Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Nuclear Legacies

We may all be alive today thanks to two far-sighted women who died within days of each other this month. Imagine how many people would be living, if any, had the US-Soviet nuclear arms race exploded into World War III. Half a century ago, when the threat of such a war loomed large, Dagmar Wilson and Louise Reiss played key roles in convincing the public and national leaders to do something to avert catastrophe.

Wilson, the head of the Women Strike for Peace movement, in 1961 organized a telephone tree from her home in Washington, DC, to send an urgent message calling for ending the nuclear bomb tests that were an escalating edge in the bristling hostilities between the superpowers. The message was conveyed by a “network of 50,000 mothers, grandmothers and other women who left their kitchens and their offices for demonstrations in 60 cities across the country,” The Washington Post recalled this week.

 “Calling on President John F. Kennedy to ‘End the arms race - not the human race,’ the women won wide attention from world leaders and the press. They built such a groundswell of support for nonproliferation that Kennedy credited them with helping to force the Cold War superpowers to eventually sign a partial nuclear test-ban treaty,” The Washington Post’s obituary for Wilson noted. .

High among the concerns that sparked the Women Strike for Peace demonstrations was cancer risk from the radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons tests in Nevada, the South Pacific and the Soviet Union. That’s where Louise Reiss came in. She directed a research project in St. Louis, Missouri in the late 1950s that showed a disturbing rise of strontium 90 levels in baby teeth in Midwestern children. Strontium 90 is a radioactive chemical created by nuclear explosions that was known to cause cancer. Children were exposed through drinking milk from cows in pastures tainted by radioactive fallout.

“The study ultimately found that children born in St. Louis in 1963 had 50 times as much strontium 90 in their teeth as children born in 1950 — before most of the atomic tests. Its initial findings were published in the journal Science in 1961 and came to the attention of President John F. Kennedy as he negotiated with the Soviet Union for a ban on atmospheric nuclear testing,” The New York Time’s obituary for Reiss recalled.
“In June 1963, Dr. Reiss’s husband [Eric] presented the findings in testimony before a Senate committee in support of a treaty. Two months later, the Partial Test Ban Treaty between the United States, the Soviet Union and Britain was signed.”

Among the lessons conveyed by the historic nature of the work that Reiss and Wilson did is the vital importance of independent research into the effects of government programs. “Dr. Reiss was proud that the project achieved its aims through science rather than politics,” noted The New York Times. “‘I continue to be moved by the knowledge that a group of organized people can effectively pressure government if they come up with data instead of rhetoric,’ she wrote in a letter to a colleague in the study in 1996.”

Another lesson is the importance of widespread, creative civic actions that focus public concerns. “The idea to form Women Strike for Peace, Ms. Wilson said, came to her in 1961 while she was sitting with friends in the backyard of her house in the Georgetown section of Washington. They were troubled by the jailing in London of the philosopher Bertrand Russell for his part in antinuclear demonstrations,” The New York Times recalled.

“Ms. Wilson, an artist and illustrator of children’s books, had never been an activist but had long been worried about nuclear fallout. Women, she decided, should strike — take time from their jobs and homemaking for the cause of peace. ’I decided that there are some things the individual citizen can do,’ she told The New York Times in 1962. ‘At least we can make some noise and see. If we are going to have to go under, I don’t want to have to go under without a shout.’”

Dagmar Wilson died Jan. 6 at age 94. Louise Reiss died Jan. 1 at 90. They bought us all some more time to enjoy longer lives.

For more information:

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

American-Made Mayhem

The good people of Tucson, Arizona are still reeling from the massacre in a shopping mall a few days ago that killed six public-spirited citizens and wounded 13 other folks including a popular congresswoman. Horrendous and heartbreaking as it was, it was just the latest outbreak of a peculiar American ritual.

