The Poison Harvest: Agent Orange and the Legacy of Vietnam

Agent Orange: The Vietnam herbicide brings the war back home

Gas Mask Credit: Eldad Carin/Getty

Wendy Vogt's husband and two brothers spent the late Sixties tramping through Vietnamese jungle. Michael Vogt, a Navy Seabee (construction brigade), backpacked a metal spray machine, clearing underbrush from roadsides and camp perimeters with a chemical spray. Sometimes he could taste the herbicide and feel it itching on his skin days later. His brothers-in-law, Army veterans Edward and John Miller, remember trailblazing helicopters showering them with the same acrid spray.

All three men, who have since returned to homes near Seattle, have spent a large part of the past few years in doctors' offices. Edward Miller is fighting liver cancer. Vogt and John Miller have swollen livers that will not stop growing. Vogt and Edward Miller suffer from bursts of anger they cannot control. All three are plagued by prolonged exhaustion and numbness in their fingers.

Nettie and Harold Freedlund used to raise hogs on a 280-acre spread of farmland among the elm, ash and box elder of Wisconsin. Then a neighbor hired a helicopter pilot to douse his brush with weed-killer. For months afterward, the Freedlund's year-old baby thrashed and tore out her hair in her sleep and woke up screaming. Their other five children became chronically ill. Nettie Freedlund suffered three miscarriages.

The Freedlund hogs lost their ability to produce normal offspring. Many piglets were born so crippled they couldn't stand up to eat. Today only a half-dozen misshapen carcasses, harbored in a freezer as evidence of what happened, are left from the herd.

Nettie Freedlund and Wendy Vogt have never met. But they are bound together in a largely unorganized crusade against a popular chemical, herbicide 2, 4, 5-T, which they blame for the shadow over their lives.

Once before, during the political firestorms of Vietnam, there was a campaign to ban 2, 4, 5-T. At that time, 2, 4, 5-T (in combination with the similar 2, 4-D) was known as Agent Orange and was part of Operation Ranchhand, a chemical warfare maneuver to drive Vietnamese guerrillas from the jungle and peasants into resettlement camps. Agent Orange left the mangrove swamps and rice fields blistered and brown and, according to Vietnamese doctors, was responsible for an epidemic of deformed children.

The North Vietnamese sent antiwar groups photographic evidence – one baby had three legs, no neck and a bulbous sack for a jaw, another had a mouth beveled like a duck's – and as public outrage grew and even government reports confirmed the dangers of Agent Orange, the Pentagon elected to abandon Operation Ranchhand. With that, the controversy faded from public view.

Then in June 1977, while legal and extralegal resistance to U.S. Forest Service spraying 2, 4, 5-T sprang up in the Northwest, Vietnam vet Charles Owens died of cancer. His widow asked the Veterans' Administration for survivor's benefits, claiming that her husband's death must have had something to do with his 1966-67 tour in Vietnam. "He was the kind who never got sick – until after Vietnam," she said. "Then he was always ailing." She got suspicious when "weird things" started happening to her husband: "His weight dropped from 170 to about 100 pounds, and his eyes changed color. In two months he was dead."

Mrs. Owens phoned the regional VA office in Chicago to complain and found a sympathetic listener in Maude De Victor, a Navy veteran who was still recuperating from her own battle with cancer. De Victor lacked the clout to help, but the phone call alerted her to a pattern she detected among other Vietnam veterans.

By early 1978, De Victor had come across more than 50 cases in the Chicago area that appeared to be related to Agent Orange poisonings. Paul Steinke, 31, who flew herbicide helicopters in Vietnam, had developed a numbing of his left hand and an uncharacteristic anxiety; his wife had suffered four miscarriages. Former Green Beret Milton Ross, 29, who recalls Agent Orange in the wind at Kontum, had lost manual dexterity, had grown disinterested in sex and turned so irritable that his wife had left him. Their only child had been born with deformed fingers and toes and an atrophied band around one leg.

In many instances, De Victor noted, the herbicide symptoms coincided with unexpected drops in weight. Curious, she hunted down more information. She found a theory, advanced by Washington University environmentalist Barry Commoner and supported by University of Wisconsin tests on monkeys, that Agent Orange can be stored in fatty tissues, like bullets packed in petroleum jelly. The chemical remains innocuous, according to this theory, until a contaminated individual loses weight and the fat breaks down, releasing the poison into the bloodstream.

In March 1978, De Victor made her research public in a whistle-blowing interview with WBBM, the local CBS television affiliate. The next day, Wendy Vogt read an Associated Press account of De Victor's story in a Seattle newspaper, then read it again. "I didn't know what to think at first," she says. "I didn't know whether to be mad or what." After three years of marital and medical purgatory, Vogt finally had an explanation for her family's ordeal.

"The way the story described the symptoms of the men in Chicago, it was like drawing a picture of my husband," she says. William Vogt, now 29, came home from Vietnam in 1970 with a skin rash as the only testament to his duties with the backpack sprayer. But in 1975 he lost 15 pounds and almost immediately was beset with troubles. He became sickly, lost feeling in his fingers, woke up twitching, lost libido and became so depressed he had to be hospitalized. There doctors discovered he also had a dangerously enlarged liver.

