In 1998, my late husband, Rick, a Vietnam vet, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He was 52, which I thought was young to have prostate cancer.
In Vietnam there were troops who were on the ground. There were also “brown water sailors,” who manned the river boats. Then there were the blue water sailors, on ships. The blue water sailors were Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine personnel.
In 1991, Congress mandated pensions for everyone exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam. Vets were getting sick and having children with birth defects, among other things. Because of the lack of historical data, no one could prove or disprove exposure to Agent Orange, but it was assumed that if you were in Vietnam, you were exposed. Prostate cancer is one of the diseases associated with Agent Orange (dioxin) exposure.
In 2002, the Agent Orange pension was taken away from the blue water sailors, because they did not serve on land and therefore were not exposed to Agent Orange. So the reasoning went. This despite their having the same illnesses and problems as vets who served ashore.
When Rick went to the VA around 2010 and spoke with a woman there about getting a pension, he was told that a pension was not coming to him because he had never set foot on the soil of Vietnam.
Last week I received an email from a Navy vet who also served on the King, Rick’s ship. He said he was sorry if he was bringing up bad feelings, but thought I might be interested in a paper called “A Re-Analysis of Blue Water Navy Veterans and Agent Orange Exposure.”
You can read this paper at a site called bluewaternavy.org.
So how about it? Were blue water sailors exposed to Agent Orange?
Agent Orange was sprayed in the jungle of Vietnam by airplanes, and the mist blew out to sea, where it could travel for miles, so it was in the air that those on shipboard breathed.
A second mode of exposure was the dioxin-contaminated dust that clung to every item and person that was transported from Vietnam, especially Da Nang, out to ships.
But here’s the one that really gets me: Agent Orange, which was distributed by airplanes, the river boats, and guys with backpack sprayers, flowed from the jungle into creeks and rivers, and from there into the ocean. The ships out along the coast were floating in Agent Orange (dioxin) contaminated water.
Ships need fresh water, for drinking, cooking, and washing for the crew, and to produce the steam that powers the generators that run the ship. How do you get fresh water at sea? You desalinize sea water.
Australia had Navy in Vietnam, and they studied the effects of Agent Orange on their vets. I will quote from the bluewaternavy.org paper here: “In 2002, an Australian Study found that the water distillation process, which used a high heat flash to evaporate the saltwater and to collect the condensation which would then be salt-free, would actually enhance the toxicity of any dioxin present in the original saltwater.”
As I read this paper I felt more and more angry. What? My husband, a guy who devoted thirty years of his life to providing safe drinking water for people on our little islands, was drinking dioxin in his coffee, eating it in his food, and taking showers in it, in Vietnam? Him and all the other souls on that ship, and on all the other ships out there?
I wished he was here so we could rant and rave together.
I want blue water sailors to be awarded pensions for their Agent Orange exposure, period. It would make a difference to those who still live, and their families. It sure would have made a difference for us. Will it happen? How many people have sickened and died since 2002? How many are sick and dying right now? How likely is it that the current administration will want to cough up money for sick Vietnam vets, who, let’s face it, are dying off every day?
A word on prostate cancer: it is the second most common cancer in men (the most common is non-melanoma skin cancer). Most prostate cancer is highly treatable, and many men have it and never know, and die of something else. The prostate cancer seen in people exposed to Agent Orange is a more aggressive and deadly variety, and that’s what Rick had.
But of course, this is all circumstantial evidence. I thought Rick died of smoking and his own stubbornness – refusing to go to the doctor. Now I think he was killed by cigarettes, stubbornness, and Vietnam.
It sounds like a country and western song, doesn’t it?