Given enough time, every community from Florida to Alaska, Maine to Hawaii may experience the all-American, historical ritual of shooting up the place. On the first day of spring in 1995, one of these ritualistic, self-proclaimed rites of firing a firearm into a peaceful crowd took place in the town where I lived. It was another in a widespread pattern of such shootings across the USA that it had its own slang name: “going postal.” Here’s what I wrote about it some time after. Nothing much has changed except the names of the places and the victims.

March Madness

Bam. Bam.
Four men shot dead.

A fifth lies still
with two bullets in his head
trying not to twitch
until the intruder leaves
the neighborhood post office.

Rumors of a shooting ricochet
through newsrooms miles away:
murder and mayhem in Montclair.
I call home; no one answers.
From newsrooms across metro New York
journalists who roam the world
to cover wars and disasters
rush home to interview their neighbors
and check on their own kin.

Massacre in mediatown—
picturesque Montclair, New Jersey.
A dozen television cameras converge
on the flowery plaza opposite
the grotesquely spot lit post office.
The mayor appears amid the massed microphones
to express the shock of suburbia.

When captured, the shooter is found
to have grown up around the corner,
attended local schools,
and worked for the town DPW.
With a pistol bought like popcorn
at a shoot-‘em-up action flick,
he slipped under America's defenses
pointed outward to fend off
the evils of the world.

R.I.P. Ernie and Scott,
who cheerfully sold me stamps,
asking how things were going.
R.I.P. Bob and George,
who walked into the Watchung Plaza
post office at the wrong time.
Hang in there, David, who
miraculously survived two slugs.

But for fickle fate,
coulda been me:
What? Why? I’d have
screamed in my last breath
as a vaguely familiar figure
executed us in a row on the floor.

--Jan Barry

(from Earth Songs: New & Selected Poems)

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Agent Orange’s Toxic Legacy Hits Home

Retired Master Sergeant LeRoy Foster is haunted by the job that launched his 20-year career in the US Air Force—spraying herbicides along perimeter fences and fuel pipelines at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. This duty seemed inconsequential, field maintenance work done amid B-52 bombers thundering in and out to refuel for bombing raids over Vietnam and a beehive of other military operations buzzing at Navy bases on the small island in the mid-Pacific Ocean. Despite nasty outbreaks of acne that a military doctor recorded in a 1968 medical report, he couldn’t imagine that the government-issued weed-killers might be planting tiny time bombs powerful enough to destroy his health and the lives of many other people.

Forty-some years later, MSgt. Foster spends much of his time in a wheelchair, anxiously rocking his infant grand daughter, who was born last year with extra toes and fingers and a heart abnormality. At 62, living on VA disability and military retirement checks, he also spends hours on his computer in Westfield, NY, a small town near Buffalo, emailing to wider and wider circles of other veterans and public officials. High on his to-do list are pleas for a federal investigation and public health warnings of the potential effects of the toxic legacy of extensively contaminated land and water in Guam—as well as at many other active and former US military bases around the world.

Relentlessly working the Internet, Foster and a group of fellow veterans who were stationed on Guam have persistently lifted the lid on a long-hidden story beyond the widely reported use of Agent Orange herbicides in Vietnam. Their research unearthed information that their experience on Guam was hardly unique. The secretive transition of chemical warfare agents designed to kill crops and defoliate forests to routinely used all-purpose weed-killers had many way stations.

The Story Beyond Agent Orange

The wider story is that a witches’ brew of herbicides contaminated by dioxin, and other hazardous substances, were used at numerous military bases stateside and overseas. Far and wide beyond Vietnam—where a decade of massive spraying missions with Agent Orange and other herbicide mixtures left dioxin “hot spots” at former US bases and many local residents have gruesome birth defects and other severe health problems—hundreds more military sites were contaminated by a toxic mess of chemical spills, cleaning solvents, heavy metals such as lead, plus dioxin in many cases.

