It may be fair and decent to honor Vietnam veterans who die from diseases related to Agent Orange by putting their names on the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but then what?
What words do you put on the memorial in Sacramento Capitol Park to explain their sacrifice? Do you say their deaths resulted from the actions of the U.S. government rather than enemy forces?
Do you explain that the United States sprayed close to 20 million gallons of herbicides and defoliants in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos despite strong evidence of their danger to human health? Agent Orange, which includes a dioxin found to cause cancer, birth defects and disruptions to the immune and endocrine systems, accounted for about 60 percent of the total.
Do you acknowledge that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs refused for years to acknowledge long-term health dangers from exposure to Agent Orange and denied benefits to many veterans?
What do you say about the children of these veterans who suffer from genetic-related problems tied to the herbicide heavily used in the Vietnam War? There could be thousands of such afflicted children, according to the Vietnam Veterans of America. The VA now provides benefits for children with spina bifida and other birth defects resulting from their parents’ exposure.
Might there be a mention of the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese children who are third-generation casualties of the 10-year U.S. campaign cavalierly coded Operation Ranch Hand?
A California Department of Veterans Affairs committee was to meet this week to review the issue of adding names to the state memorial.The meeting is an outgrowth of a law enacted a year ago. Assembly Bill 287 was authored by Assemblyman Jim Frazier, with the support of state veterans groups.
The idea behind the law, according to a Bee article Tuesday, was to consider adding the names of service members left off the state memorial list inadvertently, those whose deaths were ruled ineligible on narrow technical grounds, and, more controversially, those who died decades after the war from documented Agent Orange-related illnesses or suicides tied to post-traumatic stress disorder.
“We’re trying to accommodate not only those who died in the line of duty but those who died later because of their duty,” Frazier said. “We want to acknowledge that sacrifice.”
But Zack Earp, who helped raise funds to build the California memorial when he was state president of the Vietnam Veterans of America, doesn’t like the idea of noncombat deaths being included. At 19, he was severely wounded in Vietnam when he stepped on a small mine. At 63, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s as a result of Agent Orange exposure. Now, at 66, he also has been diagnosed with prostate cancer and coronary artery disease, both presumed to be related to his Vietnam service.
“I would not want my sons to have my name added to the wall for Agent Orange diseases,” Earp told the Bee. “Personally, for me, I question that. The memorial is very sacred ground. The original intent was to honor those killed in action. In some ways, this lessens the integrity of the memorial.”
The new law, with all its implications, calls attention to the ongoing toll taken by the Vietnam War. Adding names to a list, without talking about accountability, would be a disservice to those who died and those pay the price in physical and mental suffering every day.
And, as with Vietnam, so it is with the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and whatever war comes tomorrow.