12. Training to handle chemical weapons was extensive and often ineffective
Operation Ranch Hand was a largely US Air Force program which began in 1962. It was developed by the US military upon the advice of British consultants who had used similar operations battling insurgents in Malaya, and consisted of the use of herbicides and other chemicals to defoliate large swathes of Vietnam’s forests and jungles. The notorious Agent Orange was one such chemical, though it was but one of many used by American forces. Roughly 95% of the toxic defoliants sprayed on Vietnamese lands were deposited by the US Air Force, supported by personnel trained in the use and handling of the herbicides.
At the time the chemical defoliants used for Ranch Hand were considered safe as regards exposure to humans, and Air Force personnel tasked with the maintenance of the aircraft used for spraying did not receive special training regarding safety precautions. Instead, Air Force personnel were trained to accept that the chemicals, particularly Agent Orange, were safe and that there was no risk inherent with exposure to the herbicides. Fifty years later the truth over Agent Orange and the other chemicals used during the defoliation operations is still hotly debated. But military training regarding chemical handling in all branches of the service has changed to include precautions to be taken by personnel with any risk of exposure, either by contact or inhalation.