VA&R Deputy Director Joe Wilson testifies about the health effects of the Vietnam War before members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Photo: Craig Roberts

A process long overdue

In his testimony before Congress on May 4, American Legion staffer Joe Wilson reminded congress that one of the Legion's top priorities is "to assure that long overdue, major epidemiological studies of Vietnam veterans, who were exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange, are carried out."

Wilson, deputy director of The American Legion's Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division, reminded the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs that The American Legion had collaborated with a Columbia University research team that has developed a powerful method for characterizing exposure to herbicides in Vietnam. A 2003 report issued by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), "Characterizing Exposure of Veterans to Agent Orange and Other Herbicides Used in Vietnam," was based on the team's research.

"In its final report on the study, the IOM urgently recommends that epidemiological studies be undertaken - now that an accepted exposure methodology is available. The American Legion strongly endorses this IOM report," Wilson told the committee, chaired by Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif.

Such a health study has yet to be carried out, according to Wilson, although VA estimates that about 900,000 Vietnam veterans are eligible for treatment of Agent Orange-related diseases: Type II diabetes, Hodgkin's Disease, ischemic heart disease, Parkinson's Disease, prostate and respiratory cancers, and some forms of soft-tissue sarcoma.

In his testimony, Wilson also addressed the issue of diseases that affect children of Vietnam veterans, including Type II diabetes and spina bifida. "It is The American Legion's contention that more conclusive research be conducted to determine if the effects of exposure to herbicides in Vietnam affected the offspring of those who served," Wilson said.

The American Legion believes the latest IOM report on Agent Orange supports the inclusion of "blue water" Navy veterans within presumptive-condition categories. The report "provides scientific justification to the legislation currently pending in Congress that seeks to correct this grave injustice faced by Blue Water Navy veterans," Wilson said.

The VA's plans to restart its 1984 National Vietnam Veterans Longitudinal Study (halted in 2001) was also addressed in Wilson's testimony. According to VA, the new study will examine the Vietnam-era generation's physical and psychological health. It will also provide supplemental research on post-traumatic stress disorder and the health of women Vietnam veterans.

Wilson said The American Legion supports the follow-up study, announced by VA in September 2009, and wants to make sure that "federal government committees charged with review of such research are composed of impartial members of the medical and scientific community." The Legion encouraged proper congressional oversight and input from veterans service organizations to make sure the study is not halted again.

"Since 1990, when The American Legion brought suit against the U.S. government for failure to carry out its congressionally mandated Agent Orange study," Wilson told the committee, "The American Legion remains steadfast in its belief that such studies are needed."