During the height of military use of herbicides, which started in the 1950s and mushroomed in the 1960s, millions of soldiers, family members and civilian workers were on these bases, from Florida to South Korea. It was an era in which chemical herbicides were a modern marvel; in which benzene, trichloroethylene and other powerful chemicals were routinely used to wash nearly everything, from “dry cleaned” laundry to engine parts and greasy hands, with the residue washed into the nearest drain. In the decades since, millions more people have been stationed at these bases, which in many cases ended up with some of the most contaminated soil and water outside of industrial plants that manufactured these hazardous materials.

Like many veterans, Foster didn’t connect his health woes to Agent Orange until recent years when news articles reported that the VA kept adding more and more diseases, plus birth defects in children, to a growing list of health effects associated with dioxin exposure. Then he painfully recalled his herbicide-spraying days as a young airman. The VA’s response was to deny Foster’s claim for additional compensation, beyond his 70 percent disability rating for spinal and heart diseases that were deemed service connected, stating that there was no proof Agent Orange was used in Guam.

Foster’s Internet research found that, elsewhere in the country, some veterans of Guam duty have gained VA compensation for Agent Orange exposure based on data they provided. That propelled him to document his knowledge of herbicide use and to tell his story as widely as he could.

“I prepared, mixed and sprayed Agent Orange herbicides on Andersen AFB Guam and off base fuels facilities and pipelines and security fences surrounding those facilities on and off base” from September 1968 into the 1970s, Foster wrote last spring in a blog forum response to the Chicago Tribune’s extensive series on lingering health effects of the US military use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. “Many of my buddies ended up sterile like me, chloracne covered my body, severe ischemic heart disease, diabetes II, high blood pressure, high cholesterol unaffected by meds, immune problems, ankylosing spondiolitis, spinal stenosis, osterporosis, severe arthritis, and many more diseases,” he wrote of the health problems in various combinations that he and others had developed. “This is the truth so help me God. Many of my buddies are dead now and many are dying.”

A few weeks later, Foster sent emails to officials at Department of Defense schools in Guam stating that he had learned from Internet networking that many former students of these schools have severe health problems. “Some of the alumni kids from Andersen AFB have contacted me with some of their stories of health problems,” he wrote. “This is very sad to find that they have problems like LUPUS, DIABETES II, AUTOIMMUNE DISEASES MIXED CONNECTIVE TISSUE DISEASE, MULITPLE MISCARRIAGES, STILL BIRTHS, BIRTH DEFECTS IN THEIR CHILDREN. ETC. I highly recommend that DoDDs Pacific, DoDDs Guam, the Air Force Surgeon General and student alumni associations contact one another to find out what is happening to them and do an investigation to help them.”

Last September, Foster was invited to address a federal Institute of Medicine committee meeting in Washington, DC on his research efforts about dioxin’s health effects on veterans and civilians who lived in Guam. It was the culmination of a determined campaign to get federal officials to examine the health concerns that disturb him.

“I believe that after conversation with the Buffalo NY Veterans Administration that United States Congress needs to direct the VA or the US court of appeals to order an immediate remand of all claims denied to Agent Orange exposure especially those which were outside the country of Vietnam especially Guam, Okinawa and Thailand,” Foster wrote to members of Congress in seeking a congressional investigation. “I was told by the VA in Buffalo NY yesterday that they will not seek out those veterans who were denied nor all of those dependent children of those veterans who would have been entitled to Dependency Indemnity Compensation DIC from the exposure of their father's and mother's to Agent Orange, Agent White and the other herbicides used during the Vietnam WAR.”

Air Force Has No Records

In response to previous congressional queries, Foster found, the Department of Defense maintained the Air Force has no records of Agent Orange being used in Guam. It insists that high levels of dioxin at Andersen Air Force Base discovered by an EPA investigation were due to burning hazardous materials. However, the DOD added in a letter to Rep. Lane Evans in September 2003, Army records show that Agent Orange and similar herbicides were used in testing, storage or war missions in numerous other places, including Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, Arizona, California, Washington state, Hawaii, Maryland, Pennsylvania., Rhode Island, Puerto Rico, Canada, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.

