Well it’s that time in my life again, I am aware. I feel it, it’s like an old wool sweater that first feels warm and inviting, but suddenly turns itchy and uncomfortable. I’ve been here before, but this time it is very different, because I am no longer alone. See, I started as an Agent Orange activist at the age of four or five when my parents would attend rallies in the Canton Ohio, area to bring awareness to Agent Orange issues. I would wear a skirt so all could see my prosthesis and a tee shirt that said Agent Orange Makes Me Sick. I turn forty this October. I am almost as old as the Agent Orange fight is long.
So many years in this fight, I have been so isolated in this struggle of Agent Orange. It was easy to say, “enough, I am done for awhile,” to walk away, to gain perspective, rest. I am no longer afforded that ability. Being a part of the creation of the new group, Children of Vietnam Veterans Health Alliance, means my circle has expanded significantly, and now instead of focusing on my own thoughts and feelings about Agent Orange. I am pushed to listen, learn, and experience the struggles of my own peers dealing with devastating unexplained birth defects and illnesses.
How can I take a break to rest, when my fellow peers go to the doctor and are laughed out of the office when they bring up dioxin exposure in their Father as a cause for their unexplained illnesses? How can I rest when some of my new found friends are finding cysts on their brain and various cancers in their body? How can I rest?
Almost weekly, I reply to a tear filled email asking for guidance on how to file a claim with the US government, and I have to tell them,
” I’m sorry, but your claim will be denied. The government only recognizes Spina Bifida (not Occulta ) in the children of male Vietnam veterans, but please apply anyway.”
The following conversation usually happens;
Me, “Yes, I know there are birth defects listed on the VA website, but those are only for the children of Female VN Veterans.”
Agent Orange Survivor, “Why?”
Me, “Well I believe it’s a number game. There were around eight thousand women who served in Vietnam, there were 2.8 million men it would be really expensive to take care of the children of male Vietnam Veterans so our government looks away.”
Agent Orange Survivor, ” Oh, but I need help, I don’t have insurance, or my insurance won’t pay for my needed treatment.”
Me, “I’m so sorry to disappoint you, let me give you the link to our private support community. “
A link to real support is great, but it doesn’t fill the hole dioxin has created in the lives of the children of Male Vietnam Veterans. I have heard us called “the bastard children of the U.S. government” Many of our Dads came home from war sick, suffering with PTSD, they created sick children, they died, and now their grandchildren in many cases are sick as well. That cycle has been repeated, repeated, repeated, over and over. I know, because I get the emails, and see my peers stories in our support community, daily.
The emotional and physical toll the Vietnam war has taken on my generation of offspring is tragic. I have often said myself,” I wasn’t even born during war time, but the Vietnam war has defined my life since day one, even long after my father’s death.” It has never been but a few thoughts away. There has been no rest.
Many, many of us now have to watch our children, the third generation suffer from unexplained birth defects, and developmental disorders such as autism. As a matter of fact, autism is the most reported issue in the third generation in our self reported survey in our support community, but it is by no means the only. Our children have cleft palate, congenital heart problems, club feet, auto immune problems…The list goes on and on (And looks very similar to the list of birth defects covered in the children of female Vietnam Veterans). The fortunate ones who have seemingly, healthy children worry that like their own fathers, and like themselves, their beautiful children are ticking time bombs ready to explode into rare cancers, uncontrolled diabetes, debilitating autoimmune disorders, and the like.
The current state of our movement to get the Government to acknowledge us is in its infancy stage. Actually we are still in labor. So many of us have been so used to working solo on this issue, are new to the issue, or have relied on our elder generation to fix this problem for us, we are adjusting to what it means to have each other’s support. We have overlooked the power within ourselves for many years for various reasons. As we mature and realize we must fight for our own children and our very lives, we know we have to do something. We are working hard to become a more organized front.
Today we recognize this is our fight, but we are jumble of personalities, backgrounds, different ideals, morals, and insights, who have nothing in common but our connection to the pain and agony known from the result of the Vietnam war. We’ve each experienced the aftermath of Vietnam in our own way. Some have had an up bringing involving our Father who was absent, or died young, some had Dads who were addicted to drugs or alcohol, others had Dads who were seemingly untouched by their service in Vietnam. The children of Vietnam Veterans have been thrown into a fifty five gallon drum with an orange stripe, shaken, spilled out and expected to meld together in a cohesive entity, to make something big happen. As you can imagine, this is a hurdle we have to overcome.
We are inexperienced at best at organizing, but our passion to make a difference in our lives, and the lives of our children is a force to be reckoned with. We want acknowledgement, we want care for the sick, we want those responsible to make right. We are already losing our fathers at alarming rates, we are sick, our children are sick and enough is enough.
We have many examples of grassroots organization from our fathers and mothers who did whatever they could to get Agent Orange into the American vernacular to save our veterans and their children. They saved lives by pushing our government to acknowledge what they had done to our veteran’s health by spraying 22 million gallons of Agent Orange in Vietnam. There have been many Agent Orange warriors, both men and women who have paved the path and have set examples for us to learn from. Their work is not to be forgotten, or dismissed as non-relevant, their work is our stepping stone. Their sacrifices are our examples. Their knowledge should be considered our generous gift.
As the world forgets us, and moves forward to more recent Veterans health issues like depleted Uranium, burn pits, and the other horrible side effects of our current wars, the time is now, there is no time to rest. The birth defect list that covers the children and grandchildren of female Vietnam veterans must be applied to the children and grandchildren of male Vietnam Veterans, and the grandchildren of female Vietnam Veterans. Acknowledge us, help our sick. Only working together can this feat be accomplished.
Heather Bowser is Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor and small business owner. She is the daughter of a deceased Vietnam Veteran whose death is attributed to his exposure to Agent Orange while serving his country during the Vietnam War. Heather was born premature, she is missing her right leg below the knee, several of her fingers, her big toe on her left foot, her remaining toes were webbed. Heather is a wife and mother, she has two healthy boys. She has traveled to Vietnam twice to bring awareness and support to the Vietnamese Agent Orange survivors who continue to be born at alarming rates due to contaminated areas still left in the Vietnamese soil. She wants justice for all affected by Agent Orange Dioxin. Heather works for a new organization founded by the offspring of Vietnam Veterans for offspring of Vietnam Veterans. The group is called Children of Vietnam Veterans Health Alliance. You can visit their website at www.covvha.net
Heather A. Bowser, LPCC
© Heather A. Bowser
Children Of Vietnam Veterans Health Alliance