For These Women, the Battle Continues

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NAM VET Newsletter, Page 19-21      Volume 4, Number 5 May 9, 1990
By: Cal Orey - Woman's World Investigates - April 17, 1990
Input by: G. Joseph Peck, NAM VETs Managing Editor

In the last 10 years, Lily Adams's life has been one medical crisis after another. She's suffered from skin disease, endured a life-threatening pregnancy and given birth to a son with serious intestinal problems.

Maureen Nerli has also lived through medical nightmares. She speaks wistfully of the days when she was "as healthy as a horse."  Now her life's a round of migraines, body rashes, dizziness and thyroid problems.

Illness is Penny Burwell's constant companion too. She's been hit with bone disease, kidney stones and gynecological problems that resulted in a hysterectomy. Penny says her doctors think "I've come into contact with something that's done very bizarre things to my body."

According to Lily, Maureen and Penny, Agent Orange is the cause of their problems.

All three say they were exposed to the dangerous chemical when they served in Vietnam. From 1962 to 1971, 12 million gallons of Agent Orange were dumped on the tiny country. American troops sprayed it from the air and sea in an effort to strip away the enemy's jungle cover.

Ironically, the chemical once used in an effort to save American lives may now be destroying them.

One of the reasons Agent Orange is so dangerous is that it contains dioxin, a cancer-causing contaminant that has been linked to birth defects, infertility, miscarriage and disorders of the immune system.

Because dioxin doesn't dissolve in water, Americans in Vietnam were inadvertently exposed to it in their drinking and bathing water and in the local food.

Out of the more than 500 military women who have reported coming in contact with Agent Orange, 85 to 90 percent were nurses.

"Many nurses told us they were stripping clothing off the dead and dying soldiers," says Paul Sutton, head of the New Jersey Agent Orange Commission. These soldiers had been out in the jungle, and their clothing was probably saturated with the deadly chemical spray.

Marilyn Edgerton-Mallard was one of the Army nurses who tended these men. Today she is certain that her exposure to Agent Orange is the cause of her infertility.

"I didn't think being around Agent Orange had affected me until many years later," Marilyn says. "I tried to get pregnant and couldn't." Eventually Marilyn underwent a hysterectomy, which she believes was necessary because of her exposure to the chemical.

What does the government have to say about an issue that may affect thousands of women who served in Vietnam?

Not much. Hard, scientific data is sketchy. The government paid the Centers for Disease Control $20 million to conduct an Agent Orange study but, like most research on this subject, it didn't include women.

And, shockingly, women who served in Vietnam, in the Red Cross and USO, both civilian volunteer organizations, are being totally ignored.

Maureen Nerli, who is a former USO worker, says, "Ever since I came home from Vietnam I have had one illness after another."

Maureen is also distressed that although she served 18 months in Vietnam as a volunteer, her service isn't officially recognized by the government, which excludes her from VA health benefits.

"The VA doesn't deal with us. They classify us as non-Vietnam veterans," she says. Therefore, USO and other civilian workers can't get compensation. (Army nurses can, but only if they are seriously disabled.)

Vernon Houk, M.D., of the Environmental Health and Injury Control of the Centers for Disease Control explains, "It's possible to do a study of military women who served in Vietnam because we know who they are, but it is not possible to do a valid study of the non-military women because there is no master list."

Maureen Nerli understands the frustration. "I have a friend who served in Vietnam with the Red Cross," she explained. "My friend called me a couple of months ago. She was hysterical. She said, "I'm so nervous and depressed. I can't have kids because I was
sprayed with Agent Orange when I was in Vietnam. Does anybody care?"

Lily Adams, 41, an Agent Orange activist from California, was an Army nurse in Vietnam. Says Lily, "We keep on saying to the government we don't want compensation - we want you to do research. The VA is saying that if it does the research and it proves there's a connection it's going to go bankrupt."

The issue of compensation is thorny. In 1984, after years of litigation, a $180 million fund for Vietnam veterans was created by Agent Orange manufacturers to resolve the class-action suit filed against them. The fund excludes spouses an birth-defective children of vets - and, of course, it excludes all civilian volunteers such as Maureen.

Since there's not enough money to cover all vets, disabled veterans and their dependents are angry.

So is Karen Johnson, a vet who spent two years in Vietnam as an Army reporter. She's being compensated with a small monthly amount because she'd 60-percent disabled, but she is still irate over what she calls the government's "gobbledygook."

She suffers from a chest ailment and is desperate to know more about Agent Orange. Will she get worse or die from long-term effects of the poison?

Says Bart Stichman, attorney and litigating director for the Vietnam Veterans of America, "The VA would be compensating veterans if it believed there was a connection between Agent Orange and various disabilities. But it doesn't. So no vet with an Agent Orange-related illness is getting very much now." The government must step in to compensate vets, he says. So far, it has refused, but is reexamining its position.

For the women who gave so generously of their time, energy and talents during the war, this realization is cruel. It's ironic that after serving their country faithfully, they don't know whom to turn to for answers about the mysterious Agent Orange.

Until there is more medical data, the thousands of women who served in the U.S. during the Vietnam War will continue to fear the enemy within.

In a very real sense, they have met the enemy - and it is their own government.

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My Vietnam Related Websites:
button Women in Vietnam ~ Read about ALL the women who served . . .
The Irish on the Wall ~ An effort to locate the Irish who died in Vietnam
button Tim O'Brien's Home Page ~ National Book Award Winner and Americal Vet

button Emily's Poetry ~ By a Red Cross Donut Dolly
button Shrapnel in the Heart ~ The most moving book you will read on Vietnam
button All About Vietnam    ~ An annotated bibliography of books about Vietnam for sale thru Amazon Worldwide!
button Battle Dressing ~
button Project Hearts and Minds ~ Help put Viet Nam back together
button Photos from a Holts' Military History Tour ~ My trip to Vietnam, February 1998

My Other Websites:
Maybe Later . . . ~ My Creative Nonfiction
Irish in Korea ~ Irish men and women who gave their lives in the Korean War
Literature of the Korean War ~ Don't let the literature be forgotten
Samuel Pepys ~ One of my favorite authors
Chicago Theatre Z - A ~ This is the best theater town in the country!
Soccer Literature ~ I'm a fan and I read
O'Leary Lantern ~ Fire! Fire! Fire!
Gil Thorp ~ THE Coach (apologies to The General!)
Poetry of the First World War ~ Owen, Hardy and others
Chi-COW-go ~ Cowz plus Commentary (this used to be a cow town)
Graham Fulton, Scottish Poet ~ Charles Manson Auditions for the Monkees

Other Important Websites:
The Truth About Caroline ~ a  really good Young Adult book by my niece, Stacey
M. Lane Grosh
Remember Oklahoma City
The Civil Service and Military will NEVER forget!

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