New Generations Fear Agent Orange

May 5, 2016

Friday is Vietnam Veterans Recognition Day. A granite plaque will be dedicated at the Statehouse to honor Iowa war casualties from secondary causes: like PTSD, suicide and Agent Orange. That's a controversial chemical that some people feel may now be sickening Iowans who are the children and grandchildren of Vietnam vets. They're calling for more studies on the chemical's effects. 

Eastern Iowa listeners would never know that radio announcer Teri Lynn Jorgensen sits behind her microphone in a wheelchair. Jorgensen plays oldies music that her father would have listened during his tour of duty in Vietnam. Today, at 51, she still suffers from spina bifida and other crippling ailments, and came to Des Moines for a fact-finding conference sponsored by Vietnam Veterans of America.

Jorgensen joined more than 50 veterans and relatives who shared terrifying stories about two words associated with danger: Agent Orange.

Radio deejay Teri Lynn Jorgensen gave emotional testimony about her many physical problems. She was born prematurely after her late father returned from South Vietnam.
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

"This isn't easy. As a matter of fact this pretty much sucks, but I'm a fighter."

Jorgensen suspects her ailments are linked to her father's service in Vietnam, where veterans were exposed to defoliants, like Agent Orange, contaminated with the toxic compound dioxin. 

"I was given this voice I think by God to speak out for those that can't and I need help," she said. "It's the first time I've ever asked for help because I've always done it on my own and felt I can do it on my own and I can't do it anymore. Thank you."

A parade of sick and frightened Iowans held back nothing as they testified: about intimate health problems, cancers, heart disease, breathing, nerve and learning disorders. The fear is that it's in the gene pool, being passed on to generations beyond Vietnam soldiers like Frank Martin from Carroll.

"We got all of our drinking water for them two years out of the river and I drank Agent Orange for two years over there," he said. "I bathed in it. My clothes were washed in it. I mean I was exposed every day to it."

More than 50 veterans and their offspring attended two Agent Orange fact-finding sessions.
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

Former Marine Dan Gannon, who was exposed as a platoon leader, is with the Iowa veteran's office.

"Any time you talk to a Vietnam vet who was exposed, they'll usually tell you a story about one of their kids, grandkids, or great grandkids that has health issues," he said.

One unidentified man, exhausted by life-threatening illnesses and endless red tape trying to get VA health care, gave up and walked out.

"So basically, the hell with it. I'm going to die with it. If that's the way you guys take care of your GIs, forget it."

While the panel was not part of the Veteran's Administration, a VA representative was observing from the audience. James Sampsel is with the VA's disability compensation section.

"Well it's a lot of sad stories," he said. "I feel kind of bad about it. I'm a Vietnam veteran, but I know that a lot of these diseases occur in the general population also."

A separated Siamese twin in Ho Chi Minh City in 1994. Vietnam also suspects Agent Orange caused many generational birth defects.
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

Veterans advocates concede that links are hard to prove. There is widespread support for legislation to expand research. Mokie Porter speaks for the VVA.

"This is all anecdotal. We have no scientific proof and that's what we need," Porter said.  "We need this to be studied, and we're not just talking about Vietnam veterans we're talking about veterans of the modern wars." 

More than 100,000 Iowa vets are presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange. Their descendants are the new faces of the Vietnam War and are among the hidden casualties to be welcomed at the state capitol Friday morning.