The lingering effects of Agent Orange

By Jim Lewis
Posted Feb 6, 2012

[Episcopal News Service] Fifty years ago—1962—long before I knew where Nitro, West Virginia, was located, I was a student at Virginia Theological Seminary. Having processed out of the Marine Corp, I had traded my copy of The Uniform Code of Military Justice for a Bible. There would be no more military exercises for war. I was preparing for the exercise of parish ministry.

Back then I didn’t know that on January 18, 1962, the United States began spraying dioxin-based Agent Orange in Southeast Asia. During the Vietnam War, 19,000,000 gallons of this deadly chemical was sprayed in Vietnam, eastern Laos, and parts of Cambodia. It is estimated to have killed or maimed some 400,000 people, and been responsible for 500,000 children born with birth defects. Sprayed to deny the enemy hiding places for ambush, Agent Orange also saturated our own troops on the ground.

In my first assignment as a priest at St. Anne’s Church in Annapolis, Maryland, I counseled with midshipmen at the United States Naval Academy headed for Vietnam. But it wasn’t until 1974, when I was rector of St. John’s Church in Charleston, West Virginia, that Agent Orange reared its ugly head.

By 1974, Vietnam veterans were coming home. St. John’s, as a part of its mission, opened its building to serve as an office where veterans with a variety of war-related problems were able to receive counseling. This was an early effort to begin a West Virginia chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America. It was also a part of an effort, on the part of veterans, to have the U.S. government recognize illness caused by Agent Orange, and for veterans to receive medical treatment for those illnesses.

Thanks to the perseverance of veterans who had served in Vietnam, along with family and friends, that effort succeeded.
The ugly truth of the matter lies in the fact that a Monsanto chemical plant in the town of Nitro, just 15 miles down the valley from where those veterans met, was the source of the Agent Orange that did so much damage to them and the people of Vietnam.

There have been numerous lawsuits over the years against Monsanto, along with six other chemical manufacturers of Agent Orange. Those cases have moved, and continue to move, at a snail’s pace through the courts, thus leaving the people of Vietnam, as well as Americans affected by Agent Orange, without adjudication or compensation for damages.

In March of 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the companies were not responsible for the use and destruction caused by Agent Orange because these companies were government contractors, carrying out the instructions of the government.

Within the next few weeks, Monsanto will be back in court right here in the county in which Agent Orange was produced 50 years ago. The trial will involve a class action lawsuit arguing that Monsanto dioxin spills may have affected employees in the plant and residents of Nitro, where leaks and dumping took place during the production of Agent Orange. The people will be seeking medical monitoring for at least 5,000, and perhaps as many as 80,000 people.

Appalachia is often misunderstood and overlooked. Our mountains isolate us from major media coverage, except when there is a coal mine disaster, or someone distorts our proud culture with jokes about hillbillies. Our poverty is not pretty. We are the “Other America” depicted by Michael Harrington—the America that triggered President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” — a war superseded by the Vietnam War.

It would be a grave mistake now for the nation to turn a blind eye on the Putnam County, West Virginia, courtroom where the Agent Orange case will be argued.  Communities all over our nation are affected by the pollution attributed to the very companies that produce jobs and promise economic health.

Many of these companies, fueled by short-term economic goals, have a way of abandoning communities—picking up and moving—and leaving long-term environmental and health problems.  Nitro, once subsidized by chemical dollars, must now rely on a dog track and casino gambling to make ends met.

Keep an eye on Nitro, West Virginia. You see, our nation sent men and women to fight in Vietnam, sprayed them inadvertently with harmful chemicals, and then brought them home sick to communities where the poisonous herbicide was produced.  On top of that, communities — I am talking about Nitro — where the people who worked in the plant and residents who have lived amidst the residue of carcinogenetic dioxin may very well be suffering illnesses, not from the government, but from Monsanto.

— The Rev. Jim Lewis, an Episcopal priest, lives in Charleston, West Virginia, where he does peace and justice work.

Comments (11)

  1. The Rev. Gina Volpe says:

    Thank you for such a good report on the after effects of Agent Orange. In my 16 years in working hospice, I an still haunted by the memory the patient who we with worked daily in the inpatient hospice unit for 2 months straight trying to manage his pain. He was not only drenched by the Agent Orange, he got to mop it up at the end of the day. He is the only patient in the 1000s of patients that I cared for who died in excruciating pain.

  2. Barbara Danner says:

    Thank you for writing this piece and for the peace and justice work you do. The loss and damage go on and on with many generations affected. The In Memory Program of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund helps families who continue to lose loved ones due to Agent Orange. That we have begun new rounds of damage due to the wars in the Middle East is so very sad. As long as men in power provoke and react with wars there will be destruction in widening circles. We continue to teach peacemaking and pray for the many victims of war. Bless you for your efforts and concern.

