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Vietnam Vets need to know: Agent Orange effects can come 30 years or more after exposure; benefits available

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Vietnam Defoliation Mission

Photo caption: Vietnam Defoliation Mission. A UH-1D helicopter from the 336th Aviation Company sprays a defoliation agent on a dense jungle area in the Mekong delta., 07/26/1969/National Archives photo

In 2000, three decades after serving in Vietnam, Minnesota veteran Jim Fiebke of Rochester, Minn., then 52, was diagnosed with multiple myeloma.  A chance encounter in a parking lot led him to the VA where he learned he qualified for funds allocated for Vietnam veterans for diseases considered "presumptive" for Agent Orange exposure.

Fiebke is one of about 2.4 million Vietnam veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange sprayed by airplanes, helicopters, boats and soldiers on the ground between 1962 and 1975. About 20 million gallons of the herbicide were sprayed in Vietnam to kill foliage. 

A dozen diseases, from multiple myeloma to prostate cancer to Type 2 diabetes, have been deemed through lengthy studies and statistical analysis to be presumptive for Agent Orange exposure. In addition, health care, compensation and vocational rehabilitation services are provided to Vietnam veterans' offspring with spina bifida, a congenital birth defect of the spine which is also a risk factor related to Agent Orange exposure. But many Vietnam veterans aren't aware of the benefits available to them. Some don't realize that exposure to the dioxin in Agent Orange can manifest in illnesses decades after contact with the chemical. Unlike most VA-related health benefits, there is no time limit for claiming illness related to Agent Orange exposure. That has not always been the case. Major court decisions in 1979, 1985, and 2007, national legislation and huge ongoing epidemiological studies by the National Academies of Sciences and others have made it possible for Vietnam veterans to file Agent Orange-related claims for benefits, sometimes retroactively.

Fiebke hopes that his story will capture the attention of other Vietnam veterans and their family members, alerting them to the types of diseases considered presumptive for Agent Orange, and encourage them to apply for the benefits won over a 40-year battle.

Interview with Jim Fiebke:

Jim Fiebke

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Why is it so hard to get the word out about the Agent Orange-related benefits?

I think the word gets out to Vietnam veterans pretty readily if they’re members of organizations like American Legion, VFW, or Disabled American Veterans.  They all do a good job of letting vets know, but for the most part, when guys got back from Vietnam, they didn’t necessarily join those organizations. If they're not in one of those organizations, they may never get the information that the disease they have may get them some compensation and medical help from Veterans Affairs.

It was a hard-won benefit, if I recall. What was the turning point?

I don't know the history very well on it. I was one of these people that were just in the dark about it.  And, frankly, like most people, when I got back from Vietnam, I just wanted to put it in my rearview mirror as quick as I could and get away from it.  But I know there was a fight, and it probably culminated in the 1990s. And the late '90s is when things started to come into place and the government acknowledged that, yeah, these diseases more likely than not were the result of Agent Orange exposure.  It's a dioxin.  It was an herbicide used to kill off foliage to deny the enemy cover, basically. The reason it was called Agent Orange is it was stored in barrels that had an orange stripe on them.

Was it in the air, the water, maybe even in the food supply?

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In my case I'm sure it was in the water that we used, and I presume it was on the foliage and in the dirt.  Yeah, it was just there, and it was a lot of chemicals.  I read it can stay around for years.  I don't know if there was any one source attributed to how you come in contact with it. I think they mixed fuel oil or diesel fuel in with it so it would not evaporate and would adhere to foliage and things. A few times when I was in the field, I could actually smell what I thought was diesel fuel, and I never had any idea what that was all about.  It was very faint, but it was very clear.  It smelled like being around the pumps at a gas station with diesel fuel.

After you got back, you didn't have any immediate problems.  How long was it before your disease appeared?

It was exactly 30 years after I got back that I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma.  I was diagnosed very early.  The reason we caught it early was that I got pneumonia twice and that surprised the doctors. They dug a little deeper and found out there was something wrong with my antibodies. The diagnosis was multiple myeloma.  They were surprised by that, too. This is usually a disease that strikes men in their 70s and older, and I was 52. They didn't speculate on where it had come from, but I always wondered after that.  Some people when they get cancer ask, "Well, why me?"  I got it, and I just couldn't understand why now.  I had that on my mind.  That was in 2000, and it wasn't until 2003 that someone said, 'You know, you should go talk to your county Veterans Service officer.'  My claim was approved as 100 percent service-connected 

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Kathlyn Stone is a Minnesota-based writer covering science and medicine, health care and related policies.-She publishes, a health and science news site.

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