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Agent Orange

Apart from the psychological damage inflicted on the veterans, by the late 1970s many believed they had also been poisoned while fighting in Vietnam. Between 1962 and 1971 over 17 million gallons of herbicide and insecticide were used in Vietnam to clear vegetation so the Viet Cong had nowhere to hide. Agent Orange was only one of the many insecticides used but that name has come to represent them all. This action was known as Operation Ranch Hand. During Ranch Hand, American and Australian soldiers were exposed to the chemicals. See image 1

In 1978 a report appeared that linked Agent Orange with cancers of the soft tissues and blood, birth defects in children born to those exposed to the herbicide and toxic brain dysfunction. All three of these disorders were common enough among Vietnam veterans that the State Veterans Associations in Australia began to ask for a government inquiry to establish a link between Agent Orange and the large numbers of veterans with disabilities

The royal commission

A royal commission was finally set up in 1982 to investigate the claims made by the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia. It reported in 1985 and said that Australian exposure to chemicals had been very small, and that it had not affected the soldiers adversely. In fact the commission's report said the chemicals had prevented health problems 'which may have otherwise been a problem in the Vietnam environment.' The royal commission did state for the record that the Vietnam War had been particularly stressful for the soldiers because of the nature of the war, the fact Australia did not win and that they were shunned when they returned home.

No comprehensive study was done to examine the extent of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Australian Vietnam veterans, however the commission did accept many men suffered a range of psychological and physical symptoms that are associated with PTSD, but this was not associated with any chemicals to which they may have been exposed. The government admission that Australian men were suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder meant they could claim compensation for that - but nothing else.

The Vietnam Veterans Association rejected the royal commission report and for the next nine years; fought to have the findings overturned. But it was not until 1994 that the Labor Government acknowledged Agent Orange was responsible for the cancers and other illnesses suffered by Australian veterans of the Vietnam War. American veterans had to fight a similar battle for recognition of their symptoms - they eventually won a legal action against seven chemical companies and received a multi-million-dollar compensation payment. In Australia the government began a compensation scheme for those who had cancer caused by their service in Vietnam and for the widows of those who had died from cancer. See animation

The legacy of the Vietnam War

The legacy of the Vietnam War among Vietnam veterans and their families was long looked upon as something that should not be talked about. The higher rates of birth defects and miscarriages, depression, suicide, cancers, alcoholism and the many other physical effects of herbicide poisoning were all ignored for a long time. Both the war and its consequences on those who fought in it were pushed to the back of the national conscience. Australian society has been mostly unwilling to acknowledge what took place in Vietnam.

Each veteran's experience in Vietnam was, of course, different and it is difficult for anyone who was not there to truly understand what they went through. The song I Was Only Nineteen was a huge hit in Australia in 1983. It was written by a band called Redgum and is still a very popular song among veterans. The song talks about a young man's experiences in Vietnam and the effect it had on him - this was taken from the songwriter's discussion with several Vietnam veterans including his brother-in law. You can find the lyrics to the song here. Take time to read the words and try to relate them to what you have learned about the war and its aftermath for those who fought in it. See image 2

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1. When was the link between Agent Orange and veterans' illnesses finally acknowledged by an Australian government?






No thanks. Remind me again later.