  3. Rev Tom Gilbert (Deacon) says:

    Rev. Jim,
    Thanks for your article – my oldest brother Eugene Gillbert suffers from bladder cancer and other malidies as a result Orange Poisioning that they used for testing as a defoliant when he was in basic training for the Army. I expect there are many more that suffer similar effects. He as been working thru Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snow here in Maine to get compensation for his medical bills but because he did not tour Vietnam he is not eligible. I am a deacon at two Episcopal churches in Maine – St. Martins in Palmyra and All Saints in Skowhegan and I appreciate you drawing attention to these injustices of lingering effects since many are not aware.
    Keep up the good work my Brother in Christ,
    Rev. Tom Gilbert, Deacon

  4. Yvette Tsiropoulos says:

    Thank you for reminding us of the spraying of Agent Orange and its effects brought upon our troops in Vietnam. My father’s only brother did two tours of duty as Army paramedic in Vietnam and died a very painful death years later, in the mid 1970’s. At the time, the attending physician was baffled by the case and gave little guidance to my aunt as to how to care for him at home, where he eventually died within months. And here we are again, welcoming home a new generation of women and men with their unique set of injuries both seen and unseen.
    God bless you and your ministry, you are on my prayer list.

  5. Several families in Newark, New Jersey, several years ago got recourse from the company that produced Agent Orange there. Many bad batches were dumped into the Passaic River between Newark and Harrison and owing to their insolubility still remain there on the bottom slowly leaching and moving into the Newark Bay and then into the Atlantic fishing grounds. No removal is planned by the USEPA, unfortunately. Out of sight, out of mind? The NJDEP found over 400 fishermen fish in the Newark Bay even though it is posted “No Fishing” on the New Jersey side but not on the Staten Island side. All the fish and crabs are contaminated; still no action by NJ/NYDEC.

  6. Allen Johnson says:

    Jim Lewis flushes out of the closet several important moral imperatives, to which I’ll comment. First, the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam was chemical warfare, one of the big three of “weapons of mass destruction,” the other two being nuclear and biological. That Agent Orange’s target of death was plants does not obviate its “collateral damage” on people. Anymore than the use of land mines to prevent enemy troop movements obviate its horrible carnage on civilian populations. (The United States, by the way, is one of only a few nations that refuses to agree to an international treaty banning land mines). And while I am on a rant against such weapons of mass destruction, I should point out another West Virginia manufacturing connection. Which is Alliant Techsystems/Allegany Ballistics Laboratory in Rocket City, West Virginia, (near Keyser) where radioactive depleted uranium is re-manufactured for munitions. Depleted Uranium has been used extensively in both Iraq wars, leading to large numbers of cancers and birth defects. Finally, I should mention that studies are coming out correlating the mining method of mountaintop removal (a form of strip mining which produces high levels of air pollution) with high rates of birth defects, cancers, and respiratory illnesses.

  7. Katerina Whitley says:

    Profound thanks to Jim Lewis who has spoken out against injustice for decades now. Your courage inspires us, Jim. And many thanks to ENS for drawing attention to this terrible wrong by publishing Jim’s piece on its pages.

  8. My husband was a chopper pilot. He spent three tours in Nam. He passed away 30 September 2011 from pneumonia related to Agent Orange Cancer. His brother was a Marine on the DMZ. He is dying with a lung disease related to Orange. Two brothers out of a family that fought for their country and went because they were told to go. In case you don’t know, Round Up, that kills weeds has the same chemicals as Orange. I was in Nam and got lucky. I was on a post near a river and it was sprayed constantly to peel back the jungle to make it safer for the River Rats, boats that patroled the river for sampans loaded with weapons. My son is a Marine and has spent four tours in the ME. He has come home as good as when he went.

  9. Alynn Beimford says:

    My husband, along with most of the men active in The American Legion in their 60’s and 70’s, is suffering cancers related to Agent Orange. What we failed to observe was that in the 1950’s this same product was used along roads being built in Appalachia and northbound to the Canadian Border. Many ‘baby-boomers’ suffering from these same cancers can blame the same companies, the same local, state and federal governments. My prayer is that we have learned a lesson we don’t have to pass to the next generations.

  10. Barbara Hill says:

    Thank u for such informative information. I have a cousin that is effect by this ordeal! And recently after a family members funeral I attended along with my cousin. I was in for the surprise of my life.
    The mental stress on him was unbelievable! I was young when he would return to visit us, so I wasn’t made aware of his issues. Now being 54 and he is 67 I did a 10- 12 hour car ride from North Caroline, to New Jersey with him!! Wow….. Was I in for a rude awaking!
    After telling other family members of this, I decided to do some research on line.
    Again Thank You

  11. Fern Bibb Boylen says:

    I just saw this and wanted to add that where I grew up near Ansted West Va they sprayed Agent Orange on our power lines while I was growing up, a lot of us have many medical problems including cancer, many have passed away from cancer. Is there any way to prove that Agent Orange was and could still be in the grounds where I grew up? Our water was well and spring water, still is there. We played outside while our power lines were being sprayed right next to our houses…not knowing how dangerous the spray was. Thank you… Fern Bibb Boylen

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