Tag Archives: Vietnam war

A Father’s War, A Son’s Toxic Inheritance

By US Government photograph - US Government photograph, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24696237

Rusting Agent Orange barrels at Johnston Atoll, circa 1976. Photo: US Government, Public Domain, via Wikipedia

by Stephen M. Katz for ProPublica and The Virginian-Pilot, as told to Mike Hixenbaugh and Charles Ornstein
June, 2016

The package from my father arrived in 2009, a few months after my latest heart surgery. The yellow envelope contained a two-inch stack of documents: handwritten notes, old photographs, newspaper clippings, medical files and military service records.

Together, they told the story of a man I barely knew. I hadn’t heard from my father, Al Weigel, in more than 20 years.

At first, I didn’t read any of it. Why would I want to rip open that wound? I tossed the envelope onto a shelf in a closet, and there it sat for years, forgotten behind a pile of clothes. I didn’t know it held information that would link my life 2014 and health 2014 to a war waged before my birth.

It wasn’t until 2012, not long after I’d become a father, that I remembered the envelope. I pulled it back out, figuring someday I would want to tell my son where he came from.

I studied pictures of Al, noting our shared features: I have his smile and broad shoulders. I learned that his family was part Irish and part German. That my grandfather had been a college track star 2014 and later an alcoholic. That my dad had grown up in a middle-class New Jersey town before attending the U.S. Naval Academy and going off to fight in Vietnam.

The package also delivered a warning: A handwritten note attached to a stack of Veterans Affairs medical records. During the war, before I was born, Al had sprayed Agent Orange along riverbanks in Vietnam, often soaking his uniform in the herbicide. The exposure, he wrote, had caused him serious health problems, including a neurological disorder, and he believed it also might have harmed me.

My mind raced as I thought of my own troubled medical history. A heart defect diagnosed at birth. An underactive thyroid. Problems with my nervous and immune systems. More recently, type20132 diabetes, hypertension and a nerve disorder that severely limits the use of my right hand.

I’m now 46. A lean 6-foot20132 and 190 pounds. I don’t smoke. I try to eat healthy. But the number of pills I swallow everyday would make you think I’m twice that age. As a teenager, I was sick so often, I joked that my healthy brother and I couldn’t be related. He’d been born before the war, before Agent Orange.

“There really is nothing that can be done now, as far as I know,” Al had written in 2009, “except be aware of the ravages of A.O.”

What my father didn’t know was that I’d already become familiar with Agent Orange and its consequences.

I’d made several trips to Vietnam by then, photographing people with much worse health problems than my own. They were descendants of the Vietnamese who’d come in contact with the chemicals 2014 those on the other end of my young father’s fire hose.

I’m a photographer for The Virginian-Pilot, and I often spend my time off traveling overseas to document the work of humanitarian charities and working on other projects. When I finally opened Al’s package, I’d been working on a documentary film set in Vietnam about a second-generation victim of Agent Orange.

Now I wonder: Could I be one, too?

I’m not the only one asking the question, it turns out. Thousands of adult children of Vietnam veterans are wrestling with the possibility.

Researchers, too, are wondering.

U.S. Army armored personnel carrier (APC) spraying Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Photo: U.S. Army Operations in Vietnam R.W. Trewyn, Ph.D. , (10) APC Defoliation National Archives: 111-CC-4966 originally found in Box 1 Folder 9 of Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr. Collection

U.S. Army armored personnel carrier (APC) spraying Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Photo: U.S. Army Operations in Vietnam R.W. Trewyn, Ph.D. , (10) APC Defoliation National Archives: 111-CC-4966 originally found in Box 1 Folder 9 of Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr. Collection

My father was one of at least 2.6 million U.S. veterans who may have been exposed to Agent Orange. The military sprayed it by the millions of gallons across Vietnam, aiming to kill thick brush and trees and make it harder for the Viet Cong to spring out of the jungle. In the years since, the Department of Veterans Affairs has acknowledged the chemical harmed those who came in contact with it and compensates them for a growing list of illnesses.

A small number of veterans’ children 2014 those born with spina bifida 2014 are also eligible for Agent Orange payments. So are the children of female vets born with about a dozen other defects, though the vast majority of Vietnam veterans are men. Researchers have long been cool to the idea that a man’s exposure to chemicals could hurt children fathered later.

