The United States military sprayed about 19 million gallons of defoliants during the Vietnam War. The chemicals—mostly Agent Orange—killed the jungle brush and denied the enemy cover, but also may have caused cancer and other serious medical ailments in millions of Vietnamese people and American service members.
Jim Smith, 65, who served on the ammunition ship Butte, believes he’s one of them.
Before he left for Vietnam in 1972, Smith remembers seeing a newsreel about Agent Orange. But he wasn’t concerned at the time.
“I didn’t think it was going to affect me.... I didn’t have boots on the ground in Vietnam,” Smith said. “I had no idea that this stuff would probably get into the rivers and flow out to the sea.”
Smith and a group representing 90,000 veterans who served on ships off the Vietnam coast believe that they may have been exposed to Agent Orange. The chemicals—whether from runoff, leakage, or dumping—could have ended up in the rivers and harbors, which flowed out to U.S. ships at sea. The Navy ships sucked in seawater and distilled it for use, possibly exposing thousands of sailors to the chemical dioxin.
A 2011 report by the Institute of Medicine found that this process not only would have left the chemical in desalinated water, but would have enriched it by 10 times. Smith says while he doesn’t think he came into direct contact with Agent Orange like many ground troops and Vietnamese, he believes that he and his fellow sailors drank and showered in contaminated water.
The Department of Veterans Affairs denies Agent Orange claims by veterans like Smith (known as “Blue Water” vets) because they didn’t put “boots on the ground” in Vietnam, a standard that advocates say cuts off potentially exposed sailors from compensation. But as the VA has broadened access to benefits to Air Force and Air Force Reserve personnel who served on C–123 aircraft that were used to spray Agent Orange, bills in the House and Senate to compensate Blue Water vets have also gained support.
We talked to more than a dozen sailors about their time off the coast of Vietnam, life aboard a ship, and their Agent Orange concerns. They are among more than 2,500 veterans and family members helping us investigate the generational impact of Agent Orange by sharing their experiences. Here are a few of their stories, edited for clarity and length.
Wilson McDuffie, 70, Sumter, South Carolina
Ship: Aircraft carrier Bennington
Job: Postal clerk
Years Served in Navy: 1966–67
Location: South China Sea, Yankee Station
“How do I think or how do I feel? It doesn’t matter. It really has no bearing upon what the government is going to do or what the VA is going to do based on what I feel or what I think. I know for a fact what I did.... But as far as proving it to someone that wasn’t there, that’s not possible. ... This new [House Resolution] bill in 2015 is the latest one. Where it will go, who knows. But the problem is we are all facing our mortality.”
Doug Roske, 65, Mound, Minnesota
Ship: Aircraft carrier Enterprise
Job: Aircraft electrician
Years Served in Navy: 1968–1972
Location: Clark Air force base, Okinawa, Guam, flew in C–130s
“You were 20, 21 years old. You just were just out in the middle of the South Pacific, and you trusted your government and the people around you. And at that time, as people would tell you ... when they came over with the Agent Orange half the time, since they didn’t know, they just stood out there in the middle of it, you know, like it was a lark, watching this chemical come down. Nobody had any idea. So it was the same thing whether it was in the Philippines or in Guam or the aircraft, nobody knew about this stuff ... they had no idea it was bad for you.”
Jim Kerr, 70, Henderson, Nevada
Ship: Escort carrier Annapolis
Years Served in Navy: 1966–67
Location: Cam Rahn Bay, north of the DMZ, Gulf of Tonkin
“One of the things the military would do (is) they would spray Agent Orange, and then about two to three days after that they would follow it up with a napalm attack. Of course anybody that’s ever seen that knows that napalm was a liquid, a very highly flammable liquid. And the entire jungle would just explode and send everything up into the air. The napalm would burn everything. The Agent Orange would just, it would kill things, but it didn’t destroy anything else. It would kill everything, but trees were standing. Things were just dead. But the napalm would actually burn.”
Jim Smith, 65, Virginia Beach, Virginia
Ship: Ammunition ship Butte
Years Served in Navy: 1972–73
Location: Gulf of Tonkin
“Before I left, I had seen probably a newsreel or something about showing the aircraft spraying the defoliant. Didn’t think it was going to affect me, because I was not, you know, I didn’t have boots on the ground in Vietnam. So at that time I had no idea this stuff would probably get in the rivers and flow out to the sea and we would use it for our fresh water aboard the ship. ... You got all these contaminated rivers ... and the ships are going up and down sucking this stuff in there distilling it.... If you’re a Marine and you’re plying the jungles of Vietnam and a plane actually comes over and dumps the stuff on you and you kinda go, ‘Oh what the heck is this stuff?’ Well, the sailors on board the ships were drinking ... what that guy got directly sprayed on him.”
Eddie Johnny, 72, Stockton, California
Ship: Aircraft carrier Kearsarge
Job: Flight deck troubleshooter
Year Served in Navy: 1964
Location: Yankee Station
“It’s to the point where you work on an aircraft so long you would smell things and at night (and) you couldn’t see it so you’d literally taste it. It wasn’t the thing to do, but you was a young kid out there—18, 19—so you would taste the matter and say, ‘Oh well that taste like fuel, it must be a fuel leak.’ Or, ‘It tastes like hydraulic, it’s a hydraulic leak.’”