In March 1971, Air Force Staff Sgt. John Thorburn’s helicopter was shot down over Cambodia. His family said Thorburn, a gunner, lay unconscious for five days behind enemy lines before his colleagues found and rescued him.
His injuries left him in a body cast for months, but despite his experience, a TV reporter videotaped him on a stretcher pumping his fist and saying, “I’d still go back and fight for my country.”
Later that year, he returned to Long Island with a Purple Heart and a level of Agent Orange exposure that would eventually kill him. Nearly 40 years after his tour in Vietnam, his family is haunted by that legacy.
Some of them believe the toxic defoliant has reached down through generations of the family and caused rare birth defects that eventually would kill two of Thorburn’s six children, Dee Dee and Maxx, and a grandson as well. But they may never know.
“My father loved Dee Dee and Maxx and accepted who they were. He was happy with them and thought they were both blessings in his life. He never looked for, you know, ‘Who did this to us?’ ” said Thorburn’s eldest son, R.A. Thorburn. “I always listened to my father. I always believed what he said, and he told us ‘No, it wasn’t Agent Orange, it was God.’ ”
But as R.A., a hip-hop performer, began gathering information for a documentary he is making about his father, he became convinced that Agent Orange had caused his siblings’ handicaps. “I started doing a little research the last couple of years about Dad and I actually met up with some Vietnamese Agent Orange victims,” he said, “and some of the pictures they were showing me from Vietnam looked just like Dee Dee and Maxx.” The full accounting of the effects of the herbicide — which contained the most toxic chemical mankind has ever known — is a mystery still unfolding and may never be solved. Veterans’ groups report thousands of families with stories similar to the Thorburns’, and the National Academy of Sciences has called for more research into the issue. But as yet no U.S.-funded study on Agent Orange and birth defects has been conducted, and perhaps the only certainty is that not enough is known.
“As more time goes on, other problems become more pressing,” said Jeanne Stellman, a professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health who has studied Agent Orange use in Vietnam. “We’ve exposed hundreds of thousands of people to the herbicide, and millions of the Vietnamese. The experiment has been done. We just need to throw resources at it, and soon it’s going to be too late.”
VA links just 1 defect to fathers
Only spina bifida — the result of the spinal canal not closing before birth — is recognized by the VA as an Agent Orange-caused birth defect, if the father served in Vietnam. If the veteran is the mother, the “presumptive” list includes a total of 18 birth defects. A 2008 report of the Institute of Medicine — the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences — urged the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to review cognitive or developmental abnormalities in veterans’ children. “Such a review should include the possibility of effects in grandchildren, which are of growing concern to veterans and their families,” the report added.
As recently as two weeks ago, veterans hailed a proposed federal rule change that, if adopted, would make it easier for Vietnam veterans to claim disability pay related to battlefield exposure to Agent Orange. The change will benefit as many as 200,000 veterans and adds B-cell leukemias, Parkinson’s and ischemic heart disease to the list of diseases associated with exposure to the chemical for which veterans can seek help. At the Northport VA Medical Center, which has an Agent Orange clinic, all Vietnam veterans who pass through are asked to fill out a registry form. Over the past decade, the number of Vietnam veterans seen by the hospital has grown steadily — from about 4,500 a year 10 years ago to 10,000 last year, according to spokesman Joe Sledge. “The VA initially was slow to recognize the effects of Agent Orange on Vietnam veterans; however, that changed in the mid-to-late ’80s,” Sledge said. “If someone has a service disability, we want to make sure that everything that can be done to address that is done. Were it not for the fact that they went to war and were exposed to these defoliants, they would not have those conditions.”
Agent Orange is the code name of the most widely used herbicide in the Vietnam War. In an effort dubbed Operation Ranch Hands, Agent Orange, which contains an extremely toxic carcinogen known as dioxin, was sprayed across Vietnam from 1961 to 1971 as U.S. forces sought to damage crops and kill the trees and bushes that cloaked the enemy. “The thing that’s so remarkable about dioxin is that it seems to affect almost every organ system of the body,” said David Carpenter, the director of the Institute of Health and the Environment at the University at Albany.
Class-action suit settled in 1984
A class-action lawsuit against the chemical companies that manufactured Agent Orange ended with a $180-million settlement in 1984. About 52,000 veterans received cash payments averaging about $3,800. John Thorburn, who learned he had been in several areas where Agent Orange was sprayed, got $8,800 in four annual payments, his family said. When he developed lung cancer that the VA acknowledged was caused by Agent Orange, the government paid for his medical care. He died in January at age 63.
John Thorburn enlisted in the Army in 1964, when he was 17. After his four-year tour ended, he settled in Hicksville, where he got a job working as a riveter and met and married his first wife, Renate Stech. But he missed the military life and a year later joined the Air Force, which sent him to Vietnam.
After he was wounded and discharged, he had a tough readjustment to civilian life, his family said. “He would always say, ‘They teach you how to kill, they should teach you how to get the killing out of your system,’ ” R.A. Thorburn said. John Thorburn’s drinking and partying took a toll on his marriage, and he and his first wife, the mother of Lisa and R.A., divorced in 1980. He married his second wife, Dee, in 1981, and that fall, Dee gave birth to their first child. But that child, Dee Dee, was born with so many problems that Dee said doctors doubted she would survive. “They told me she would never walk, she’ll never talk, she’ll never have a life, and it’s better for everyone all around . . . if you go home and leave her here, and she’ll pass here,” Dee said. “And I said, ‘If she’s going to die here, she can die at my house, because we’re all going home together.’ And she lived to be 25.”