Recent studies, though, suggest it’s at least plausible. Male rats exposed to dioxin 2014 the most hazardous component of Agent Orange 2014 have passed genetic mutations on to their babies in lab tests. But researchers say more work is needed to prove what many Vietnam vets have long feared 2014 that their children have inherited the burden of a war they had no part in.

Members of Vietnam Veterans of America have hosted town hall meetings across the country in recent years, urging vets to pass on medical and service records to their children, even if they’re no longer in touch with them. That way, veterans advocates say, children of vets will be prepared to fight for disability benefits if the science someday proves Agent Orange can impact a man’s children.

VVA is backing a bill in Congress, the Toxic Exposure Research Act, that would require the VA to study the effects of wartime exposures on children and grandchildren of vets 2014 from Agent Orange in Vietnam to burn pits in Iraq.

My father sat in on one of those Agent Orange meetings in New Jersey. Soon afterward, he put together the package of information and sent it to my brother, who passed it on to me.

For years, I had no interest in reconnecting with the man.

Agent Orange brought us back together.

My childhood recollections of my father are like hazy dreams.

I remember going with him to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. He lifted me on his shoulders to see above the crowd. Another time I recall watching a boxing match with him. Muhammad Ali and Leon Spinks, I think.

I was too young then to understand the problems brewing between my parents. They separated when I was 7. Dad had returned from the war a different person, and over time they’d drifted apart. He would come home late some nights and say he’d been out on his boat; Mom would call him a liar. I remember closing the door to my room and slipping under my covers to drown out the yelling.

I didn’t see him much after the divorce. My brother and I were told he was a deadbeat, that he didn’t want to be part of our lives. I accepted that as fact.

Growing up in New York in the years after, I used to search for him in crowds, wondering if we’d bump into each other. Hoping.

I was sick often back then. I took antibiotics like they were vitamins. After I turned 13, the murmur I was born with worsened. Caused by a defect known as aortic stenosis, blood had begun back-flowing into my heart, straining it. After months of feeling nauseated and lightheaded, my pediatric cardiologist told me I needed open-heart surgery.

I didn’t know it at the time, but as they wheeled me into the operating room, my father showed up. He’d learned of my surgery and wanted to make sure I was OK.

He wasn’t there when I woke up, though.

My family, I’d learn years later, had told him to leave.

I was feeling unusually ill during my first trip to Vietnam in early 2009.

I’d traveled with a group of dentists who’d set up a free clinic in a remote village. The charity that sent them paid for my travel, and in exchange, I photographed their work for use in promotional materials.

I pressed on despite feeling lightheaded, short of breath and nauseated for much of the two weeks there, not wanting to squander a chance to explore a new country. On a previous trip to the Philippines, photos I took of children with untreated hydrocephalus led a pharmaceutical company to donate thousands of dollars’ worth of medical supplies and send a surgeon to treat the kids.

In Vietnam, I hired a local guide and asked him to find an orphanage like the one in the Philippines, figuring I might be able to recreate that effort. Something got lost in translation. He drove me to a rural orphanage, but as we stepped inside the darkened building, I didn’t see anyone suffering from hydrocephalus.

The sound of moaning and the stench of feces filled the air. Dozens of children sat atop metal beds without mattresses. Some were hitting themselves. Some were chained to the beds 2014 to protect themselves and others, I was told. Many had severe physical deformities.

“What is this place?” I asked a worker.

The orphanage was for those believed to have been harmed by a parent’s exposure to Agent Orange. I didn’t know anything about the chemical before then, but I’d soon learn Vietnam is full of places like this. Vietnamese parents who can’t afford to care for a child with disabilities often face an unthinkable choice: abandon the child at one of these orphanages, or let their other children go hungry.

I watched as a father made that decision. The sadness in his eyes as he walked away from his screaming son haunts me, especially now that I’m a dad.

I asked my guide if he knew anyone who suffered because of a parent’s Agent Orange exposure who was capable of speaking. He drove me a few miles to the town of Cu Chi to meet Thanh Thao Huynh.

The woman, known as Thao, was born with crippling deformities 2014 a shrunken body, stunted legs, brittle bones 2014 that prevented her from attending school. But she’d taught herself to read and had created a small library in the shed where her father, a pig farmer, stored feed and fertilizer. Many neighborhood children visited her library to read or borrow books.

I asked Thao, “If you could have anything, what would you ask for?” Her answer surprised me: just a few hundred dollars to buy more books to share with children.

Months later, after I’d returned home, that short story and a photograph I made of Thao would inspire a friend of mine and lead to the start of the documentary project, which would span several years.

