---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Sun, 02 Jun 2002 13:04:16 -0700
From: radtimes <email@example.com>
Subject: Korea, Vietnam & Agent Orange
Korea, Vietnam & Agent Orange
Toxic nightmare continues years after war's end
Nearly fifty years after the Korean War formally ended, there is still no
peace in that troubled region. In January, during his State of the Union
address, President Bush ratcheted up the rhetoric against North Korea by
placing it within his "axis of evil." Today, some 37,000 U.S. troops remain
stationed in Korea.
My cousin Billy served in Korea during the late 1960s. A few months ago,
after some friends told him about the Korea Defense Veterans Alliance
website <http://www.kdvamerica.org/>, he discovered that while serving
along the DMZ he'd been repeatedly exposed to Agent Orange.
For more than thirty years, the government never said a word.
This is the story of Cousin Billy. But it's also a story about the huge
mess the U.S. government left behind in Korea and Vietnam.
Billy was twenty-three years old in May 1967 when he arrived in Korea and
was assigned to the 2nd Infantry Division, a unit responsible for the
far-western sector of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)
manning forward guard posts within the DMZ and night foxholes just south of
While the war in Vietnam was reaching its bloody crescendo, American
soldiers in Korea 14 years after the Korean War ended were still in a
combat situation. Theoretically, being stationed in Korea wasn't nearly as
dangerous as Vietnam. It was no cakewalk, however. For the soldiers
patrolling the DMZ, Korea remained a hot spot.
Few journalists wrote about it, and the television networks weren't
interested in the daily happenings along the DMZ. Few people on the home
front, other than families of those stationed there, paid much attention.
Cousin Billy and I were both named after my father's older brother Bill, a
portrait artist who lived in Chicago and died just before World War
II. Cousin Billy is from my father's side of the family and so after my
parents divorced when I was ten, I lived with my mom and didn't see his
side of the family very often.
By the time he graduated from Adelphi University and shipped off to Korea,
I had already been attending Kansas University in Lawrence, Kansas for 18
months. While Billy patrolled the DMZ, I cruised the Gaslight café and the
Rock Chalk. While he was up to his ass in mud in Korea, I marched in peace
In the winter of 1971 I returned to New York from Kansas. Billy, back from
Korea a few years, was recently divorced and living in an apartment on Long
Island. He was working as an administrator with the Boy Scouts of America.
We ran into each other at our Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Herman's 50th wedding
anniversary party in early December and made plans to spend a long weekend
together out on the Island during the holidays.
At his apartment we smoked weed, ate lots of TV dinners and ice cream and
got to know each other cousin-to-cousin. Billy loved being behind the
wheel, so we drove to the tip of Long Island to a small fishing village and
drank beer and watched the boats sail. We shoveled snow off the schoolyard
basketball court in the neighborhood and shot hoops. One miserable snowy
evening we went to a movie theater deep on Long Island and saw Sacco and
Vanzetti, the biopic about two Italian immigrants wrongly convicted and
executed in the 1920s. It was the Grand Opening of the theater and we were
the only people there.
Digging in along the DMZ
Recently, Cousin Billy described his daily routine in Korea: "My company...
was filling foxholes from dusk to dawn each night. The compounds on which
we lived were south of the Imjin River. Each evening we would eat dinner,
test-fire weapons, load-up in armored personnel carriers and cross the
Imjin River via Freedom Bridge, go down the 'Barrier' road, dismount and
occupy the night positions."
Before they settled in for the night, the company would string wires for
field-phones, connecting each foxhole to the command post up the hill,
behind the road. "The foxholes were forward of the road just south of the
DMZ, separated from the DMZ by barbed wire," Billy said. "Most of it was
old and rusted, a defensive system used for years, probably since the end
of the Korean War.
"I was an infantry officer in charge of a rifle platoon. As an officer
along the Barrier at night working from an armored personnel carrier up the
hill from the road and wired to the foxholes my job was to control the
actions of my company in the foxholes. In the mornings, I would report to
battalion operations and be de-briefed, along with any of the men in my
company who may have fired a weapon during the night. There were firing
incidents almost every night and Colonel Cloninger, the battalion
commander, was unhappy with the lack of results, meaning no bodies."
On July 16, one of the foxholes was overrun and three men kids,
really Tommy Boyd, John Gibbs and Leonard Ashforth, were killed. Since he
was off that night, Billy had the task of going through the men's personal
effects and preparing them for shipment home. The rest of the company was
out pursuing the North Korean attackers.
The barrier Billy patrolled consisted of barbed wire strung south of the
DMZ in an area thick with foliage. Shortly after he arrived in Korea, a
defoliation project destroyed the underbrush, allowing for the construction
of a chain link fence and the laying of minefields along with electronic
sensory devices. As every few hundred yards were cleared and fencing went
up, new foxholes were dug just behind the fence in the defoliated strip and
the troops would then occupy them.
