Ongoing Toll on Veterans


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Thank you to the following reviewers of the curriculum: Andrew Demko, Rainier Junior/Senior High School; Mark Lawrence, University of Texas at Austin; Susan Tomlinson, Franklin Central High School.



What obligation do you think the government has to its veterans after their period of service has ended? Why? Though individual periods of deployment may be short, the effects of service may stay with veterans for the rest of their lives.

Perhaps the most publicized cause of ongoing health issues in Vietnam veterans is exposure to Agent Orange, which resulted in myriad diseases and birth defects that are carried forward in the children of those exposed. Agent Orange was a chemical compound developed by Dow Chemical to serve as a defoliant—meaning it would kill crops and other vegetation in the areas where sprayed (see slide 1)—that would aid in rapidly and effectively clearing areas of the Vietnamese countryside that might provide cover to enemy troops and feed the people. In spite of some initial research that suggested the use of the chemical compound could create health problems for those exposed, the defoliant was used widely in Vietnam. Those who were exposed to Agent Orange may end up developing a range of health problems, including Parkinson’s disease, Hodgkin’s disease, prostate cancer, respiratory cancer, and more.  In 1979, President Jimmy Carter authorized the first Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) study of Agent Orange, to evaluate the effects of the chemical compound on the pilots who sprayed it. After a decade of lawsuits filed by veterans for compensation to cover medical treatment needed as a result of Agent Orange exposure, the Agent Orange Act was established in 1991 to allow the VA to declare a range of diseases as probable effects of Agent Orange exposure, and thus veterans could pursue services in relation to those diseases.

Watch the news report included on slide 2, which features veterans speaking to the long-term effects of their exposure to Agent Orange. What additional effects does Agent Orange exposure have, beyond the diseases and cancers that directly impact veterans? Do you think the government has an obligation to provide compensation for the children of Vietnam veterans who may suffer medical problems that are passed along genetically? Why or why not? Do you think a defoliant such as Agent Orange is a legitimate weapon to use in war? In addition to affecting the children of Vietnam veterans, Agent Orange exposure has had widespread effects on generations of Vietnamese, both those living on land that still contains Agent Orange, and those who are children of people originally exposed during the war (see slides 3 and 4). Many Vietnamese children have been born with irreversible birth defects that can be traced to Agent Orange.   What obligation does the United States have to help these people? 

There are other effects of service that continue when veterans have returned home. Some veterans may have trouble finding work due to physical or mental health problems, which can ultimately lead some to become homeless. Look at the infographic on slide 5, which shows the number of homeless veterans in each state. How many homeless veterans are there in your state? What percentage of the national total does your state represent? What message does the political cartoon on slide 6 send? War impacts nearly all veterans, even some of those who return home.

In addition to possible health problems resulting from Agent Orange exposure, some Vietnam veterans, as well as veterans of other wars, suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). In 1970 Dr. James Lifton, a famous psychiatrist at the time, first testified to Congress about the effects of “Post-Vietnam Syndrome,” a condition he was seeing among patients who were veterans of the war. Eventually this syndrome as coined by Lifton came to be known as PTSD. Look at the image on slide 7, which shows an item from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection ( What obstacles do you think PTSD might create for a veteran looking to return to civilian life? What obligation do you think the government has to respond to veterans with PTSD? Ask students to observe the chart on slide 8, which shows the rise in PTSD. What does the chart tell us about PTSD across different eras of service? The National Center for PTSD estimates that 30% of Vietnam veterans have PTSD, and 10-20% of veterans of more recent wars suffer from PTSD.

Some health consequences faced by veterans are specific to the wars in which they served. For veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, exposure to chemical smoke at burn pits (as seen on slide 9)—a military practice to dispose of waste—is starting to take its toll on veterans’ health. The Department of Veterans Affairs has stated that studies on the health impacts of exposure to the chemical smoke of burn pits are currently limited. This means that veterans suffering from related health problems, like reduced lung function, cannot receive the full funding they may need to cover their medical care.

In particular because the effects of service do not end when a soldier returns home, it is important to recognize veterans’ service to the nation.