Mark Cash’s father, a U.S. Air Force security policeman, was stationed at Andersen Air Force Base in late 1966.
His job on base mainly involved walking patrols – specifically, the area along the flight line, the fence perimeter, and the path of the above-ground fuel pipeline. “He told me about seeing people spraying,” Cash said. “He said he’d driven through it, walked through it, over and over again.”
His father didn’t know, Cash said, what exactly was being sprayed. Just something to keep the jungle at bay.
His father, mother and two sisters had been living on base for right around nine months when Cash was born prematurely. At birth, his liver did not function, and he was diagnosed with hyperbilirubinemia.
Cash’s family didn’t make the connection at the time. “I was just a sick little boy who needed many blood transfusions to survive,” Cash said. He has since made the connection between his health problems and the use of Agent Orange on Guam.
Since the end of the Vietnam War and the realization that herbicides like Agent Orange caused serious health problems, much attention has been paid to Vietnam veterans who have filed for medical benefits with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans stationed on Guam have historically struggled for recognition that Agent Orange was used here, despite denials from the U.S. Department of Defense.
On Feb. 3, Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Florida, introduced the Fighting for Orange-Stricken Territories in Eastern Regions (FOSTER) Act, which would extend presumptive Agent Orange exposure status to Vietnam War-era veterans who served in Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa.
However, little has been said about the families of veterans who were stationed on Guam — three generations of spouses, children, and grandchildren still grappling with diseases and birth defects related to Agent Orange exposure.
In Dec. 2015, the Hawaii Journal of Medicine and Public Health published a study entitled “Disparities in Infant Mortality Due to Congenital Anomalies on Guam.” The study was authored by Jonathan Noel, Sara Namazi, and Robert Haddock, a territorial epidemiologist with the Guam Department of Health and Human Services Office of Epidemiology and Research.
The study conducted a village-level analysis in an attempt to explain large disparity between Guam villages in infant mortality due to congenital anomalies during the 1970s and 1980s. According to the study, during that period some villages reported no infant deaths due to congenital anomalies, while others reported death rates as high as 5.62 deaths per 1,000 live births – a figure “that was two times greater than the overall cause-specific death rate on Guam and in the US.”
The study examined behavioral, structural and environmental factors, including the assumed presence of Agent Orange. That assumption was based on VA rulings in 2005 and 2013 which “concluded that herbicides, particularly Agent Orange (AO), were used on Guam from 1968 to 1970.” The study also utilized sworn testimony, including that of Leroy Foster, to determine village-level spray estimates and to determine “AO and non-AO spray areas.”
After examining 11 “high risk” and eight “low risk” villages, the study ultimately concluded that “AO spray area was the only statistically significant predictor of infant mortality due to congenital anomalies under invariable and multivariable conditions.”
While he does not discount civilian exposure, Haddock believes “that the impact of AO was much greater on Air Force personnel and their families living on AAFB than on civilians because only a very few civilians were directly exposed to AO.”
These findings were considered consistent with previous studies showing increased rates of birth defects in the children of exposed Vietnam residents and veterans, in addition to an increased risk of infant death linked to paternal exposure.
Ultimately, the study concluded that more studies were needed given existing constraints – lack of official military records, small sample sizes due to village population, and lack of data confirming exposure.
A 2016 ProPublica analysis entitled “The Children of Agent Orange” went further, examining the VA’s own registry to determine the relationship between Agent Orange and birth defects.
The analysis, based on at least 34 years of records in which the VA asked questions about birth defects in the children of veterans, found that “the odds of having a child born with birth defects during or after the war were more than a third higher for veterans who say they handled, sprayed or were directly sprayed with Agent Orange than for veterans who say they weren’t exposed or weren’t sure.”
ProPublica found that since 2001, the VA had received claims for benefits from more than 8,100 people citing spina bifida and other birth defects, but that only 1,325 claimants had received benefits.
Spina bifida is the birth defect most commonly accepted by the VA to be a direct result of Agent Orange exposure. Yet, other birth defects are reported as common by children of Vietnam veterans, including shortened or missing limbs, webbed toes, extra or missing vertebrae, degenerative spine disorders, spinal cord fusion or detachment, and a range of neurological, reproductive, immunological and developmental disorders.