"There's nothing worse than having a child who is ill and you wonder why," said Bernard Edelman, an Army vet who is now deputy director for policy and government affairs with Vietnam Veterans of America. "The fact that you may have been responsible for that child's hurt and pain ... it's very difficult to live with."
Edelman spent much of 1970 in Vietnam as a combat correspondent, producing radio broadcasts transmitted worldwide. Years later, he was diagnosed with illnesses connected to Agent Orange.
The bill was introduced in April by Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Reps. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., Mike Honda, D-Calif. and Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn., the second time lawmakers have moved to promote research on illnesses stemming from service exposures.
Last September, Blumenthal and Moran teamed with Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, to sponsor the legislation, which not only would establish a research center but would declassify documents related to any incident in which 100 or more service members were exposed to a toxic substance that resulted in at least one disability case.
"Children and grandchildren did not sign up, but they may bear the wounds of war," Blumenthal said in reintroducing the legislation this year. "The government owes our veterans so they can better understand the impact these indirect exposures have to guarantee their children and grandchildren receive appropriate treatment."
The legislation has the backing of some powerful veterans groups, including AMVETS, the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Rolling Thunder.
In Southeast Asia, American soldiers spayed defoliants — mainly Monsanto manufactured Agent Orange — over millions of acres of dense jungle to deprive the Viet Cong of cover. Manufacturers promised the herbicide would cause no lasting harm to humans — but they were wrong. Veterans have reported their own illnesses, of course, and saw birth defects in their children.
Navy personnel assigned to boats that traveled the rivers of Vietnam suffered exposure. And for years after the war, Air Force reservists flew the C-123 aircraft that had sprayed the chemical, still in the airframes as residue.
Thousands filed disability claims with the Veterans Affairs Department. As a result of their enduring fight, VA now acknowledges a link between Agent Orange and some diseases, including various cancers, diabetes and Parkinson's Disease.
More recently, more children have come forward to claim diseases they believed are linked to their parents' exposure.
But studies are almost never absolute, so a lack of scientific consensus prevents much from being done.
"There're so much that we don't know." Edelman said. "That's why we want a thorough research."
VA said just last week that the Air Force reservists exposed to Agent Orange residue after the Vietnam War should be eligible for disability benefits.
The decision means that for the first time, service-related conditions have been found in military personnel who never set boots on the ground in an active combat zone.
It's believed to set the stage for examining more claims and expanding coverage of people affected by Agent Orange in less direct circumstances.
Several birth defects in children of Vietnam veterans are considered by VA to be service-connected, including spina bifida for children of male vets and 18 health conditions for children of mothers who served in that combat zone.
The Children of Vietnam Veterans Health Alliance, an advocacy group for those who have illnesses they believe are tied to their parents service in Southeast Asia, maintains a catalog of diseases for more than 2,000 military descendants.
Military Times staff writer Patricia Kime contributed to this report.
Bernard Edelman, an Army vet who is now deputy director for policy and government affairs with Vietnam Veterans of America, spent much of 1970 in Vietnam as a radio correspondent. Years later, he was diagnosed with illnesses connected to Agent Orange.
Photo Credit: Medill News Service