And by the way, the DOD added in its letter to Rep. Evans, another chemical agent called Herbicide Purple was stored on Guam in the early 1950s during the Korean War. Purple was part of a rainbow-colored array of military commissioned chemical agents—including Pink, Green and Orange—that were contaminated in the manufacturing process by a highly toxic byproduct called TCDD or dioxin. The most widely used, according to military records, was Agent Orange. Health studies reviewed by the Institute of Medicine, and accepted by the VA as a basis for claims, link dioxin to various kinds of cancer, spina bifida birth defects, ischemic heart disease, diabetes II, numerous other health problems and a skin disorder called chloroacne.

Other veterans Foster contacted found VA references to Agent Orange use along the DMZ in South Korea and at Fort Drum, NY. A 2001 government document noted that the VA was seeking further information on other “areas where veterans allege AO to have been sprayed [that] include:
1. Guam from 1955 through 1960s (spraying).
2. Johnston Atoll (1972-1978) was used for unused AO storage.
3. Panama Canal Zone from 1960s to early 1970s (spraying).
4. Elgin AFB (Agents Orange and Blue) on Firing Range and Viet Cong Village.
5. Wright-Patterson AFB (OH) and Kelly AFB (TX).”

Foster has heard from other veterans who say the herbicides were also used at bases on Okinawa and in the Philippines. At issue, Foster and many other veterans believe, is a fiscal resistance by federal agencies to acknowledge how widespread the health legacy of dioxin-laced herbicides extends. As Politico.com writer David Rogers noted last summer in an article titled “The bill for Agent Orange comes due”:

“Age and Agent Orange are closing in on Vietnam veterans, a legacy of hurt for those who served — and a very big bill for American taxpayers. It’s a world turned upside down from decades ago when returning soldiers had to fight to get attention for deadly lymphomas linked to the herbicide. Now the frailties of men in their 60s — prostate cancer, diabetes, heart disease — lead the list of qualified Agent Orange disabilities, and the result has been an explosion in claims and the government’s liability.

“The latest expansion, approved by Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki in October, adds ischemic heart disease and Parkinson’s and will cost at least $42 billion over the next 10 years. The VA estimates 349,000 individuals are already receiving Agent Orange disability benefits, and that number could soon reach 500,000 — or one out of every four surviving Vietnam veterans by the VA’s count.”

Big Hazardous Waste Problem

In fact, the health bill could be far larger—if the effects of exposure to the full array of hazardous materials at military bases were subject to VA health care and compensation coverage. Foster found another veteran had dug up disturbing records of congressional hearings in 1987 on hazardous waste at military sites. These hearings noted that the Pentagon “in 1986, produced hazardous waste at 505 of its 871 installations in the United States. The types of hazardous waste found at DOD installations include, among others, solvents, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB), contaminated sludges, acids, cyanides, and contaminated fuel and oil. … In a classified report concerning hazardous waste management at overseas installations, we also identified similar problems to those found at bases in the United States.”

Foster’s research found that one of the largest hazardous-waste problem areas is Guam, where the EPA lists more than a dozen Superfund sites, areas deemed among the most contaminated, at island bases. Meanwhile, he found, a private company that rates corporate environmental problems stated that Agent Orange manufacturers such as Dow Chemical and Monsanto have a growing liability problem in Guam. The 2004 report by Innovest Strategic Value Advisors, an investment risk group based in New York, noted:

“Agent Orange exposure has also become an issue for military personnel stationed outside of combat zones and for U.S. civilians as well. Soldiers stationed on Guam who handled Agent Orange have become ill and symptoms of TCDD (dioxin) poisoning are apparent in the general population of the island as well, TCDD contamination as a result of Agent Orange handling has been measured at up to 1900 ppm in some areas of Andersen Air Force Base on Guam. Given that safe levels of TCDD have been placed at below 1 ppb by the EPA and even lower by many state regulatory agencies (toxic effects have been measured at parts per trillion), this implies an extraordinary level of contamination. TCDD has been shown in laboratory animals to have multigenerational impacts, not just on the offspring of exposed animals, but on the next generation as well.”

