“I got married in ’77. We had a child; four years later, he died,” said Joe Keller of Redfield.
His next two children were all right, but now that they’re having children of their own, his grandchildren are beginning to have problems. One was born with webbed fingers, he said.
David Kloucek of Tabor cited similar problems.
“My wife and I have nine children. Well, all five of our daughters had dysplasia. They had to have all or part of their female organs removed. Our grandchildren have epilepsy, one of them. No idea where that traces back to. Skin cancer on one of my boys when he was in high school. Tourette’s on one of the boys,” he said.
Several Vietnam veterans from South Dakota spoke up Saturday afternoon as they gathered at the state capital for a homecoming weekend. One of the events was a forum on Agent Orange, and these vets described various birth defects their children — and even their grandchildren — have suffered.
The list is endless, and heartbreaking. A girl who was born without any valves in her bladder. A boy who breaks out in a rash every four months. Autism. Cancer. Miscarriage. Stillborn. A grandson born without a thyroid. A woman, fully grown and healthy all her life — until one of her kidneys stopped working.
Agent Orange was a defoliant used liberally during the Vietnam War. American soldiers were exposed to it, and years later, they began developing serious health problems.
And now, their children are beginning to develop health problems, too, said Jack Kempter, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America, Chapter 1054 in Waubay.
Kempter has had two operations for cancer, both of them caused by Agent Orange. Now research has shown that the contamination may last for five or more generations — meaning great-grandchildren could be affected.
The same is likely true of every soldier who went to Vietnam.
“If you were boots on the ground in Vietnam, you were exposed to Agent Orange,” he said.
But that’s not all. People who served on Navy ships may also have been exposed if the ship docked in Vietnam. Or if the ship was just off the coast, since the ships took on sea water which may have been tainted. The equipment to desalinate the water did not remove the Agent Orange.
Maynard Kaderlik, of the Vietnam Veterans of America Minnesota State Council, put it simply.
“There’s a lot of veterans who don’t know that what happened to them — Agent Orange — is happening to their kids and grandkids. We want to educate them,” he said.
Kaderlik said he’s done 16 town hall meetings throughout the nation, and he keeps hearing the same thing. Every time he hears of health problems in children of Vietnam vets, these problems exist nowhere else in the family history.
Then there are the cases where a veteran had children before going to Vietnam, and then had more children after returning. The health problems show up only in the children born after the veteran returned, Kadelik said.
Kempter urged the veterans at the gathering to file a claim with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. It takes a long time for the claim to be processed, but once it goes through, it’s retroactive.
In his case, he received a lump-sum payment of $46,000 — and then another $16,000 the following year.
Kaderlik also asked people to act fast. He noted that there is a proposed law that would require the federal government to look into how Agent Orange is affecting the children.
“We’re in the fourth quarter of our lives. We’re not going to be around — Lord knows how long. We have to do this. We have to push this legislation. We have to do this for our kids,” he said.
And now, Kaderlik notes, there is an entire generation of new veterans who have been exposed. Anyone who went to the Gulf War may have been exposed to depleted uranium, oil fires and Gulf War syndrome.
For more information, contact Kaderlik at (507) 581-6402. If you suspect you may have been contaminated, call Kathleen Metzger, of the Sioux Falls Regional Office of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, at (605) 336-3230.