Vietnam Vet Herb Worthington Raises Awareness on Toxic Exposure to Agent Orange

Herb Worthington with Colin Powell

"It's time we wake up a little bit here," warns Vietnam Veteran Herb Worthington.

The 68-year-old Chair of the Vietnam Veterans of America Agent Orange committee is helping to put toxic exposure issues in the national spotlight. Worthington says, "We have to become more cognizant of what is going on around us and what has happened."

A Vietnam Veteran and longtime Veteran advocate, Worthington served as a state council officer and chief service officer for Vietnam Veterans of America at the Newark, NJ VARO for five and a half years. While writing claims for the veterans who sought his assistance, he would listen to the health struggles that they and their children faced. Inevitably, the majority said they had a child who was sick or deformed. Conditions ranged from learning disorders to physical malformations outside the body.

Worthington could relate. His daughter was diagnosed with MS at age 21. His son was diagnosed with allergies and an asthmatic condition shortly after birth.

"I said to my wife, 'This is from me,'" Worthington shared with us. "You think it's just chance. You live in New Jersey with many chemical companies."

But then he attended a national board meeting and spoke with VVA Director of Communications, Mokie Porter. Together, they determined there is, indeed, a strong correlation between these health problems and the exposure to Agent Orange that veteran parents had faced during the Vietnam War.

Since then, his committee has pushed for over 100 town hall meetings, the first of which was four years ago in Kentucky. Even with limited publicity, the turnout was overwhelming. Veterans shared stories of their children and grandchildren suffering from issues like clubfoot or hip dysplasia.

"One woman stood up and said, 'I'm listening to you all talk about the problems with your kids and grandkids, but at least you can have children.' She had had 5 miscarriages," Worthington remembers.

Herb Worthington in Vietnam
Herb Worthington in Vietnam

"Agent Orange was not just in Vietnam. There are records of it in Korea, Thailand, Okinawa, Johnston Island." Navy ships, he explains, had an additional problem. According to Worthington, the Agent Orange runoff from the land would get into the waterways and eventually out to sea. Our ships that were in that water had desalinization plants on them to turn salt water into fresh water. That heat associated with the process intensified the chemical. "Those poor Navy guys drank it, showered in it, shaved in it…it's unbelievable." He hears from wives, children, and grandchildren. In some cases, the effects are passed through four generations.

The toxic exposure treatment issue goes back to WWII, as veterans were unaware of uranium in atomic blasts and suffered the consequences and to Civil War soldiers who were exposed to chlorine gas.

The VA has recognized certain cancers and other health problems as presumptive diseases associated with exposure to Agent Orange or other herbicides during military service. There are 14 largely associated with Vietnam Veterans, both male and female, but only one condition can be passed on by male veterans, which is Spina Bifida. Female veterans, on the other hand, are recognized for passing on some sixteen conditions to their progeny from their Agent Orange exposure.

"The VA at one point started a research study but never completed it stating that it wasn't feasible. They said it wasn't feasible, but nobody could get a reason why," Worthington regrets. "We are beyond that point though. We're not that stupid."

Currently, the VVA has 2 bills in Congress for any veteran exposed to toxins to be examined and treated. There also is a fight against chemical companies that want to incorporate an element of Agent Orange (2,4-D, an herbicide) in a weed-killing solution for commercial use.  

"Our country protects the chemical companies," Worthington says. "They say the veterans are the most important, but the bottom line is the dollar sign. At what point do we say stop?"

At the time of this interview, Worthington was preparing to speak to 300 vets at the United Autoworkers Veterans Committee in Michigan to help raise awareness. Toxic exposure ramifications simply have not been appropriately addressed. "It's time to face up to it and take care of the veterans and their families," he says.

Veterans and their survivors may be eligible for benefits for these 14 "presumptive diseases." Learn more at http://www.publichealth.va.gov/PUBLICHEALTH/exposures/agentorange/conditions/index.asp.

Photo Credit: http://www.invisibleproject.org/www/participants/veterans/herb-worthington/ 

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