s and ’70s. “I struggled my whole young life watching my father carry the guilt believing he had caused my birth defects,” said Bowser, who was born two months premature and missing her right leg below the knee and several fingers — problems her father attributed to his exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

Bowser said that the scale of the second-generation problems in the U.S. is appalling.

“A 1986 report stated that among 200,000 veterans surveyed, 56,000 of their children had birth defects. But we have no idea how many of them are truly affected, because we have never been offered an open dialogue by the U.S. government,” she said.

Despite overwhelming scientific evidence linking dioxin exposure to birth defects, Washington has been reluctant to support America’s second-generation victims. For example, while offering limited help to the children of female veterans who served in South Vietnam born with defects such as cleft palate, heart disease and clubfoot, it refuses to link their illnesses to Agent Orange; instead, it states that “these diseases are not tied to herbicides, including Agent Orange, or dioxin exposure, but rather to the birth mother’s service in Vietnam.” It is as though the country itself were somehow responsible for children’s birth defects, not the 76 million liters of toxic chemicals sprayed there.

As for the sickened children of male veterans, the U.S. government only recognizes one illness related to Agent Orange: spina bifida.

However, when it comes to Okinawa, the Pentagon’s blanket denials that Agent Orange was ever on the island prevents even this limited assistance reaching the sickened children of U.S. veterans such as Dewess and Sipala.

Goetz’s daughter Catherine believes the motivation for the Pentagon’s denials is simple: money.

“If the U.S. government admitted Agent Orange exposure on Okinawa, it would open a floodgate of claims for many generations to come. Seeing how my mother was treated by her country, I feel the government has dishonored all who served — it should be looking out for the people who defend our nation.”

Back in the country that blamed the birth defects maiming its newborns on “Okinawa bacteria,” Maj. Gen. Tho shares Catherine’s anger with Washington. Since the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the U.S. government has repeatedly denied assistance to Vietnamese people suffering from dioxin exposure. As recently as 2003, the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam accused the Hanoi government of waging a “two-decade-long propaganda campaign” over military herbicides; the following year, the ambassador alleged Vietnamese claims of health damage were based upon “fake science.” Even in 2012, when Washington announced it would clean up its former Agent Orange storage site in Da Nang, it refused to acknowledge any human health problems and instead labeled the project as simply “environmental remediation.”

Although Tho echoed Catherine’s belief that money lies at the root of Washington’s denials, he also suspects another motive.

“If they admitted to the health problems their defoliants caused, they’d be admitting to having waged a campaign of chemical warfare against the people of Vietnam. This would make them liable to be taken to the International Criminal Court at The Hague to be tried as war criminals,” he said.

With the stakes this high, perhaps it is understandable that the U.S. government has attempted to shroud its usage of these poisons within so many denials and lies. But with scientists estimating that serious health problems will persist into the fourth, fifth and possibly sixth generations, the coming decades will see millions more demanding answers about their illnesses — putting Washington under growing pressure to take responsibility for what Dr. Phuong first uncovered at Tu Du Hospital all those years ago.

Send comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp .

  • marysaunders

    Chemical companies own the U.S. government presently, with worldwide harm increasingly acknowledged, across borders. The ethical debt from this will eventually be discharged, as old heat/beat/treat industrial ways of doing things subside in favor of biomimicry.

    Bio-memetic processes can make helpful tools and clean food at ambient temperatures, without burning, hurting, and banging on the levels humans have become accustomed to in some parts of the world.

    The burning corporations based in the U.S. could be sued for reparations if the executive branch changes sufficiently that honest people can come in to the executive and legislative branches, though this still leaves a challenge with a compromised judiciary. There are people working feverishly to change the judiciary from the bottom up, and that goes for the other branches as well.

    The U.S. permits and subsidizes off-shore companies as well as the ones based here.

    Substances produced by some European countries are banned in Europe, Israel, and other places but are still allowed here in the U.S.

    Damages to fish, amphibians, mice, and humans are clear enough for France and some other more science-sophisticated places to understand, but the U.S. government still works to allow U.S. people to be used as science experiments.

    More U.S. people are beginning to catch on day by day. The misinformation-machines are lessening in their effectiveness. People are needing to grow their own food and save their own seeds, for financial reasons as well as for food-safety reasons.

    For an example of the challenges of damage from chemicals, see the TEDx talk by Tyone Hayes. A European company tried to get him fired, but it didn’t pan out for them as they had expected. He pushed back in colorful ways which have now made him a speaker in demand, over the world. His work has confirmed the work of less-famous researchers.

    Also, see TEDX, The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, a clearing house for international research on how life is harmed by chemical compounds. The usual dose-response charts do not necessarily work for these substances. They cause harm at very low doses, possibly because they fly under the radar of the body’s defense mechanisms. In middle ranges, many bodies figure out how to buffer harm. At really high doses, they cannot be tolerated.

    As for how to mediate against harm, the work of Paul Stamets is of interest. For those unfamiliar with his work, his TED talk is a good place to start. Parts of the U.S. government do understand the importance of his work. The U.S. government does have some individuals who understand the need for remediation of harm. Paul Stamets has worked with the Department of Defense of particular projects.

  • Theresa DeGrave

    I am 2nd generation Agent Orange… Thank you for speaking out on Behalf of the Children of Vietnam Veterans.

  • Catherine Sheldon

    I hope that this continues to be a topic of discussion and the government is forced to take notice. My mother (Catherine Goetz) fought for the many affected ; she could not be saved ; but maybe people suffering from other ailments can be helped or compensated to enrich quality of life.