Please remember if you are a Vietnam Veteran, a wife of a Vietnam Veteran, or the child of a Vietnam Veteran, you are not alone. There are thousands of us who have struggled for decades with illness, loss, and diminished quality of life due to the chemical defoliant Agent Orange. Agent Orange was sprayed repeatedly over Southeast Asia, exposing our veterans to the 20 million gallons of dioxin laced herbicide throughout their time in Vietnam. They were told it was nothing to worry about, that it was safe, and when they began falling ill, they were called crazy.
Today I will share one story of a local woman’s battle as a result of her husband’s time in Vietnam. I met Joye, who is from Mineral Ridge, Ohio, through social media. I knew her husband was a Vietnam Veteran and that her son was ill, however it wasn’t until last month when I saw her Facebook wall full of people sharing their sympathy to her and her family that I knew something had gone terribly wrong. Joye and I live close to one another, and I reached out, asking if we could meet. Agreeing, she invited me to her home, and as we sat in her warm kitchen on a cold March morning with her sister Rosie, Joye began to share.
It was after his time in Vietnam that Joye met her husband George at a dance. George had served in the Marine Corps from 1967 to 1970, including two tours in Vietnam, in Da Nang, Quang Tri, and other areas in a motor transport division. He experienced the Tet Offensive and in the process of his service, he was exposed to Agent Orange. George was actually a Canadian citizen at the time of his service, but the Marine Corps turned a blind eye and allowed him to serve.
Joye reminisced about the early times in their relationship, and with a smile she remembered the early days. She spoke of the nervousness she felt after the dance where they met. “I noticed at the dance, he started to sweat porously. I asked him if he was ok. He said yes,” said Joye,” adding that after the dance, he had to go back to Camp Pendleton, and she didn’t hear from him for three weeks. She had almost given up hope on a second date, when he called to apologize, sharing that he had come down with Malaria and had almost died. Eventually, George and Joye were married.
In 1973, their first son James was born. Joye had labored for 47 hours. James was a large baby; more than nine pounds. As their son grew, they noticed some developmental issues. The fingers on one of his hands seemed stunted; Joye described them as being “stubby.” His fine motor skills were delayed, and he had a speech impediment. By age five, he had his enlarged tonsils removed. Problems continued to develop; as James suffered hearing loss and anxiety, causing him to literally shake when he was excited.
A large boy, James endured being bullied and teased as a child and became an introvert. It wasn’t until he was in his thirties that James would finally be diagnosed with an adrenal problem which explained his size. Unfortunately, it was before that, that James had begun coping with his anxiety with an eating disorder. He whittled his six foot frame down to 135 pounds.
James had his first mental break down, which included a full-blown episode of mania, at 23 years of age. It couldn’t have come at a worse time, as the day James slipped into psychosis, his father George was scheduled to have angioplasty on his heart. Tearfully explaining how difficult the day was, “I felt so torn, I wanted to be with my son, but I also needed to be there for my husband,” said Joye. Becoming tearful as well, Rosie reassured her, saying, “We took care of him Joye, you needed to be with George.”
Joye’s husband George has seen his struggles as well. Sharing that she feels her husband should have been diagnosed with PTSD, “He suffered from a lot of anxiety,” she said of her husband. George has ischemic heart disease, diabetes and peripheral neuropathy all of which are recognized by the VA as illnesses brought on by Agent Orange exposure. He also lost his hand in an industrial accident in 2002. Currently, George is rated at 60% by the Veterans Administration.
Although George was at home when I visited, he did not come out to introduce himself to me. Asked if she and her husband ever talk about the war and the effect it has had on their family, Joye looked down and said, “No, he really never talks about it.”
Tragedy struck Joye and George, when Joye suffered a miscarriage while pregnant with their second child in 1977. Joye recalled having three vivid dreams about having a miscarriage prior to it happening. “I was told the baby was deformed,” she said.” Her eyes filling with tears again, her sister moved close to her. I asked her if it was a hard time in her life, to which she tearfully replied, “Yes, very traumatic.”
Finding happiness again in 1978, Joye gave birth to their second son, Jason. “He has always been thin but has issues with his GI tract. He has terrible social anxiety. Now, he has no health insurance, so he doesn’t take care of his medical problems. He does what he can to see a therapist on a regular basis for his social anxiety,” said Joye.
As her sons grew into adulthood, James, her oldest, continued to add illnesses to what he was already dealing with, and over the course of his lifetime, suffered with asthma, heart disease, congestive heart failure, schizoaffective disorder, salivary cyst, blood infections, pulmonary embolism, anorexia /obesity, and diabetes. Through it all, when he was healthy enough, he worked as a medical technician.
“Throughout his life he was very brave. He always told jokes, which made everyone laugh. I don’t think many people knew how James struggled, but as his mother I knew. At times, he felt like there was no way he would every find someone to love and spend his life with,” said Joye. Fate had a way of intervening.
Crossing one more hurdle, James became engaged to lovely women named Dawna. They planned to be married on October 26, 2013, having known one another for 13 years. Having paid for everything for the wedding and honeymoon, everything was set; however, two months into their engagement, James’s health suddenly took a turn for the worse.
Lying on the couch complaining he just wasn’t feeling well, both his mother and fiancé’ became extremely concerned. Taking him to the hospital, it was discovered that James had gone into septic shock, and while there, his organs shut down and he suffered a heart attack. Two months after his engagement, at the age of 39, James slipped away. He died on February, 12, 2013.
