Agent Orange: The gift that keeps on giving

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Excerpted from emails to Thanh Nien Weekly and a prepared statement on Agent Orange given at the International Tribunal of Conscience on Agent Orange this May in Paris


My husband, of 40 years, my reason and my partner in the fight for research and compensation, passed away on April 6, 2008 from complications of Agent Orange diabetes and massive Agent Orange health issues that he had battled for 35 years. His name was John Kopystenski. Our son, Alex Kopystenski, aged 31, was one of the first certified Agent Orange children in the US, with serious maladies that he still suffers from and now, his son, Giovanni, aged 5, is also a victim of AO altered DNA.

In 1976, due to severe back and sciatic pain, John underwent the same x-rays and was found to have 75 percent of his spine involved in acute osteoarthritis, which was spreading without explanation. As well as disc deterioration that medical experts told us would eventually, in the near future, take away his ability to walk.

Vietnamese veteran Nguyen Thi Thanh of central Quang Tri Province holds her 15- year-old daughter Nguyen Thuy Linh. Thanh gave birth to a total of eight children, all of which suffered deformities due to Agent Orange, five of which have died.

It was not until the summer of 1977, when I was six months pregnant with our son, Alex that we learned of Agent Orange and the effects that some vets were experiencing as well as the numerous birth defects that their children were born with. I remember sitting in my living room, watching the 6 o'clock news and hearing what others were experiencing as a gift for their service in Vietnam. I still recall grabbing my stomach and crying as I whispered to my unborn son "you are going to be just fine;" but from that day in August until this day, nothing has been "just fine." Our son was born unusually jaundiced and had to stay in the hospital for nearly a month before he was well enough to come home.

Our tiny baby was suffering from intussusceptions, which was caused by an overlong and deformed intestine. We nearly lost our son at least ten times over the next three years from this deformity and he, to this day, suffers from intestinal problems.

While the private physicians blamed John's exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam, for his rapidly increasing medical problems, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) blamed John. This man never drank, smoked or did drugs, but the VA treated him like a leper and a freeloader. He underwent the VA's "Agent Orange screenings" which were a joke; but the joke was on my husband and the other over two million servicemen and women who served their country valiantly, whether they believed in the war or not.

Fortunately, for us, we had very good medical insurance and John was given the best care possible, but that was only until the insurance companies called both my husband and my son's problems, "pre-existing conditions caused by AO poisoning" and the financial burden became ours.

How ironic it is that the VA wouldn't recognize my husband's maladies or what his chemically altered DNA had passed onto our son, but the insurance companies not only recognized Agent Orange but used it as an excuse not to cover my loved ones.

John's medical care had to be handled more creatively since the VA would not care for him unless he had exhausted all of his assets, so a friend at the VA suggested that we divorce and I take him for everything so that I could afford to take care of Alex.

Alex Kopystenski (L) and his son Giovanni. Alex, now in his early 30s, has led a life plagued by a host of AO-related ailments due to exposure in his father, a Vietnam vet; the dioxins then affected a third generation when Giovanni was born with autism.

We divorced in 1986 and remarried the day after he was granted 100 percent Agent Orange service connected in 1999, which means that the government's refusal to fix what they and the chemical companies had broken forced us to live in sin, for 13 years, just to keep our family alive.

It is with humility, that I look at the stories and pictures of what Agent Orange's legacy has done to the population and especially the children of Vietnam and realize that, while the chemical companies maimed and destroyed a selected segment of the American population, they totally devastated an entire population and future populations of the country of Vietnam: the children, the grandchildren, the land they lived off of and the water that they drank.

We lived in the US and so, as bad as our children's health problems were and are, we had medical help and a standard of living that made the problems they were born with somewhat easier to bear, than the children who lived in the mud huts of Vietnam. Our children could eat food and vegetables that did not grow in dioxin laced soil or eat fish that did not swim in dioxin poisoned rivers.

Alex's son, Giovanni, suffered AO through genetic transmission resulting in autism. We still don't know how many generations will be affected.

Alex was rushed to the hospital this month because the exact same embolisms that took my husband when he was in his early 30s showed up in Alex's leg and in his lungs. They could have taken his life as the pulmonary embolisms were in the vein canals leading to his heart.

The chemical companies that created this monstrous problem know exactly what they have done.

I am a voice from the past, a part of the beginning of a fight that never seems to end, but my anger has never subsided and with the death of my husband comes a new dedication to force answers, treatment and compensation for those who have been left to relive the War in Vietnam every time they look in a mirror or try to live what is deemed "a normal life."

*Rena Kopystenski has been an advocate for Agent Orange victims since the late 70s. She testified on behalf of Agent Orange victims at the US Federal Court, Brooklyn, New York, in late April 1984.

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