COEUR d’ALENE — The effects of war are far and wide. For veterans, that includes PTSD, depression, unemployment, and homelessness to name a few.
But one lasting effect is not so well-known, because, according to Richard Phenneger, the government doesn’t want it to be known.
Agent Orange, a dioxin chemical used in the Vietnam War, has been linked to the deformation of the children and grandchildren of those exposed to it.
“Our government has refused to acknowledge studies by independent scientists that say this is a problem,” Phenneger said. “Once someone is exposed to Agent Orange, there’s a very good chance it attaches to the DNA, which is then passed on to future generations.”
During North Idaho College’s recent Veterans Appreciation Week, Phenneger gave a presentation about his nonprofit, Orange Heart, and how Agent Orange affects Vietnam veterans and their families.
Phenneger, the founder and president of Veteran Services Transparency, told how he stumbled upon a study about the adverse effects of Agent Orange while he was doing another study about veterans coming back from the Gulf War.
The study he found struck a nerve in him, so he decided to do more digging. He said he found evidence the U.S. government knew that Agent Orange was harmful to humans and decided to spray it in Vietnam anyway.
To get an idea of how many veterans and veteran families Agent Orange affected, he conducted a survey with the help of some researchers who found his cause worthwhile.
Of the 119 Vietnam War veterans in Kootenai County that took Phenneger’s survey, 20 percent had deformed children.
“You’d be surprised at the emotion that came out of that,” Phenneger said. “It took me a while to absorb it.”
During the presentation, Veteran Services Transparency board member Amina Fields spoke about her experiences regarding the issue.
The Vietnam refugee and American veteran echoed the idea that more studies need to be done regarding the effects of Agent Orange. She said the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs does give out compensation for certain disabilities and health issues suffered by veterans and their families because of Agent Orange, but only for certain types of disabilities.
“We believe there are more disabilities and health issues than identified by the VA,” she said. “UNICEF did a study in 2008 that found that out of the 30.5 million children under 18 in Vietnam, 1.2 million have disabilities, and that is considered a disproportionately large amount.”
Lori Adler, a student at the Lewis Clark State College satellite campus and volunteer with the NIC Veterans Resource Center, attended the presentation and was surprised at how big of an issue Agent Orange still is.
“I came to get more education and I have a friend who served in Vietnam who is affected by Agent Orange,” she said. “I’ve been planning on talking with a senator, and now that I have found this horrific information, I’m going to bring this to him and hopefully get a change.”
Moving forward, Orange Heart and Veteran Services Transparency’s goals are to continue to bring awareness to what has been happening and continue researching.
The group wants to raise money to conduct surveys in Vietnam to show the effects of Agent Orange there, where more people were exposed to it. Phenneger guesses the organization will need to raise about $10 million to do this.
“I am confident we will be able to fix the problem,” he said.