WASHINGTON – When Wayne Miller served in the U.S. Marine Corps in Vietnam in 1968, he never gave a second thought to the military’s use of Agent Orange.
“We breathed it, we ate it, we tasted it, we drank it,” Miller said of the defoliant that was used to clear the jungles of South Vietnam.
“They just said that they were spraying defoliant,” said Miller, a Silver Spring resident. “We put the trust in our government that they were doing the right thing. … I didn’t know they were using anything that would kill us or harm our children.”
But a study funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs last year confirmed a link between Agent Orange and the congenital birth defect spina bifida.
As of Oct. 1, children of Vietnam veterans became eligible for a lifetime monthly allowance, vocational training and rehabilitation if they suffer from spina bifida. The Agent Orange Benefits Act of 1996 is the first law to provide benefits to children of U.S. veterans for medical conditions associated with a parent’s military service.
The government estimates that 3,000 families are eligible for benefits, but only 800 families have been identified so far, according to Roberta Carlin, the associate executive director at the Spina Bifida Association of America. She said the association launched a national campaign to find the remaining families.
Twenty Maryland families, 34 Virginia families and three D.C. families are registered.
Victims are eligible for monthly benefits of $200, $700 or $1,200, depending on the severity of their symptoms.
Top benefits go to victims who cannot walk, have an IQ of 69 or less or have impairments that prevent them from feeding or caring for themselves. A child who can walk without braces or crutches, has no sensory or motor skill problems, has an IQ of 90 or higher and has total bladder and bowel control is eligible for the lowest amount of money.
Spina bifida results from the failure of the spine to close properly during the first month of pregnancy.
It affects the development of the brain and spinal cord and their protective coverings. It is the most common permanently disabling birth defect, and affects 1 out of every 1,000 newborns each year, according to the association.
The condition can cause paralysis, bowel and bladder complications, the accumulation of fluid in the brain and learning disabilities.
The National Academy of Sciences in March 1996 reported that studies suggested a link between a father’s exposure to herbicides and his child’s chance of being born with spina bifida.
The Ranch Hand Study found that the children of Air Force crewman who were directly involved in spraying Agent Orange and other herbicides had four times the normal rate of spina bifida.
The Air Force sprayed 11 million gallons of Agent Orange in Vietnam between 1962 and 1971, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Agent Orange and other defoliants were sprayed over 3.6 million acres, an area a little larger than half of Maryland.
Shipped in orange-striped barrels, it was a reddish-brown liquid containing two herbicides. Its use was suspended after a scientific report concluded that one of the chemicals used in Agent Orange could cause birth defects in laboratory animals.
The VA developed an Agent Orange Registry program in 1978 for Vietnam veterans concerned about Agent Orange exposure. Since the inception of the registry, 257,762 veterans have been examined.
Diseases associated with herbicide exposure range from non- Hodgkin’s lymphoma and Hodgkin’s disease to respiratory and prostate cancers.
But Vietnam veterans are not required to prove exposure to Agent Orange in order for their children to receive benefits. The VA presumes all military personnel who served in Vietnam were exposed.
The Spina Bifida Association of America is urging families to apply for benefits through their local VA office. Veterans in Maryland and the D.C. metropolitan area can call 202-418-4343.
Families can also call the association at 202-944-3285 to be added to their national database and receive spina bifida information and legislative updates.