Wendy Vogt's two brothers also developed liver conditions. Edward Miller's liver became malignant, and he was told he had only a few months to live. Funeral arrangements were under way when chemotherapy arrested the cancer.

Until the AP dispatch from Chicago, Wendy Vogt assumed the problems were unrelated. "But suddenly it all made sense," she says. "The one thing all three had in common was being in Vietnam and being exposed to Agent Orange." Nor were these isolated examples. Wendy talked to several Seattle friends married to Vietnam vets, she says; 10 of them also had liver damage and hyperanxiety.

When her husband applied for disability benefits, however, the VA turned him down. "After all he's suffered, the government wouldn't do a damn thing for him." Wendy's voice quavers with indignation. "That's when I got mad."

The VA has retreated from its original position and now concedes the possibility of Agent Orange aftereffects. But officials in Washington say they will not pay claims without better proof. Nettie Freedlund believes she has part of that proof in the basement of the rambling Pittsville, Wisconsin, farmhouse that has been a family home for three generations. It is there she keeps a 15-cubic-foot freezer piled with deformed animals, a history on ice of her past seven years.

Nettie was inside the house when she heard the helicopter whirring overhead on Saturday afternoon, August 28th, 1971. By her count it made at least 40 passes over the area, shrouding the Freedlund farm in a thick, chocking fog. Grapevines and plum trees, heavy with fruit, turned ashen, as if touched by a winter frost.

For two years afterward, the Freedlunds were besieged with headaches that, Nettie says, "felt like cold, black bands pressing on the forehead." Even today one teenage son still suffers from the headaches and from a painful swelling of his face. The healthiest Freedlund is a daughter who has refused, since that August Saturday, to drink the farm milk because it "tastes funny."

Wisconsin Department of Agriculture officials assured the Freedlunds the milk was safe to drink, Nettie says, and that their barnyard animals would survive the nausea and enervation that struck them. For a while the hogs and cattle did seem recovered, but by the following spring the Freedlunds knew otherwise.

Sows miscarried or gave birth prematurely. Nearly all the piglets that lived. Nettie says, were disfigured. Many were born with joints so weak they collapsed on their snouts after only a few steps; others had no feet, some no rectum. The calves were similarly afflicted. Chickens sat on sterile, thin-shelled eggs that rotted under them.

In the surrounding woods, the Freedlunds found snakes writhing helplessly in herbicide-fouled dust, crippled fawns and mice the shape of Halloween caricatures. A piglet was born with five feet. The Freedlund children named him "Chester" and raised him, but his limp grew so distressing he had to be put to sleep.

A veterinarian also had to be called for the family's best milk-producing cow. The vet diagnosed a bloated liver and leukemia and sent a blood sample to California for further tests. A laboratory there found traces of 2, 4, 5-T in the sample.

Nettie Freedlund keeps the lab report among her special papers and keeps the cow's liver, along with forbidding specimens of piglets, calves and mice, preserved in the basement freezer. Some day, she hopes, these will be exhibits at an independent adjudication. There is a need for one, Nettie says, because the state agriculture department's verdict is that, except for the withered greenery, the farm's maladies are not a chemical matter but the result of some unknown contagion. "Some of the deformities may have been caused by inbreeding," says William Simmons, spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, who claims to have a thick folder of correspondence from federal and state officials about the Freedlund case.

Wisconsin officialdom's attitude toward the Freedlunds is in keeping with the official U.S. government policy on 2, 4, 5-T. In the words of one federal spokesman, the herbicide is as benign as aspirin. That is the import of a decade-long debate over a federal policy that has been confusing, contradictory and, apparently, open to manipulation.

At the center of the debate is a vicious contaminant called dioxin, which is found in all batches of 2, 4, 5-T. Dioxin is a byproduct that can be reduced but not eliminated in the manufacturing of the herbicide. It may be the most deadly poison ever made available for random use; its toxicity is measured in parts per trillion. At issue is whether the dioxin levels in 2,4,5-T, which are a few parts per trillion, can reasonably be considered safe.

As early as 1966, government studies showed that dioxin-contaminated 2,4,5-T caused birth defects in laboratory animals. Later studies also held the herbicide at fault for miscarriages, liver abscesses, nerve damage and unaccountable personality changes.

Dow Chemical Company, the nation's largest 2,4,5-T producer, objected to the early findings because it felt the test herbicide had prejudicially high levels of dioxin. Congress set out to resolve the dispute in 1970 as a response to the Agent Orange controversy, and when new studies revealed that much smaller doses of dioxin were still hazardous, the Vietnam defoliant program was halted and the surgeon general placed tight restrictions on the use of 2,4,5-T around American homes.