When he found out Dee Dee was going to live, “that was the one time I saw him cry,” said Thorburn’s daughter Lisa Clancy. “I guess it was a happy and a sad cry, together.” Dee Dee was microcephalic — her head was too small. She also had a severe seizure disorder and cerebral palsy. Though she could not speak, she communicated her needs and feelings to her family. She and her father, who stayed home and took care of her, grew especially close.
“He was my touchstone,” Dee Thorburn said. “If he couldn’t get her to smile, I knew Dee Dee was really sick, something was really wrong.”
“It was always Daddy and Dee Dee, Dee Dee and Daddy,” R.A. added. After extensive testing, Dee Thorburn said, doctors told her it was highly unlikely she would have another child like Dee Dee, and she became pregnant again. Her second child, Johnny, had no problems. But her third baby, Maxx, was born with similar disorders to his sister’s. Maxx also was blind. So while the family could communicate with Dee Dee, and make her laugh, Maxx was more difficult to reach, they said. He died when he was 10.
‘John was always there for them’
In some ways, Dee Thorburn said, the challenge of raising two special-needs children straightened Thorburn out. “I think that kind of helped. He still had his rowdiness in him, but he loved her. And Maxx, too,” she said. “A lot of men couldn’t handle it and they would run away. But John was always there for them.” Dee had a fourth child — Niki, born without problems. But in 1990 Lisa had a son, Vincent, who was diagnosed with Werdnig-Hoffman disease, a genetic disorder that caused him to gradually weaken. He died at 6 months. Doctors told Lisa the odds of having a child with this condition were one in 2 million. Lisa does not believe Agent Orange was the cause of her son’s condition. Of Thorburn’s children, only R.A. and Niki believe Agent Orange caused their siblings’ health issues. Niki, who is 16, sometimes worries that something will turn out to be wrong with her, or with her children. And although R.A. is certain of Agent Orange’s role, he said he tries to follow his father’s lead and avoids blame.
“It’s a part of war, where lives get taken . . . you go in knowing that you’re risking something, but who’s going to know that maybe your children or grandchildren might be affected?” R.A. said. “I’m convinced, but who am I going to be angry at? We’re happy that Dee Dee and Maxx were born, happy that we had time with them. We were a happy family.”
Operation Ranch Hand: A 10-year program where Agent Orange and other dioxin-tainted herbicides were used to destroy crops and forest cover that benefitted Vietnamese insurgents.
Program organized in 1961 under President John F. Kennedy, who approved spraying targets until control was delegated to U.S. authorities in Vietnam in late 1962.
19 million gallons of herbicide was sprayed, including 11 million gallons of Agent Orange, onto 6 million acres, the size of New Hampshire.
Troops exposed through spraying, contaminated drinking water. Used drums used as grills, showers.
Program peaked in 1967, with 1.7 million acres sprayed — 15 percent of it crop fields.
A 1969 study showed that Agent Orange could produce birth defects and stillbirths in mice. The herbicide was virtually banned in the U.S. in 1970 n . Operation ends Jan. 7, 1971.
In 1978, A Chicago television station reports that 41 Vietnam vets exposed to Agent Orange suffer from skin rashes, numbness, diminished sex drive and psychological problems.
Source: Operation Ranch Hand: The Air Force and Herbicides in Southeast Asia, 1961-1971 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1982).
These are the diseases currently recognized by the VA as “presumptively” caused by Agent Orange:
Subacute peripheral neuropathy
A nervous system condition that causes numbness, tingling, and motor weakness.
A rare disease caused when an abnormal protein, amyloid, enters tissues or organs.
Chloracne (or similar acneform disease)
A skin condition that occurs soon after exposure to chemicals and looks like common forms of acne.
Chronic lymphocytic leukemia
A type of cancer which affects white blood cells. Currently, only chronic lymphocytic leukemia is a “presumptive” disease associated with Agent Orange exposure; however, on March 25 the VA published a proposed regulation to establish B cell leukemias (includes chronic lymphocytic leukemia, hairy cell leukemia and others) as associated with Agent Orange exposure. Eligible Vietnam Veterans may receive disability compensation for other B cell leukemias when the regulation is final.
Diabetes mellitus (Type 2)
A disease characterized by high blood sugar levels resulting from the body’s inability to respond properly to the hormone insulin.
A malignant lymphoma (cancer) characterized by progressive enlargement of the lymph nodes, liver, and spleen, and by progressive anemia.
Ischemic heart disease
A disease characterized by a reduced supply of blood to the heart, leading to chest pain.
A disorder that causes an overproduction of certain proteins from white blood cells.
A group of cancers that affect the lymph glands and other lymphatic tissue.
A motor system condition with symptoms that include a trembling of the hands, imbalance, and loss of facial expression.
Porphyria cutanea tarda
A disorder characterized by liver dysfunction and by thinning and blistering of the skin in sun-exposed areas.
Cancer of the prostate; one of the most common cancers among men.
Cancers of the lung, larynx, trachea, and bronchus.
Soft tissue sarcoma (other than osteosarcoma, chondrosarcoma, Kaposi’s sarcoma, or mesothelioma)
A group of different types of cancers in body tissues such as muscle, fat, blood and lymph vessels, and connective tissues.
BIRTH DEFECTS (Children of male veterans)
Spina bifida (except spina bifida occulta)
A neural tube birth defect that results from the failure of the bony portion of the spine to close properly in the developing fetus during early pregnancy. n Children of female veterans are covered for 18 birth defects
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs