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Journalism in the Public Interest

Reliving Agent Orange: What The Children of Vietnam Vets Have To Say

The children of Vietnam vets describe how they believe their fathers’ exposure to Agent Orange during the war has impacted their families and their health.

Melissa Earls’ father, Jospeh Pirelli, served two tours in the Air Force in Vietnam, returning home two years before she was conceived. (Image courtesy Melissa Earls)

For the past year, ProPublica and The Virginian-Pilot have examined how Agent Orange has impacted the health of Vietnam vets. We’ve written about Blue Water Navy veterans who are currently ineligible for benefits, as well as vets with bladder cancer and their struggle for compensation.

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We’ve also asked vets and their family members to tell us how their lives have been affected by exposure to the toxic herbicide, receiving more than 5,000 responses.

Beginning today, we are delving into a more-thorny component of the story: Whether Agent Orange has adversely affected the health of vets’ children. Earlier this month, we asked those children to share their stories. We were flooded with responses. We’ve highlighted a few below.

‘I think that’s one of the things that’s super challenging about an Agent Orange connection’

Video by Terry Parris Jr.

Lauren Curry’s father went to Vietnam in September 1968. He served one tour in the 1st Engineering Battalion. Years later, in 1977, he went to a doctor with a sore shoulder. “The small town surgeon and surgical team opened him up and … found him to be full of cancer,” Curry said.

“After he died, … the doctor stopped my mother and said, ‘I’ve just read a journal article about soft tissue cancers in young men who served in Vietnam and … they suspect that these [cancers] were related to the dioxins that they were exposed to through the chemical defoliants.’ … My father died not knowing, I think, about the Agent Orange connection,” she said.

Curry told us she was born without a flap between the right and left atria in her heart. “As we transition from a liquid environment to an air breathing one, a flap closes over that and seals itself off to complete our circulatory system,” she said. “I had no flap.” This defect, however, wasn’t identified until she was an adult and ended up in the hospital after a car accident.

During that visit to the hospital, a nurse took her pulse and told her she had a heart murmur. “I said, ‘No I don’t.’ She said, ‘Yes you do. Let’s get it checked out.’ Long story short, I finally ended up at a cardiologist,” Curry said.

The cardiologist told her the nonexistent flap had turned into a hole the size of a silver dollar and she was at imminent risk of death.

She went into surgery and today she says she’s healthy.

Was Agent Orange behind her heart defect?

“I don’t know,” she said.

‘He felt deeply guilty about something that was not his fault’

Video by Terry Parris Jr.

Amber Clifford-Napoleone’s father, James Clifford, served two tours in Vietnam in a construction battalion from 1966 to 1968. He left Vietnam after suffering a severe back injury, Clifford-Napoleon, who is 41, told us.

She said her dad remembered being exposed to Agent Orange over and over. “He moved barrels of it. I mean, it was a construction unit, right? He is clearing land that the possibility of spraying that foliage was damn near 100 percent,” she said.

In 1977, her brother, James Austin Clifford, was born with spina bifida.

“Agent Orange related,” she said. “At that point, Agent Orange became a topic of conversation in my house and a pretty regular topic of conversation, too.”

Her brother received benefits from the Department of Veteran Affairs, she told us. As of last year, about 1,200 children with spina bifida have received those benefits, along with 14 children of female veterans with other covered birth defects, according the VA.

“When that Agent Orange benefit program was approved, my brother got a letter in the mail that said, ‘Congratulations, you have been approved for Agent Orange benefits.’ The congratulations part didn’t go over real well,” she said.

Her brother endured 60 surgeries in his lifetime and died when he was 34.

“[My father] felt deeply guilty about something that was not his fault,” she said. “He didn’t want to talk about it and certainly not with my brother and I. He felt responsible.”

Clifford-Napoleone also listed a litany of health issues she’s facing, including a wrist disorder called Kienbock’s disease, type 2 diabetes, and chronic anemia. She said she had a softball-sized tumor removed from her lung in November. “It was not cancerous as it turned out, but it was extremely rare.”

“My family doctor has noted Agent Orange exposure in my medical records,” she told us.

‘I do believe this particular medical issue is related to his exposure in Vietnam’

Melissa Earls’ father served two tours in the Air Force in Vietnam, returning home two years before she was conceived. She said her dad, Joseph Pirelli, handled Agent Orange.

Earls told us that both she and her sister suffered from endometriosis, a condition in which tissue that normally is inside the uterus grows outside of it. Earls had one child, a daughter, and then had a hysterectomy at age 32. She was later diagnosed with Lupus.

“While my condition that caused the hysterectomy was not definitively attached to Agent Orange, I know that the daughters of veterans do suffer from endometriosis and fertility issues,” Earls, now 42, wrote in an email. “Because I am the only one in my family to suffer from fertility problems, and because I was the first conceived upon my father’s return from the war, I do believe this particular medical issue is related to his exposure in Vietnam.”

Earls’ dad died in January 2001 of pancreatic cancer. Before that, he suffered from a skin disorder that caused sores and lesions on his scalp.

‘I expect its effect to become more pronounced as I age’

Tara Schnaible’s dad, Gerald Schnaible, was a Green Beret in Vietnam. He was exposed to Agent Orange, she said, and became service-disabled in a motorcycle accident while driving between Army bases.

He lost his left leg above the knee. In his later years, Gerald Schnaible survived bouts of colon cancer and prostate cancer and received a heart transplant. He died of lymphoma in 2015.

Tara Schnaible with her father, Gerald Schnaible (Image courtesy Tara Schnaible)

Schnaible said that in her early 20s, she started to suffer muscle loss in her shoulders and was diagnosed with Arnold Chiari Malformation, a birth defect in which brain tissue grows into the spinal canal. She shared a 2009 article from the Chicago Tribune that mentioned another child of a veteran who had the same condition.

“These defects have subtly negative effects on my life, because I am young (36), and I expect its effect to become more pronounced as I age,” she wrote. “Our family has no history of Chiari Malformation… It seems unusual that it would just appear out of nowhere and there are rumors of its relatedness to exposure of a parent-vet.”

She said her younger sister has started to show signs of spine problems, too.

“Most of my physicians have had to look up and research my conditions in order to help in treatment. None have been inclined to make a jump to connect my illnesses with Agent Orange exposure, but then again, none of them saw the connection between the symptoms, either. I’ve learned that with difficult diseases you sometimes end up being your own best advocate and information source.”

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