But Dow Chemical soon spied a bureaucratic crease. Dow claimed that civilian 2,4,5-T contained significantly less dioxin than Agent Orange, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was obliged to arbitrate. "We've never accepted the premise that 2,4,5-T has been responsible for human birth defects," explains Dow spokesman John Davidson. "We've conducted several tests that give it a clean bill of health." But the EPA's first ruling in 1971 was another step toward outlawing the chemical. Dow then went to federal court and won a two-year reprieve. In the interim, EPA's determination dissolved; scheduled hearings were canceled.

New Yorker writer Thomas Whiteside investigated this dissolution and reported on a political struggle that apparently had sapped the EPA's will. U.S. Representative Jamie Whitten of Mississippi – a major rice-growing state, many of whose farmers rely on 2,4,5-T – used his position as a key congressional steward of the EPA budget to squeeze the agency. The Nixon White House also pressured the EPA "to go easy on regulatory matters," according to Whiteside.

Two other government agencies, the Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service, had added a further complication. They had sided with Dow. The agriculture department lobbied for 2,4,5-T on behalf of grain farmers and ranchers who prefer it to hoeing and scything, and the forest service made known its concern for the timber industry and for its own national forest program, both of which also depend on 2,4,5-T. (The forest service is the worst single offender, spraying 100,000 acres a year.) The reason was money. Herbicides are three times cheaper, for instance, than hiring laborers to chop down unwanted broadleaf vegetation that competes with more valuable fir and pine trees.

As a result of the EPA's inaction, Dow continued to produce 2,4,5-T; its proponents continued to spray it, mostly in the South, the upper Midwest and the Northwest, and more reports of its malignant nature accumulated.

In 1972, doctors linked it to deformities in 16 New Zealand babies and scores of household pets. In 1975, a spring that supplies water for 20 Fayetteville, Arkansas, families was accidentally contaminated with it. Six of eight babies subsequently were miscarried, according to a local women's group, and a seventh was born deformed. In 1976 almost everyone in Denny, California, became sick for two weeks after the herbicide contaminated the drinking water.

By 1977, the 2,4,5-T issue appeared to be acquiring a renewed urgency. Willard Shoecraft of Globe, Arizona, sued Dow for $25 million in the cancer death of his wife, a circumstance he attributes to her twice getting caught in 2,4,5-T spraying of nearby Tonto National Forest.

Harvard researchers discovered tiny amounts of dioxin in the mother's milk of half of all Texan women tested and a fifth of all Oregon women, two states that have been heavily layered with 2,4,5-T. Slightly larger amounts were found in the fat of beef cattle. The Harvard research was evidence that dioxin persists in the ecosystem and tended to confirm the theory that it concentrates in fatty tissues. In Washington, however, the federal government's policy on 2,4,5-T did not change.

That led in the summer of 1977 to a bizarre and allegorical sequence. The Pentagon's leftover arsenal of Agent Orange, which had a legacy of 5 million scarred Vietnamese acres, was burned at sea, attended by gas-masked sailors on a specially built ship to preclude any chance of the poison escaping inside the U.S. But at the same time, 2,4,5-T was being sprayed on 5 million U.S. acres, as had been done every year for the past decade.

What should have been obvious was that even though the domestic version has a lower dioxin level, it has been disseminated at a rate far in excess of its military counterpart. But this was apparently too abstruse for official Washington, and so a more pointed approach began.

In Minnesota, farmer Harmon Seaver fired a rifle at one of the U.S. Forest Service's herbicide helicopters and won acquittal from a local jury on grounds of self-defense. In northern California, environmentalists organized a "Spray Alert" force, Armed with citizen's band radios and occasional shotguns, the back-to-the-land vigilantes set up an around-the-clock watch, like World War II Londoners during the blitzkrieg, ready to spread alarm at the first glimpse of a spray plane.

More traditional environmentalists gathered in Washington in February 1978 to forge a 16-state coalition to push for federal legislation similar to Minnesota and Oregon state laws that radically restrict 2,4,5-T. Because the U.S. Forest Service is immune from state laws, however, groups from Oregon, Washington and Idaho had to go to court for injunctions against a federal plan to spray nearly 100,000 acres of Northwestern forest. The environmentalists were temporarily victorious, but the forest service appealed the decision.

In Chicago, meanwhile, Maude De Victor launched her modest campaign within the VA, tracking down ex-Gls with Agent Orange symptoms. Citizen Soldier, a GI rights group, gave the search a national scope by publicizing a toll-free number and received more than 1,000 calls in six months. U.S. Representatives Abner Mikya of Illinois and Don Edwards of California began to call attention to the matter in Congress. As a consequence, the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs has asked for a full report from the VA and General Accounting Office.

The pertinent federal agencies have not been unmoved by all this. The EPA has finally placed 2,4,5-T on its list of suspect chemicals and rallied its regulatory forces to hold the long-delayed hearings. Presumably they will give some attention to a recent National Institute of Health study that connects 2,4,5-T and dioxin to liver cancer and leukemia. The VA is undertaking its own simultaneous investigation. And the U.S. Forest Service says it will now be more judicious in its 2,4,5-T program.

Yet none of official Washington's actions have had any impact on the thousands of apparent 2,4,5-T victims. And the VA has ordered Maude de Victor to stop looking for them.