After all he has discovered about the toxic stew he helped to create while in the Air Force, Foster’s latest mission is to help spur ways for veterans and civilians who were at military bases, and their families, to exchange information and get the best health assistance.

“What shocked me is when kids contacted me on the Internet and I knew their fathers [on Guam]. I sprayed right past their houses,” Foster said in a recent interview for this article. Now grown, many of these military dependents, he learned, have severe health problems, including birth defects. “There’s been no movement by anybody to help the kids who were on Guam. I feel bad, because I was there going around spraying that stuff…

“My daughter found out what is being passed down to her children now, so she has decided not to have any more,” he added. “So I will only have one grandchild. This is a story of genocide to an entire section of Americans. We were the poor and the down trodden who served in the Vietnam War. We need our stories told and recorded for all time.”

Foster and several other veterans have kick-started the process of recording their stories by posting personal statements, VA claims records, military medical records, photos and other documents on a webs site, www.guamagentorange.info. Foster has also initiated an online petition seeking Congressional action on their concerns regarding Guam. The petition is at http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/guamagentorange/.

“I want to convey to everyone, especially the veterans service organizations,” said Foster, a member of the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans and Vietnam Veterans of America, “and to all of the public schools and universities who have contact with vets and their children and grandchildren, to organize, to share, to be kept informed and to help one another. We are all in this together. I am sorry to say lots of information has been kept from us on purpose. They didn't want to scare us or make us so angry that we would result in uprisings or anarchy, but this is really bad and really terrible.”

For further information:

Jan Barry, a veteran journalist who served in the Army in Vietnam, has investigated Agent Orange health issues in news reports carried by the Associated Press and published in the New York Times and many other publications

 (This article was also posted at Opinion Forum.)

The latest news on MSgt. Foster’s story is one of the quickest updates in my journalism career, conveyed in an email sent yesterday (Jan. 25):


The Buffalo VA Regional office called me this morning to tell me the good news that my long battle for AGENT ORANGE EXPOSURE is finally over. They told me that my claims were approved and that I would be a getting a very large claims package in the mail shortly. I believe this is the very first AGENT ORANGE HERBICIDE EXPOSURE CLAIM approved at VA Regional level. There were seven or eight previously approved claims but at COURT OF APPEALS LEVEL. I want to thank all of you for being a part of this battle and hope all veterans who were exposed to AO herbicides will be approved quickly. I hope those denied will have immediate reviews of their denied claims and the children / grandchildren affected will be helped quickly. thank you so much for your help and Praise God for answering our prayers for help.

LeRoy G. Foster, MSgt, USAF, Ret
Life Member of the DAV of New York At Large member
Member of the American Legion of New York Post 777, Celeron, NY
Life Member of the Vietnam Veterans of America New York Chapter 459
Member of War Vets of Fluvanna, New York
70% Service Connected 100% Unemployable
Totally and Permanently Disabled from Agent Orange on Guam

1/31/11 -- The latest twist of fate for MSgt. Foster is that he subsequently learned the local VA office approved an “increase of my disabilities [compensation payments] and the presumptive disease of AO but did not approve the AO exposure,” he wrote in an email. “They have denied my claim for AO exposure on Guam. I will be appealing it to the BVA AND I AM SURE TO THE COURT OF APPEALS.” He also launched a letter-writing campaign to Senators Gillibrand and Schumer of New York, seeking congressional action on this issue.

