Residents of Okinawa Island have recently been confronted with mounting evidence that their land used to be a major storage site for the toxic U.S. defoliant Agent Orange.
Over the past 18 months, dozens of American veterans have claimed that they were poisoned by the dioxin-tainted chemical while stationed on Okinawa Island during the Vietnam War. At the time, the island was under U.S. jurisdiction and a staging post for the conflict in Southeast Asia in which millions of liters of defoliant was sprayed in an attempt to rob enemy forces of jungle cover and crops. Last month, a U.S. Army document was discovered that seems to prove Okinawa veterans’ claims; the report states that 25,000 barrels of Agent Orange were stored on the island prior to 1972.
Despite this apparent confirmation, the U.S. government denies that Agent Orange was ever in Okinawa and Tokyo has refused to conduct environmental tests. The two governments’ intransigence has angered Okinawa residents and left many of them seeking answers about the potential impact on their island. Last month, they were given the opportunity to speak firsthand to someone who has dedicated her life to spreading awareness about the dangers of these defoliants.
Heather Bowser, 39, is the daughter of a U.S. soldier exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam during the war. “My father had five bypasses on his heart when he was only 38 years old and at age 40 he developed diabetes. When he was 50, he died of a massive heart attack,” Bowser said during the visit.
The notoriously persistent effects of dioxin, which can even sicken the children and grandchildren of those exposed, did not stop with her father; his first two children died in the womb and when Bowser was born, she was 2 months premature and missing her right leg below the knee, several fingers and the big toe on her left foot.
“My father used to say that if he’d known the effects of Agent Orange on his children, he would have fled to Canada to avoid serving in the war,” Bowser said.
During the 1970s and ’80s, the U.S. government and the manufacturers of the chemicals strenuously denied the harmful effects of Agent Orange. But Bowser’s father campaigned to spread awareness and often brought his daughter to rallies — dressing her in a bright T-shirt bearing the message, “Agent Orange Kills.”
Although his activities attracted the attention of the authorities and the family’s telephone, he believed, was tapped, work by activists such as him helped to persuade the U.S. government in the 1990s to offer compensation to American service members directly exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam.
Today they are eligible for compensation for over a dozen illnesses ranging from cancers and diabetes to heart problems. In addition, the sick children of the estimated 1,800 female veterans of the Vietnam conflict are offered assistance. Yet Washington still refuses to help the tens of thousands of poisoned children of male veterans — second-generation survivors like Bowser who are sick with serious health problems.
After her father died in 1998, Bowser carried on his struggle to seek justice for those exposed. In 2010, she became one of the first second-generation survivors in the U.S. to travel to Vietnam to meet with some of the country’s 3 million dioxin victims. Her trip was featured in a Japanese documentary, “Living the Silent Spring,” directed by Masako Sakata.
While in Vietnam, Bowser met a young third-generation survivor whose birth defects mirrored her own. “Meeting him really struck home the legacy of these poisons across generations and borders. And on a personal level, it helped me to come to terms with myself,” said Bowser.
The visit convinced Bowser of the urgent need to reach out to all of those affected by Agent Orange. In January, she set up the nonprofit organization Children of Vietnam Veterans Health Alliance with a fellow second-generation survivor. Today the group has over 350 members on three continents united by its mission statement to serve “as a voice for the children of Vietnam veterans, including second- and third-generation victims of Agent Orange and dioxin exposure worldwide. We will fight for justice globally.”
Last month, Bowser brought the group’s message to Okinawa as part of a program organized by Japanese NPO Peace Boat to highlight the international and intergenerational legacy of Agent Orange. During her three-day stay on the island, Bowser was shown several of the U.S. bases where the toxic chemical had allegedly been stored and sprayed to clear weeds during the 1960s and ’70s.
In the northern Okinawa town of Henoko, Bowser met with people living near U.S. Marine Corps’ Camp Schwab. According to U.S. veterans, the installation had a cache of hundreds of barrels of Agent Orange that was used to kill vegetation within the base and on the adjacent Jungle Warfare Training Center. While in Henoko, Bowser heard how local residents were apparently poisoned in the 1960s after consuming shellfish contaminated by the toxin.
Hiroshi Aritomi, an outspoken critic of the American bases in the area, voiced his anger over the Japanese government’s refusal to conduct health tests among people living near Camp Schwab. “Tokyo is only following Washington’s orders. They’re trying to hide the truth from the people of Okinawa. We need an urgent investigation into medical records of former base workers (who allegedly sprayed Agent Orange).”
Bowser also visited Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, often labeled by locals as the most dangerous U.S. base in the world due to its location in the densely populated central part of the city of Ginowan. In June, The Japan Times reported that dozens of barrels of Agent Orange had been secretly buried on the installation and marine corps officers had attempted to conceal the fact when they were accidentally unearthed in the 1980s.
Bowser expressed her concerns and commented on the geographical similarities between the Futenma base and the former U.S. air base in Da Nang, Vietnam, which today is the scene of a well-publicized dioxin cleanup attempt by the U.S. government. “Both Da Nang and Futenma are located in the middle of residential areas where people have been living alongside contaminated soil for decades. It really makes me worried about the long-term health impact on Okinawa residents,” Bowser said.
Bowser’s concerns were also heightened by accounts from local residents of elevated rates of autism and cleft palates on the island — both of which are common problems among second- and third-generation Agent Orange survivors.
On her final day on the island, Bowser attended a screening of the documentary “Living the Silent Spring” at Okinawa University in Naha. As testament to the islanders’ worries over dioxin, the rainy weekday screening drew over 100 residents. Also in attendance was Seiryo Arakaki, chairman of the Special Committee of Base Issues, and four municipal assembly members whose constituencies host U.S. bases where Agent Orange had allegedly been sprayed.
Following the screening, Bowser told the audience that she felt an affinity with Okinawa people, whose prefecture had been devastated by fighting during World War II and continues to host the majority of U.S. bases in Japan. “My few days here in Okinawa have made a lasting impression on me. When it comes to the legacy of war, you have suffered so much, but I have been moved by your power to see through the ravages of loss and find strength in each other,” she said.
Following a plea for Washington to award compensation to U.S. veterans exposed to Agent Orange on Okinawa, Bowser ended her visit with reassurances to residents that they were not alone in their struggle.
“I urge you to start organizing with each other and reach out to international Agent Orange communities. Demand full disclosure from the Japanese government as to the storage and use of Agent Orange in Okinawa. Now is not a time to stay silent.”
Masami Kawamura, cofounder of Okinawa Outreach, the citizens’ group at the forefront of demands for a full inquest into Agent Orange usage on the island, believes Bowser’s trip paved the way for the struggle for justice that lies ahead. “By sharing her knowledge and experience, Heather has inspired many people. From now on, we will work together in solidarity with her. She has shown us that we need to not only look back at the past, but also work together for our future.”
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