The Poison Harvest: Agent Orange and the Legacy of Vietnam
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.