"... 'The issue is that these guys died because their own government poisoned them,' she said. 'How can you let these guys die off with no acknowledgment that they died because of their own government?' ..."
By Mark Weiner
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- It has been 46 six years since Larry Hackett marched off to war in Vietnam, and eight years since he died from cancer linked to his battlefield exposure to Agent Orange, a toxic herbicide the U.S. military used to defoliate the tropical jungle.
By Alice Hackett's calculation, that's more than enough time for the United States to finally close a sad chapter in its history.
Hackett, who lost her husband when he was 58, has joined with Vietnam veterans and friends for years to prod the U.S. into acknowledging the full extent of the exposure to American veterans, the families and their descendants - and to compensate them for their illnesses.
Now, Hackett, 60, of the town of Onondaga, says she sees reason for hope that Congress may finally force the federal government to take care of Agent Orange victims and their children. U.S. Rep. Dan Maffei has introduced a bill named after Hackett's husband that would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to establish a task force on Agent Orange. The task force would recommend how to care and compensate Vietnam vets and their children or grandchildren who develop Agent Orange-related illnesses and birth defects.
Maffei, D-Syracuse, introduced the "Lawrence J. Hackett Jr. Vietnam Veterans Agent Orange Fairness Act" in April and is now seeking Republican co-sponsors in the House. Alice Hackett says she knows the legislation could lead to a compensation fund for Agent Orange victims and their families. But she said that's a secondary concern.
"It's the acknowledgment, that's the main thing," Hackett said when asked what she considers the most important part of the legislation.
"The issue is that these guys died because their own government poisoned them," she said. "How can you let these guys die off with no acknowledgment that they died because of their own government? Nobody knew back then that the cancer would take 30 years to develop."
Hackett and her husband's closest friend, Onondaga County Judge Joseph Fahey, plan to join two members from his Army unit at noon today at a news conference with Maffei at the Onondaga County War Memorial. Central New York veterans groups and some prominent local Vietnam veterans such as U.S. District Court Judge Norman Mordue support the legislation. The Vietnam Veterans of America did not respond when asked if its organization will also push for passage of the bill.
The bill would require the VA to establish a task force that would make recommendations about:
- Setting up a national outreach program to Vietnam veterans to ask about their Agent Orange exposure and health. No comprehensive studies have determined how many vets were exposed to Agent Orange, or how many of their children have suffered health problems related to the exposure.
- Providing compensation and health care for children or other descendants of exposed veterans who develop spina bifida, birth defects or other illnesses related to Agent Orange.
- Establishing a financial compensation program for exposed veterans or their survivors for the injury, illness or death related to Agent Orange. The legislation does not provide any cost estimates or recommendations, leaving that to be determined by the task force.
- Under terms of the legislation, the VA-led task force would have to make its recommendations to Congress within a year of its establishment. The task force would last no more than two years.
Alice Hackett said that her husband's cancer, a type of soft-tissue sarcoma, was presumed by the Veterans Administration to be related to his Agent Orange exposure. (The VA has a list of cancers and other illnesses that it automatically classifies as likely related to Agent Orange exposure.)
Like all other Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange, Larry Hackett was eligible for VA benefits including disability compensation for his exposure. But under the existing federal regulations, the VA provides no similar compensation for the children of those veterans, except for those who develop spina bifida, a birth defect that involves the incomplete development of the spinal cord.
Maffei's bill would address the concern that Agent Orange-related birth defects could show up in later generations.
As the legislation waits for action in Congress, the United States has been busy cleaning up sites contaminated with Agent Orange in Vietnam. In April, the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam took part in a ceremony to mark the latest phase in an $84 million cleanup project at Da Nang airport, where Agent Orange was once stored. Da Nang is one of 28 highly-contaminated "hot spots" in Vietnam for dioxin, the toxic byproduct of Agent Orange that has been linked to diseases and birth defects.
All told, the U.S. military sprayed about 18 million gallons of Agent Orange over 3.6 million acres in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, according to an independent study prepared for the National Academy of Sciences.
Vietnam says the toxic herbicide is now responsible for at least 3 million birth defects in children born to those exposed to Agent Orange during the war. No similar statistics exist for children and grandchildren born to veterans in the United States.
Fahey, the Onondaga County judge, said he has tried to convince Syracuse's various House members since 2007 to sponsor legislation similar to the bill that Maffei introduced.
"I was always kind of angry about what happened to Larry Hackett," Fahey said, "particularly because he was killed in my view by his own government."
Fahey said a compensation fund for the victims would be big start toward healing. But first, the federal government has to find out how many veterans and their families have Agent Orange-related illnesses.
"I think anything we can do to get a commission to look at the issues of these guys who are dying and their families will help," Fahey said. "I don't think they have any idea of how many people have been afflicted or have died because of this."