But first, I needed to take care of myself. I was feeling even more nauseated and short of breath as we left Vietnam. Back home, my cardiologist conducted tests and came back with an urgent diagnosis. Blood was again back-flowing into my heart.

I needed surgery, and right away.

A few years later, after my son was born and I’d begun grappling with what it means to be a father, I finally opened the package from Al. I read through the documents over several sittings. I noticed, mixed in with his records, a letter of recommendation from his commanding officer in Vietnam. It was dated April 4, 1969. Al was being considered for a job with the CIA:

“I know Mr. Weigel personally,” the letter stated, “and highly recommend him to you for any position.”

Signed: “Bud” (E. R. Zumwalt, Vice Admiral, U.S. Navy)

My father, it turns out, had served as an assistant to the man who had commanded naval forces in Vietnam and who later became the youngest to serve as chief of naval operations.

Zumwalt’s legacy is also tragically entwined with Agent Orange. He’d given the order directing river boat crews like my father’s to spray the herbicide along riverbanks. Among those who carried out that work: Zumwalt’s son, Lt. Elmo Russell Zumwalt III.

A decade after handling the chemical, the younger Zumwalt was diagnosed with lymphoma, and later Hodgkin’s disease, another deadly form of cancer. He died in 1988 at age 44, leaving behind a wife and two children 2014 including a son born after the war with a severe congenital dysfunction that confused his physical senses.

The elder Zumwalt had been misled about Agent Orange, he said years later. He’d been told it posed no threat to humans, though the chemical companies that made it 2014 Monsanto and Dow 2014 already had plenty of evidence that wasn’t true.

Despite all that, the admiral said he had no regrets: His decision likely harmed his son and grandson, he acknowledged in an interview with The New York Times in 1986, but it also probably saved the lives of countless U.S. service members, he said.

“That does not ease the sorrow I feel.”

In 1985, the same year that Zumwalt’s son got his second cancer diagnosis, tens of thousands of Vietnam War veterans put on their combat fatigues and marched across the Brooklyn Bridge and down Broadway in the biggest parade in New York’s history to that point.

The ticker-tape march was advertised as a belated “welcome home,” 10 years after vets returned to protests.

I was 15 and living on Long Island. I pestered my mother to take me to the parade that May, secretly hoping to spot my father. I hadn’t seen him in more than five years but still thought of him often.

If I saw him that day, I didn’t recognize him.

A few months later, we met at a lawyer’s office. My brother and I were filling out paperwork to take our mother’s maiden name, Katz. Because I was a minor, I needed my father’s permission. I stared at the ground as I explained my decision. He said he understood.

I told him that we’d gone to the veterans parade, trying to change the subject. He said he’d marched in it and was sorry he missed me.

We shook hands, and he left.

I wouldn’t see him again for nearly three decades.

It’s incredible what fathers pass on to their children, even when they’re not around. Even when they don’t mean to. Last year, a groundbreaking study found that the children of men drafted to fight in Vietnam are worse off today than the children of men who stayed home.

On average, according to the study, we earn less than our peers and are less likely to have steady jobs. There are many possible reasons for the disparity, but researchers suspect the psychological impacts of the war play a major role. When someone suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder 2014 as was the case for many Vietnam combat veterans, including my father 2014 it affects the whole family, research shows, and can cause behavioral problems in children.

The economists who conducted the study didn’t look at the generational impacts of Agent Orange. That isn’t surprising, though.

When I’ve asked doctors if my father’s exposure to the chemical could be affecting my health, they typically look at me as if I’ve asked if they believe in aliens.

Heather Bowser, the president of Children of Vietnam Veterans Health Alliance, knows the feeling. Her father was exposed to Agent Orange. A few years later, she was born premature, missing a leg, a big toe and several fingers. She leads a group of more than 3,700 other children of Vietnam veterans who believe their health has been affected by Agent Orange.

Most doctors have no clue about the herbicide, Bowser told me. But neither do most children of veterans, she said.

Many in Bowser’s group suffer from problems with their spinal cords. Heart conditions like mine and problems with the thyroid, immune and nervous systems are also common. Not everyone has obvious physical conditions like her, she told me.

Bowser, 43, recognizes that not every illness can be blamed on Agent Orange. And she acknowledges the science hasn’t proven a generational impact, though the anecdotal evidence she’s gathered seems significant. She agrees more research is needed.

