Today is Veteran’s Day. It’s a day of honoring those that served our nation, during peace and during war.
How well does our government treat its veterans? During the Vietnam War, many veterans were exposed to Agent Orange… a known cancer causing agent.
The LA Times has a story of a veteran that survived the “Russian Roulette” of Vietnam, return home intact both physically and mentally only to die years later from a cancer that was caused by his exposure to Agent Orange.
He was also a member of the class of veterans that sued Dow Chemical Co., the manufacturer of Agent Orange. That lawsuit was settled when Dow agreed to pay millions of dollars into a fund to compensate those veterans who developed cancer from their exposure to Agent Orange. Although the settlement appeared reasonable at the time, the amount proved to be inadequate; the fund was exhausted by the time my friend became ill. A second and third lawsuit was dismissed by the judge who had presided over the first action. However, the findings made by the judge in his decision reveal a lot.
In his decision dismissing the latest lawsuit, the judge found that the chemical companies that had manufactured Agent Orange were entitled to the benefit of the “government contractor” defense. That is, they were merely carrying out the Defense Department’s directions in producing this toxic substance. In support of that conclusion, he found that Agent Orange was produced from a recipe of chemicals provided by the Pentagon and manufactured and used on government orders and under its supervision.
The judge described how the Department of Defense knew, during the 1950s and early ’60s, almost a decade before my friend was sent to Vietnam, that Agent Orange contained highly toxic dioxin but nevertheless insisted that it be manufactured with extremely high doses of undiluted herbicides containing the substance. Indeed, the judge observed that there was never a time that the chemical companies possessed as much knowledge as the government concerning Agent Orange’s toxicity. He further described how the government ordered all warnings of Agent Orange’s toxicity removed from the barrels it was delivered in.
Americans are an uncommonly generous people. After Sept.11, 2001, a fund was established to compensate the survivors of that terrorist attack. The same action was taken after the massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007. Those who lost loved ones in those two tragedies richly deserve that assistance; surely those who lost their loved ones in the service of their country, because of exposure to a poison used by their government, deserve the same. The Department of Veterans Affairs, like the judge who dismissed the later claims, would undoubtedly say that those who can demonstrate that their exposure to Agent Orange caused them to develop cancer should receive disability benefits, but this is a meager reward for the veterans who will invariably die at the hands of their government.
It is long past time for these veterans to be treated fairly. If they are to be denied the right to seek recompense in the courts, then the other two branches of government owe it to them to fashion another remedy, such as a compensation fund.
If our representatives in Congress and in the White House are not willing to take that action, then perhaps they ought to skip the meaningless platitude — the one about thanks and a grateful nation — that is uttered when the widow is presented the flag that draped her husband’s coffin.
What future health issues await the returning Iraqi veterans who were exposed to depleted uranium weapons? Radiation alters and destroys DNA so not only are the veterans at risk but their offspring are also at risk. Our government needs to provide better care for our veterans. President Bush said “We owe them all we can give them” and then never provides the funding for proper care. Just look what happened at Walter Reed Hospital. The Washington Post uncovers this maltreatment of our veterans. It’s an older story but what improvements did our government make since February 2007? Iraqi veteran suicides have increased due to lack of adequate mental health care and veterans are living on the street.
Our veterans deserve the very best from our government. A national holiday to honor their service is a “nice to have”. Providing the health care that they need and assistance in pulling their lives back together after they return from war are more than a “nice to have”. They are necessisties to which our veterans are entitled.