A Simmering Controversy
Starting in the mid-1970s, veterans of the Vietnam Conflict began reporting chronic health issues to the Department of Veterans Affairs. While some veterans suspected it was due to exposure to a chemical agent while serving overseas, the government refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing. Since at least 1978, lawsuits have been filed against the private firms that manufactured Agent Orange, including agricultural giants Monsanto and Dow Chemical. In 1980, a sergeant offered the first ever deposition related to Agent Orange illness, as he was dying from an inoperable brain tumor he argued was caused by extensive exposure to Agent Orange.
Despite denying any wrongdoing and denying the toxicity of Agent Orange, several major chemical companies settled out of court before a jury trial could begin. Many veterans were outraged by the settlement, as they wanted their day and court and for the US public to learn more about the damaging effects they suffered from Agent Orange exposure. The results of the class action lawsuit ended up being very poor, as a fully disabled veteran would only be eligible for $12,000 paid out in installments over 10 years. This “income” was also subject to means testing and could render disabled veterans ineligible for food stamps and other forms of public assistance.
Widows of disabled veterans were only eligible for a one-time payment of $3,700. Many veterans their families were naturally dismayed to learn how little their illnesses and lives were worth. As recently as 2004, Monsanto has gone on record with spokespersons stating that while they feel sorry for the veterans, they believe the science shows Agent Orange is not responsible for their illnesses. Thankfully, in 1991 Congress passed the Agent Orange Act which authorized the Veterans Administration medical system to cover treatment for Agent Orange related cancers and other diseases.
In an even more brutal ruling, a class-action lawsuit brought by Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange exposure was dismissed out of hand by the very same judge, Jack B. Weinstein, who agreed to the settlement of the US Veterans’ class-action suit. Weinstein argued that there was no legal basis for their case, as Agent Orange was not listed as a poison at the time of its use and no treaties barred the use of herbicide in war. The lack of US government acknowledge of Agent Orange’s harm has continued to be a sticking point in relationships between Vietnam and the United States
The Vietnamese government cares for its Agent Orange victims through monthly stipends. The International Red Cross also raises money for those affected. Vietnam has also established “peace villages” with medical and psychological care for those affected. The centers are distributed throughout Vietnam. At least 11 villages still existed and were providing care to over 1,000 afflicted individuals as of 2006. Many US Vietnam Conflict veterans support the efforts of these villages and help raise funds for their continued operation.