I asked her how I could help.

She told me to tell my story.

I finally picked up the phone and called my father a few years ago. He seemed shocked to hear from me.

He told me he’d always wanted to be a part of my life, but that others in my family kept him away. He said that he’d sent birthday cards that apparently never reached me. He told me he’d remarried and had been a good dad to his step-daughters.

After nearly an hour, I realized he was afraid this would be his only chance to talk to me. “Al,” I said, cutting him off, “this won’t be the last time we speak. I’ll call you again and we can stay in touch.”

“Promise me,” he said.

He drove to Norfolk three years ago to meet my wife and his grandson, Sawyer. It was hard to reconcile the tall, strapping figure from my memories with the hunched and frail man who came to visit.

He’d recently moved into a condominium in Hackensack, N.J., because he was tired of falling down the stairs at his home of 25 years, he said. He’d had six spine operations before he learned he had peripheral neuropathy, among other debilitating conditions tied to Agent Orange exposure.

He’s 73, younger than some grandfathers, but was too feeble to hold his grandson.

In 2015, my family and I visited him on my birthday. I felt like a small boy as he joined the chorus singing to me before I blew out candles.

Last year, the documentary I helped make, “Thao’s Library,” was released and won the top award at a major film festival. It was later screened at AMC theaters across the country.

I traveled to New York for the premiere in Times Square and invited my father.

He’d told me he was proud of the work I do and couldn’t wait to see the film. He talked about it for weeks. I was excited for him to be there.

But a couple hours beforehand, he called and said he was sorry. His health had worsened, he said. He didn’t think he could handle the hour-long drive into the city.

He sounded heartbroken. I felt the same as I settled in to watch my film on the big screen that evening.

Agent Orange brought my father back into my life.

I fear it’s also left us too little time together.

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Further information:

Wikipedia page on Agent Orange: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agent_Orange



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What Muhammad Ali, conscientous-objector, taught me

Muhammad Ali in 1966. Photographer unknown, Dutch National Archives, The Hague

Muhammad Ali in 1966. Photographer unknown, Dutch National Archives, The Hague

June, 2016

As a young teen studying at the Illinois School of Ballet, I didn’t follow sports much, which is probably why I didn’t recognize the big man right away. He was standing on the outside sidewalk of Hyde Park’s new Harper Court shopping mall, looking out, streetward.

He was well dressed in slacks and a blazer, a light-skinned African American with closely cropped hair. I actually stood next to him for a moment, figuring out where I wanted to go next. The top of my head came to the bent elbow of his folded arms. My dad was 6’2″, but this guy was really big.

A block away, it hit me: I’d just crossed paths with one of Chicago’s most famous residents, champion boxer Muhammad Ali. Everyone knew he lived in Hyde Park, the first racially integrated Chicago neighbourhood. The Hyde Park Herald report said he’d been a guest at the Harper Court opening ceremonies.

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Half a dozen years later, I found we were standing on the same sidewalk again, metaphorically speaking, as I quoted Ali’s words in arguing with Scott (my boyfriend at the time) that we should resist too. Scott had dropped out of college and was eligible for the draft. But he trusted to luck to protect him.  And when he did get drafted, he took the step forward and entered the army.

Not so Muhammad Ali, the Heavyweight Champion of the World. He was supposed to be the toughest of tough men. He certainly won and kept his title in brutal prizefights. (One of the oldest known sports, boxing was hugely popular in the 1960s, maybe because it showed well on the early TVs.) Cassius Clay converted to Islam in 1964, changed his name to Muhammad Ali, and embraced non-militarism.

“On April 28, 1967, Ali refused to be drafted and requested conscientious-objector status,” the New York Times reported. “He was immediately stripped of his title by boxing commissions around the country. Several months later he was convicted of draft evasion, a verdict he appealed. He did not fight again until he was almost 29, losing three and a half years of his athletic prime.”  Eventually, he did win back the Heavyweight title — twice.  He also won his right to CO status, at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Time after time Ali faced the cameras with an astute racial and class analysis of the Vietnam war:

“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father…Shoot them for what?…How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”

With broadcaster Howard Cossell’s help, Ali spent the three years he couldn’t do his fighting work, touring universities, talking about boxing and about why he refused to be drafted. He spoke openly about his conversion to Islam, and cited his faith as the reason for his war resistance.