“Knowing how much James suffered during his life makes it so hard to deal with his death,” Joye stated. As I sat with her and Rosie, the grief was thick.
As I listened to Joye’s story, I could not help but be reminded of my own family struggle. My dad, a Vietnam Veteran, was also exposed to Agent Orange. My Mother suffered two miscarriages; I was born in 1972 with multiple birth defects. My Mom went on to have another miscarriage between my brother and me. My brother was born in 1978, without birth defects but currently struggles with mysterious body aches.
Instead of losing an adult sibling, it was my father who passed away at a young age. At 38, he had five bypasses on his heart. At 40, he developed diabetes, at 48 he had a stroke, and at 50, he died of a massive heart attack. All the while, the VA denied my father’s service connected disability. My birth defects are not recognized by the Veterans Administration.
The sad fact is, we may never have a clear number of just how many children of Vietnam Veterans have been negatively impacted by Agent Orange. We have already lost so many to miscarriage, devastating birth defects and a life time of perpetual illnesses, like James. How do you compensate a parent’s loss like that? Joye made a point saying, “I always believe the damage was done on the cellular level.” She may just be right, current epigenetic research is finding trans-generational instances of birth defects happening in the offspring of female mice exposed to dioxin (Skinner, 2012).
Currently, the United States government denies there are any illnesses caused by Agent Orange in the children of Vietnam Veterans. It recognizes one birth defect in the offspring of male Vietnam Vets, Spina Bifida, but only the two rarest forms. This is covered because when the children of Ranch Hand veterans (those who actually did the spraying) were studied there was a higher instance of neural tube defects. There are currently eighteen plus birth defects acknowledged and compensated for in the children of female Vietnam Veterans. The government denies these birth defects were caused by herbicide on the VA website. They claim the birth defects are related to the woman’s time in Vietnam, not herbicide.
This is clearly a money game pure and simple. There were only 8,000 women who served in Vietnam compared to 2.8 million men. If they open that can of worms, they will have to pay a lot of people. They are using the same tactic they have used on our dying Vietnam Veteran fathers. Deny until they die. We have always been in the same boat as the veterans. It’s just becoming more evident as we age. As more of us begin to die from our unexplained illnesses like James Lange, the less number of us the government ever has to acknowledge, ultimately saving money.
(COVVHA) Children of Vietnam Veterans Health Alliance, INC. has discovered many common illnesses in their membership; several types of Cancer, Autoimmune Diseases, Diabetes, Ischemic Heart Disease, and many more. There is no collective research going on to address these issues in our ailing generation. Asking Joye what she would like to see done, “I want to see compensation for all of the people who have had to live this. It’s been too long. It shouldn’t be done after all of us (Vietnam Veterans and their wives) have died. We will end up leaving our children and grandchildren sick and dying without help,” she said.
Another question to ask is why is there such a high instance of mental illness, learning disabilities, and developmental delays in the children of Vietnam Veterans? Is it the whole time honored debate of nature versus nurture? Do the kids of Vietnam Veterans seem to have a higher instance of mental illness because they were raised in a home dealing with the aftermath of war? Or do the kids of Vietnam Veterans have a higher instance of mental illness or learning disabilities, because they were changed epigenetically due to their father’s exposure to Agent Orange?
(COVVHA) Children of Vietnam Veterans Health Alliance, INC. encourages its members to self-report any illnesses they suffer from. Out of 500 members in January 2013, there were over 700 reports of types and instances of mental illness in its membership. Not every child of a Vietnam Veteran struggles with mental illness, but it is a constant hurdle in many of our lives. Not enough is being done to make sure the children of Vietnam Veterans are getting the health care they need to properly manage their mental health issues.
In Australia, the government offers free counseling to Veterans and veteran’s families through the VVCS – Veterans and Veterans Families Counseling Service. It is specialized, free, confidential counseling for Australian veterans, peacekeepers and their families. They provide treatment for war related mental health issues. Our children of veterans in the United States have no extra support in dealing with the aftermath of war. We have endured difficulties such as; growing up with a Vietnam Vet trying to readjust to civilian life, being born with disabilities due to our father’s dioxin exposure, watching our veteran fathers die prematurely of service connected deaths from Agent Orange, and dealing with chronic debilitating illnesses. When we seek help we mostly find practitioners who have no idea the toll war can take on a family. We become discouraged and think we are alone.
The children of Vietnam vets need an intervention. We need the United States government to make policy changes to ensure that those of us who have disabilities from our father’s exposure are compensated, eligible for health care, mental health care, and vocational training as needed. It’s time to take responsibility for what has been done to us and our families.
Vietnam Vets are now watching their grandchildren being born with multiple birth defects, developmental problems, Spina Bifida, rare illnesses, and the like. This is the third and newest generation to have to play out this horrible science experiment. Our Vietnam Veteran’s lives have been a cruel game of Russian roulette, they have watched as Agent Orange has not only destroyed their own health, but is now moving through the genes of the their children and grand children. Ultimately many do not dodge the Agent Orange bullet.
Rest in Peace James Lange, a beloved 39 year-old child of a Vietnam Veteran. He did not fight in the jungle, but fought his whole life despite.
COVVHA continues to provide support for the children of Vietnam Veterans who believe their life has been negatively affected by Agent Orange. If you would like more information please visit us at www.covvha.net.
By: Heather A. Bowser, LPCC
© 2013 (COVVHA) Children Of Vietnam Veterans Health Alliance INC.
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