The death of Kerry Ryan last week at age 35 was both the
sad end of one family's long struggle and a stark reminder that the bitter
issue of Agent Orange is far from over.
Kerry was born with 22 major birth defects, after her father, Michael,
served in Vietnam in 1966. Like thousands of others, he was exposed to Agent
Orange, a herbicide that American forces sprayed from the air and on the ground
to deny jungle cover to the forces opposing the United States.
The herbicide was contaminated with dioxin, one of the planet's deadliest
toxins. Michael Ryan, then a Suffolk County police officer, became a party to a
class-action suit. Ultimately, the plaintiffs settled in 1984 with seven U.S.
firms, who set up a $180-million fund to compensate veterans, but did not
accept any liability. Nor did the settlement directly compensate children of
veterans - like Kerry.
The Department of Veterans Affairs recognizes a list of illnesses as
associated with Agent Orange and pays some compensation. But major issues
remain unresolved. Veterans left out of the settlement are trying anew to sue
the manufacturers. As for the people of Vietnam, where dioxin lingers lethally
in the soil and the food chain, last year a federal judge in New York dismissed
their suit. The Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation has a Ford Foundation
grant to help victims in Vietnam. Our government should do much more.
For the Ryan family, Kerry's life of pain is over. So is the numbingly
difficult caregiving task of Michael, who lost his wife, Maureen, to cancer
three years ago. But our nation's costly strategic decision to use this toxic
agent will continue to haunt us and Vietnam for decades to come. For the Ryans
and all those who bear this burden in both countries, we can only hope that
some form of justice can be found.