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Vietnam Vets’ Fight for Benefits Gets New Crowdsourcing Boost

It’s been four decades since the end of the Vietnam War, but the conflict has gotten renewed attention in recent weeks. Earlier this month, the Institute of Medicine released its final research study into the long-term effects of the toxic herbicide Agent Orange on Vietnam veterans, concluding that we still have no clear understanding of what the health consequences have been. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs also recently turned down an effort by Navy veterans – who contend their ships sucked in water contaminated by Agent Orange and used it for cooking and drinking – to get compensation for possible exposure to the chemical. The VA continues to limit benefits to sailors who can prove that they visited Vietnamese land or that their ships operated in inland rivers, even for just a day.

The lack of solid research is one reason why ProPublica and the Virginian-Pilot launched a joint investigation last summer on the generational impact of Agent Orange – an ongoing crowdsourced effort that has received a tremendous response from thousands of veterans and their family members.

On this week’s podcast, ProPublica senior reporter Charles Ornstein talks with ProPublica community editor Terry Parris Jr. and the Virginian-Pilot reporter Mike Hixenbaugh about what they’ve learned from speaking with thousands of veterans affected by Agent Orange and the new digital tools aiding them in their fight for benefits.

Courtesy of Blue Water Navy sailor Dan Oughterson

Highlights from their conversation:

  • Without comprehensive data on the locations of Navy ships during the Vietnam War, aging veterans are doing the research themselves.
    Hixenbaugh: Although there's been this need to understand where ships went in order to satisfy the Department of Veteran Affairs’ policy [of only allowing benefits for Navy Vietnam veterans from ships that crossed into inland waters], there's been no comprehensive effort by the government to locate these ships. Instead the veterans themselves are digging through the National Archives. They're leaving posts in online forums, reaching out to old shipmates. Some of them are traveling personally to Washington to go to the Navy's historic archives, and told us they’re digging through dusty boxes and climbing over stacks of records looking for the right three pages of paper that says, "My frigate traveled into Vietnam's inland waters, up the Saigon River for an afternoon." … It's been a remarkable effort by aging, some of them sick, veterans to do some pretty comprehensive research.

  • ProPublica and the Virginian-Pilot have launched a crowdsourcing effort to help identify more ships.
    Parris:We have a list of about 780 ships that served in the Vietnam theater of combat. … We thought it might be an interesting idea to put this list on the site and use annotation software called Genius to invite the community [of Navy Vietnam veterans] to share any information, or invite the sailors to share any information that they have about the ship that they served on. … It's been two weeks now, and we've had something like 70 sailors make notes – dropping in information from reunion information, crew rosters, some anecdotes about their service on the ship, and some Command Officer histories.

  • The fight for VA benefits raises big-picture questions that go beyond Vietnam veterans.
    Hixenbaugh: If a veteran’s exposure to chemicals during the war has adverse health consequences for him or her later in life, or if it has consequences for their children…that kind of forces an uncomfortable conversation about how we calculate the cost of a war. Does it end when we're done tabulating all the physical wounds and the amount we spent on bullets and equipment? Or does our obligation to veterans and their families extend for generations?

Listen to this podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher. For more, read Researchers Call for More Study of Agent Orange Effects on Vets and Their Kids and Help ProPublica Research More Than 700 Navy Ships That Served in Vietnam.

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