Even when you aren’t sick, you’re afraid. Afraid you’re going to get sick, or that your children will be born sick. You live with this fear all the time.

—Al Marcotte, Vietnam veteran
Steps Learned Along the Way: Redefining Photojournalism’s Power
Wendy WatrissThousands of men, their wives, and children still live with this same fear in the United States, in Australia, in South Korea, and in Southeast Asia. It’s the fear of having children born with birth defects, fear of developing cancer, partial paralysis, symptoms of premature aging, severe skin rashes, impaired circulation of blood and oxygen, and deterioration of the immune and neurological systems. (Story continues below.)

For another photojournalist’s contemporary project on Agent Orange, see “A Personal Project: Third-Generation Victims of Agent Orange” by Justin Mott »

For many Vietnam War veterans and their families in the U.S. and elsewhere, this fear is a reality.

As a photojournalist, I became involved with veterans and their battle to find answers about Agent Orange. When I saw that getting my pictures about their situation published in prestigious magazines was not enough to make a difference in their lives, I took the photographs into the political arena. With veterans’ groups, we used the visual images as testimony before state and federal officials to finally get action.

Although the cause of these symptoms may never be totally defined, the nature of the veterans’ illnesses and the way they develop are closely related to the well-documented effects of toxic chemical poisoning. Factory workers, agricultural laborers, and civilians exposed to dioxin have experienced similar problems. Dioxin was a byproduct present in the tons of chemical defoliants, such as Agent Orange, used by the U.S. military in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia from the mid-1960’s to the early 1970’s. But no special precautions were taken to protect U.S. infantrymen who came in contact with the chemical.

For U.S. veterans who began to voice their fears in the late 1970’s, it has been a lonely and tragic struggle. For years, government agencies, many scientists, doctors and politicians dismissed their claims. The burden of proof was placed on them and their families. The 1984 $180 million class action U.S. court settlement with the chemical companies that produced Agent Orange gave the appearance of justice. In reality, it served to hide real evidence of responsibility and protect the U.S. government and U.S. military from further liability. The division of money from the settlement has barely covered the medical care and research needed for the thousands of veterans and their families who were part of the lawsuit.

Today many of the Vietnam veterans still endure health and psychological problems related to the chemicals used by the U.S. in Vietnam. Many are organizing again—engaging with a new generation of U.S. veterans to fight for the long-term medical and psychological care that they need for health problems related to the first Gulf War in the early 1990’s and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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