He rebutted critics who compared his job to being in the army. “In boxing the goal is to win the fight,” he said. “In war, the object is to kill, kill, kill, kill, kill innocent people.” Although the army insisted he had only two choices, the army or jail, he said, “There is a third way, and that way is justice.”

He trusted the American legal system, even while he joked about breaking open his piggy bank for gas money to the next university. “I get $1,500 an appearance,” he said. “That’s good money.”  Exonerated, he received $4 million for his next championship fight.

“Muhammad Ali bridged a major divide when he refused induction into the armed forces,” writes Richard Eskow of the Campaign for America’s Future. “The civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s were often divided by race, kept apart by those who were afraid of losing hard-won gains and by cynics who knew that to divide is to conquer….After he was suspended from boxing, Ali spent three years speaking to college students and other groups of all races about both civil rights and Vietnam. When Dr. King came out against the war despite fierce opposition, he cited him, saying: “Like Muhammad Ali puts it, we are all — lack and brown and poor — victims of the same system of oppression.”

Scott and I had reached the same conclusion — that the oppressive system was universal (worse for some than for others) and for us it was unbeatable, at least at that time. So after two rounds of boot camp, he deserted the army, and invited me to come to Canada with him.

By the time we split up three years later, I’d put down enough roots in Toronto to want to stay. And following Muhammad Ali’s lead, with a lifelong background in civil rights and anti-war work, I continued to promote peace and equality in my own way. I’ve met a lot of other U.S. immigrants with similar stories, especially women.

Of course, no one can compare to Muhammad Ali’s influence then or now. He was a giant figure who strode his own path and spoke his own truth.

“The number one greeting in my religion is ‘Peace,'” he said. That’s something Westerners still don’t understand about Islam. Now we live in a time when women wearing hijabs face attacks because ignorant people perceive them as threats (or easy targets). How ironic to reflect that Muhammad Ali, the man Sports Illustrated acclaimed as “Sportsman [Athlete] of the Twentieth Century,” was pilloried for preaching peace in the name of Allah.


Copyright Penney Kome 2016

Penney Kome moved to Canada on January 19, 1968, and immigrated a year later. She is writing a book about US women who moved to Canada during the Vietnam War era.

Contact:  komeca AT yahoo.com

The coffin of late boxing champion Muhammad Ali arrives for a jenazah, an Islamic funeral prayer, in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S. June 9, 2016.   REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

The coffin of late boxing champion Muhammad Ali arrives for a jenazah, an Islamic funeral prayer, in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S. June 9, 2016. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Related stories on F&O about Muhammad Ali:

MUHAMMAD ALI: the final goodbye to “The Greatest,” by Nick Carey and Steve Bittenbender

Fans chanting “Ali!” and throwing flowers lined the streets of Muhammad Ali’s hometown in Kentucky on June 10 for a funeral procession to celebrate the boxing champion who jolted America with his showmanship and won worldwide admiration as a man of principle.

Muhammad Ali: Remembering when Clay/Ali bestrode the world, by Rod Mickleburgh

It’s been said many, many times, but it remains true. Never again will we see the likes of Muhammad Ali.

Read more F&O columns by Penney Kome

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Penney KomePenney Kome is co-editor of Peace: A Dream Unfolding (Sierra Club Books 1986), with a foreward by the Nobel-winning presidents of International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War.

Read her bio on Facts and Opinions.

Contact:  komeca AT yahoo.com




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Jesse Winchester, R.I.P.

Jesse Winchester died today at his home in Virginia, age 69. He had reportedly been suffering from cancer.

He is best known as a singer-songwriter from the United States but — like many Canadians — I think of him as a Draft Dodger, a designation most Canadians view as a badge of honour. During the Vietnam War Winchester was one of tens of thousands of Americans who fled to Canada, to avoid military service. Their exact numbers are uncertain, estimates range wildly from 20,000 to 60,000. Many of them influenced Canadian culture and political life.

Winchester arrived in Montreal in 1967, and became well-known as he toured Canada. He was able to return to the United States only after 1977 when President Jimmy Carter  pardoned the draft dodgers (but not deserters). In the U.S., where his songs were covered by countless other artists, Winchester was lately best known as an “anti-war icon,” as Rolling Stone called him in its obituary.

You can listen to him here, performing in studio at America’s National Public Radio, including songs from his 2009 album. His web site, here, features a tribute album by some of America’s best musicians.

In the video below he sings a cappella with Bonnie Raitt and Emmylou Harris.

–Deborah Jones

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