"In August," Billy remembers, "we were relieved of Barrier duty and my
company became the Division's Quick Reaction Force. We were the first unit
called out in the DMZ when there was hostile action. Since I was the
senior platoon leader, although I had only been there since May, I had the
lead platoon. While the rest of the company was on fifteen-minute alert I
was on five-minute alert so I slept with my uniform and boots on."
On August 28, under attack from the North Koreans, an anti-tank mine
detonated under Billy's vehicle. Conscious, he refused evacuation. He
wasn't sent to the hospital and his parents weren't notified.
By mid-November 1967 the defoliation project was complete. In the American
sector, the sensors, minefields, fence and new foxholes were all in place.
Now, Billy's job had him passing through the defoliated area on a regular
basis. "Approximately every five or six weeks," he writes, "I walked the
length of that strip, about four miles, twice a day for seven days.
Sometimes, when it was icy, I slid down the hills of that strip on my butt."
59,000 gallons of three toxic chemicals "defoliated nearly 21,000 acres of
the Korean DMZ. For vets of the 2nd and 7th Infantry divisions, the recent
U.S. government acknowledgment is a major breakthrough," reported a
February 2000 article in VFW Magazine. In addition to affecting U.S.
forces, the Korean government maintains that, according to declassified
U.S. Department of Defense documents, as many as 30,000 Korean soldiers may
be suffering from illnesses related to coming "into contact with the deadly
defoliant in the late 1960s and early 1970s."
Getting the U.S. to admit that it used Agent Orange in Korea, let alone
accept responsibility for the harm it may have caused its own soldiers, has
been extremely difficult. According to VFW Magazine: "Previously, the U.S.
government had said Agent Orange was used only in Vietnam. But a recent
television report by the Seoul Broadcasting System quoted from the Defense
Department documents [which admitted that] 'American troops stationed in
South Korea spread more than 21,000 gallons of toxic defoliants along the
border in 1968 and 1969.'
"According to the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), service members
who served along the Korean DMZ during the late 1960s and early 1970s are
covered under the 1991 Agent Orange Act. For veterans who served elsewhere
on the peninsula, eligibility for benefits will be determined on a
case-by-case basis. Special legislation would have to be enacted for
'blanket coverage,' VBA says." (For more on the use of Agent Orange in
Korea, see www.kdvamerica.org/AOrange.html.)
And in Vietnam...
The widespread use of Agent Orange has caused a multigenerational toxic
nightmare in Vietnam. In early March, the Associated Press reported "the
first-ever Vietnamese-U.S. scientific conference on Agent Orange," as
hundreds of researchers from the United States, Vietnam, and other
countries met to look at what the U.S. ambassador called "the one
significant ghost" remaining from the Vietnam War.
According to the AP report, "from 1962 to 1971, the U.S. Air Force sprayed
an estimated 11 million gallons of defoliants, mainly Agent Orange, over
Vietnam to destroy jungle cover for Communist troops in a campaign known as
Operation Ranch Hand."
Not only have thousands of American veterans blamed a variety of illnesses
(including birth defects, cancers and nervous disorders) on exposure to the
defoliant, the Vietnamese government claims that about 1 million Vietnamese
"are victims of Agent Orange, including veterans, civilians living in
affected areas and their descendants. The U.S. government maintains there
is no proven direct link between dioxin and many of those illnesses."
Anne Sassaman of the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health
Services said "the aim of the conference is to exchange information on the
health and environmental effects of Agent Orange, ways to reduce exposure,
and future research needs." Researchers also said "they will report on
persistently high levels of cancer-causing dioxin in the blood of people
living in heavily sprayed areas."
In one of the keynote addresses, Prof. Hoang Dinh Cau of Vietnam's Ministry
of Health said studies have shown the existence of "'hot spots' where
children and grandchildren of people who were exposed to the defoliant
exhibit serious congenital malformations." He said, "the chemical war has
been over for a long time, but the burden it left on ecology and human
health is so consistent and long."
"While in Korea," Billy recalled, "Agent Orange never crossed my mind." He
was more concerned with being attacked by the enemy "than a chemical about
which I knew nothing at the time. There were moments that I thought death
was imminent but I came home on June 22, 1968 and on the way home from the
airport, in the back seat of my parents car, in the dark, I silently cried."
Cousin Billy returned home and made a good life for his son and himself. In
early January, some thirty years after serving in Korea, he went to a
Veteran's Administration hospital for a complete physical. No problems were
discovered. If he is suffering any long-term effects from being exposed to
Agent Orange, it hasn't yet manifested itself. He jokes that the rapid
decline of his jumpshot after Korea might have been caused by the
chemical. Truth is, he never had much of a jumpshot to begin with.
For the Vietnamese, the U.S.-imposed nightmare continues.
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His
WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies,
players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.
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