Vietnam Veterans and Families Talk Damages of Agent Orange in Des Moines

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DES MOINES, Iowa - Over 300 Iowans gathered in Des Moines Saturday to talk about an issue from 40 years ago.

But the issue is one Vietnam War veterans and their families say is haunting them to this day.

Agent Orange, a herbicide used by the U.S. government during the Vietnam War to flush enemy soldiers out of the jungle, contains a toxic dioxin chemical - a carcinogen. It's been linked as a cause for 14 diseases, with three more potentially being added to the list this summer. After the Vietnam War, the effects of exposure to Agent Orange followed thousands of soldiers home, and was passed genetically onto their offspring.

"It's beyond reassuring - it's like being an orphan all your life, and you find out...I'm not an orphan anymore! Somebody finally accepts me for my truth, because it's their truth too," said Patty Spencer Burdette, the widow of a Vietnam War veteran who died from health complications caused by Agent Orange exposure.

"My husband died looking like a skeleton with skin. And the VA didn't know what it was," she said. "We were all alone, because of course, nobody was admitting to Agent Orange - what it could do."

Spencer Burdette's son, Thomas, was born with complications due to the exposure his dad received in Vietnam. He developed thyroid cancer, among other illnesses, throughout his life.

"You can't go back and change anything," she said. "But to go back, to work on something that maybe will do something good for people who can still use the good now - the help now - that's hope."

Helping future soldiers is what Iowans like Spencer Burdette are hoping to do. A petition signed by 131 attendants at Saturday's symposium seeks to urge lawmakers to support legislation in Congress that would continue to fund Agent Orange research.

"We have a whole new group of veterans who are coming on through the Iraq and Afghan wars - the Mideast wars - and they've also been very exposed," said Dan Gannon.

Possible exposure to soldiers in the Middle East does not include Agent Orange, Gannon says; rather, exposure to toxic chemicals in warzones could be putting soldiers at risk when they return home.

"It's repeating itself over and over, and it's time we take a look at this," Gannon said.

Senator Joni Ernst is the only member of Iowa's Congressional delegation that has not yet confirmed her support of the bill in the U.S. Senate to fund Agent Orange research. A spokeswoman for the senator gave Channel 13 News the following comment:

"Senator Ernst believes we absolutely must ensure that our veterans receive the care they deserve after being exposed to Agent Orange. However, with the VA’s continued mismanagement, she has concerns over authorizing greater research on Agent Orange to the VA at this point. She remains committed to working with her colleagues on both sides of the aisle to reform the VA and improve the delivery of health care and enhance access to care by providing veterans greater choice in non-VA care."

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