Coincidently, days later, the Cleveland Plain Dealer launched a series of articles on the lingering health effects of Agent Orange on families in Ohio and Vietnam: http://www.cleveland.com/agentorange/index.ssf/2011/01/unfinished_business_suffering.html#incart_mrt

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Waging Poetry

When I get blue, beyond the soothing realms of jazz or mother Nature or love, I reach for a book of poetry. The rhythmic kick of well-placed words works better for me than pills or booze. So it was that I recently sat in a wintry funk and read W.D. Ehrhart’s latest poetry collection, The Bodies Beneath the Table (Adastra Press, $18). I read each poem aloud, awash in thunderstorms of emotions set in motion by the poems and my own life, and got up refreshed. I could particularly relate to many of these poems because Bill Ehrhart has been a friend and literary companion for nearly 40 years, yet many of the tales in this collection were revelations.

Ehrhart’s most memorable poems look death, despair or being bummed out straight in the eye and tell a hair-raising story conveying how the author somehow survived that encounter. Often by picking himself up and relating in amazement that he’s still alive. Consider the conclusion of a poem to a former girlfriend whose companionship provided no salvation after a harrowing war tour in Vietnam, titled “Sleeping with the Dead”:

                            … O, to have been
so close, to have shared your bed, to have
felt like I’d been raised from the dead
after all those dead I slept with
every night. It almost drove me mad
to let you go.

                       But that was years ago.
You were eighteen then, and here I am
married eighteen years and sorry only
that I’ve never had the chance to tell you
that it’s okay, that I’m okay,
that no one could have saved me then,
not you nor God, that I don’t love you
anymore, but hope that someone does.

The theme of this collection—like most of Ehrhart’s previous 18 books of poetry and prose—is surviving in a world of hurt, as GIs in war zones would say of a miserable mission. Many of these poems expose deep pains of domestic life, as well as those from military battlefields, tangled together in thickets of nightmares. “I don’t remember a time when the house/ I grew up in wasn’t crackling with rage,” he writes in “The Damage We Do.” His flight from bickering parents was to join the Marines, becoming a raging veteran. Then he produced a lovely daughter

who’s angry all the time. I’d like to say
I don’t know why, but I do.
I’d like to explain that it’s not her fault,
but what’s she supposed to do with that?
I’d like to undo the damage I’ve done,
But I don’t know how.

Ehrhart’s method of waging poetry against deathly moods is to lance a long-festering wound with a sharp cut of insight, cauterize it with a hot poker of revelation of his own role in the mishap, and bandage it with a bumbling wish to do better next time. The healing is in the telling of these tormenting accounts in public, out loud.

Sometimes the healing consists of poems about trying to make peace with his volcanic father, saying goodbye to his mother on her deathbed, or waiting up all night for a distraught buddy to arrive with a gun in the car and offering breakfast with no questions. Often it consists of Ehrhart sharing innermost thoughts few moody souls dare reveal in poems. Thus National Public Radio listeners of Garrison Keillor’s “The Writer’s Almanac” were perhaps startled and yet graced to hear one of Ehrhart’s signature poems, “Sins of the Fathers,” in the hectic run up to Christmas last month. Keillor’s somber, fireplace- crackling voice concisely conveyed the tone of a parent’s sudden revelation:

Today my child came home from school in tears.
A classmate taunted her about her clothes,
and the other kids joined in, enough of them
to make her feel as if the fault was hers,
as if she can't fit in no matter what.
A decent child, lovely, bright, considerate.
It breaks my heart. It makes me want someone
to pay. It makes me think—O Christ, it makes
me think of things I haven't thought about
in years. How we nicknamed Barbara Hoffman
"Barn," walked behind her through the halls and mooed
like cows. We kept this up for years, and not
for any reason I could tell you now
or even then except that it was fun.
Or seemed like fun. The nights that Barbara
must have cried herself to sleep, the days
she must have dreaded getting up for school.
Or Suzanne Heider. We called her "Spider."
And we were certain Gareth Schultz was queer
and let him know it. Now there's nothing I
can do but stand outside my daughter's door
listening to her cry herself to sleep.

For more information: