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New Documentary Explores Agent Orange's Little-Known Medical Legacy For Civilians

Agent Orange, the chemical herbicide used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War to deforest the land, deprived combatants of food and the ability to conceal themselves.

But as we now know, the toxic chemicals did much more than that. Agent Orange caused devastating health consequences for millions of people — the Vietnamese on the ground and the American troops serving there. In 1979, there was legal action that won a historic settlement.

What’s not commonly known is that American civilians working stateside were also exposed to the harsh herbicide. Among them were workers at the Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. 

Radio producer Jon Kalish ( @kalishjon) tells their stories in his new documentary, “ The Forgotten Civilians of Eglin Air Force Base,” commissioned by Living Downstream. The environmental justice podcast series is from Northern California Public Media. Kalish joins  Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss the documentary.

The workers at Eglin were known as range technicians. Some of them went out and collected cardboard placards that had been sprayed, bringing them back to a lab to be analyzed. Others were cameramen operating massive refrigerator-sized color film cameras. As the cameramen filmed, they were also being sprayed.

Tommy C. Brown and Clarence Hobbs were among those filming. In the documentary, Brown described the process.

“Sometimes, it would be like a mist,” Brown says. “But I remember one time, we got sprayed [and] it was like a mud. It was like a thin mud. It kind of covered us up. If we saw mist, I would not turn that camera off. I would sit there in my position unless they told me otherwise.”

“Sometimes we’d have to wipe our foreheads running the camera ’cause [it got] on your forehead bad enough you’d pray it don’t get in your eyes,” Hobbes adds. “They gave us instructions to wipe that camera down and clean it every night, but they never told us anything about wiping ourselves down.”

Kalish explains that at the time, there was very little understanding of Agent Orange’s dangers. And for these men, who he describes as “salt-of-the-Earth kind of guys,” the work at Eglin Air Force Base was a solid, well-paying job. And there was no warning from the Vitro Company that employed the civilians that they were being exposed to a highly toxic chemical compound that contained dioxin.

In addition to their own exposures, Kalish says the workers now believe they were inadvertently exposing their wives and children. Linda Yates, widow of worker Jack Yates, describes how her then 3-year-old daughter would jump into her father’s arms when he came home from work, so thickly covered in the chemical that it created a coating on his clothing.

“I did not know how dangerous that chemical was,” she says. “When I did get to wash them [his clothing] they were like starched. Sticky and stiff.” And those clothes, she says, went into the washing machine with her and her children’s laundry.

Another worker, Bobby Gunter, worries that his late wife’s neurological problems and stepson’s death from leukemia were also Agent Orange related.

“And I beat myself up all these years,” he laments. “Was [Agent Orange] the cause of it?”

Kalish points out that speculation about miscarriages and birth defects is more controversial than claims by the exposed men about the presumptive diseases for which Vietnam veterans can win disability benefits. They include leukemia, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, lymphoma, nervous system disorders, liver disorders, a skin rash known as chloracne, and more.

For the men of Eglin, the connection between their illnesses and Agent Orange came decades after exposure, when former worker Von Jones connected the dots. He was at a clinic getting chemotherapy and noticed his former Eglin supervisor there, also getting treatment. As they talked, they realized how many former colleagues had either died or were suffering from debilitating diseases. Somehow, most hadn’t been aware of the $180 million settlement the Vietnam veterans had received.

They signed on local attorney Rusty Sanders, who approached Victor Yannacone, the legendary environmental attorney who, in the late 60s, litigated the ban of DDT. He’s also the lawyer who launched the class-action suit on Agent Orange on behalf of Vietnam veterans. Kalish says that Yannacone was “willing to jump into the ring again.”

But despite Yannocone’s previous victory — and the fact that those exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam are entitled to benefits and treatment — the new suit has yet to launch.

“These companies have tremendous resources,” Sanders explains. “They’re not going to bow easily. So, we need a public interest consortium to help bring these civilians justice.”

In other words, they don’t have the money.

“The two lawyers who are willing to bring this clearly do not have the deep pockets it’s necessary to go up against these chemical companies that have huge resources to fight this in court,” Kalish says.

He adds that it could be argued that the chemical companies, including Dow and Monsanto, are “basically waiting for these guys to die.

“At this point, Sanders and Yannacone are waiting for a public interest law firm with deep pockets to step forward and fund this litigation,” Kalish says. “They don’t feel that they can do this themselves.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Billy McLean (left) and Von Jones. (Jon Kalish)
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Billy McLean (left) and Von Jones. (Jon Kalish)