The Life Long Impact of Agent Orange on Vietnam Veteran’s Children

Josh Kelley with Child

Josh Kelley, 2014 meeting a disabled Vietnamese girl in a neighborhood close to a Dioxin Hot Spot, in Vietnam.

Among the Ozark woodlands in a rural Arkansas a man best described as an ‘Everyday Hero’ quietly lives. As is common with those who inspire others Josh Kelley is far too humble to apply the title of Hero to himself. Still, he is often seen as a hero by loved ones to complete strangers. It is not uncommon for strangers to approach Josh expressing their amazement at his abilities, not disabilities…Agent Orange changed his life forever.

On January, 15 2016, the Washington Post wrote an article titled,  “A major new finding about the impact of having a dad who was drafted to Vietnam.” 

“The Vietnam lottery was one of the largest accidental experiments in American history. Fates of millions of young men rested on a game of random chance. Whose draft number would be called? Who would have to serve?

By comparing those called up by the draft to those who weren’t, economists have been able to measure the impact of the Vietnam war on veterans. The results are depressing. A decade after their military service, white veterans of the draft were earning about 15 percent less than their peers who didn’t serve, according to studies from MIT economist Josh Angrist.

Now, new research suggests that the draft did more than dim the prospects of that earlier generation: The children of men with unlucky draft numbers are also worse off today. They earn less and are less likely to have jobs, according to a draft of a report from Sarena F. Goodman, an economist with the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, and Adam Isen, an economist at the Treasury Department. (A copy was released by the Fed in December, but research does not reflect the opinions of the government.)”

Birth Defects
In 1975, Josh was born without both arms below the elbow and his left leg below the knee. Daily, Josh adapts and overcomes limits set by his physical birth defects resulting from his father’s exposure to the weaponized herbicide commonly referred to as Agent Orange during his Service in the Vietnam War. As a result of his father’s exposure to Agent Orange by age four Josh experienced more time in hospitals than many adults will ever endure. The initial medical diagnosis for Josh’s birth defects was tied to Amniotic Band Syndrome.

Josh Kelley Dad

Josh and his Father Daniel Kelley

Today, Amniotic Band Syndrome is suspected to occur at a disproportionately higher rate for generations of children with a parent or grandparent exposed to Agent Orange in comparison to the general population of children born with birth defects related to Amniotic Band Syndrome. Regardless of birth defects, Josh leads a life where limitations are to be overcome. Both his father and mother actively exhibited their love and desire for Josh to lead a fulfilling life.

Josh’s Father, Daniel Kelley
Josh’s father, Daniel Kelley, served honorably as a U.S. Marine stationed at Chu Lai, Vietnam from 1969 to 1970. Daniel served as an E5 in Marine Air Group 13 VMFA 115 tasked in Aviation Ordinance. Josh feels fortunate to currently communicate with an Air Crew Chief who also served at Chu Lai and provides Josh insight to the operations at the airbase during the war.

Fighter jets were routinely armed and serviced at Chu Lai to assist in maintaining U.S. air superiority over the skies of Southeast Asia. When necessary, Daniel operated heavy machine guns to repel opposing infantry forces from the airbase. Daniel lived and operated in areas of the airbase heavily exposed to Agent Orange.

Snake eye 250 lb bombs with 6 ft daisy cutters (ground support) Sidewinders & Sparrow missiles (air to air).

Snake eye 250 lb bombs with 6 ft daisy cutters (ground support) Sidewinders & Sparrow missiles (air to air). Loaded by Daniel Kelley.

As standard practice for U.S. military installations in Vietnam, Agent Orange was deployed by specialized aircraft such as the C-123 to clear the airbase perimeter of old-growth jungle life in which Vietnamese infantry forces concealed their position and launched assaults from. American political and military leaders failed to consider health impacts upon human life both immediate and long term. Agent Orange was dispersed at Chu Lai in highly concentrated levels numerous times. Each use of Agent Orange was focused on further expanding the airbase perimeter by eliminating jungle surrounding the airbase.

The extreme toxicity of Agent Orange rapidly killed jungle surrounding the perimeter and denied jungle concealment of Vietnamese infantry forces highly proficient in jungle warfare. In response, Vietnamese forces also deployed unguided rockets and mortars in attempts to cripple or destroy U.S. aircraft. Clearing the perimeter of the airbase aided Marines in successfully defending the airbase through intense levels of combat on numerous occasions. Upon completion of his Tour of Duty in Vietnam, Daniel enrolled in College utilizing his G.I. Bill to gain formal education in Engineering. Daniel’s desire was to return to a routine Civilian life as a means to excise the ‘ghosts’ of Vietnam carried within his memory and heart.

Agent Orange was a 50/50 mix of 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and 2,4,5-Trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T). It was discovered the 2,4,5-T in Agent Orange was contaminated with 2,3,7,8-TCDD dioxin. Dioxin is only second to radiation in its lethalness to humans. U.S. military and political leaders utilized Dioxin laced herbicide in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Okinawa (Japan), Taiwan, Panama, South Korea, and the Philippines among other locations not yet disclosed.

Agent Orange remains the most prolific chemical weapon deployed by the United States Department of Defense. Multiple diseases and deaths have resulted from Agent Orange. As many as 4.5 Million Vietnamese and some 2.8 Million Americans were exposed during the Vietnam War.

Agent Orange Defoliated Landscape in Vietnam

Agent Orange’s Defoliated Landscape in Vietnam

Daniel Kelley was exposed heavily to Agent Orange. He also struggled heavily with the demons of war. Josh reports his father had severe PTSD. At times he would awaken Josh in the middle of the night and pull him under the bed, telling him he was going to die if he made a noise. He would have violent episodes seeming disassociated from reality. He would tell Josh and his brother terrifying accounts of things that happened in Vietnam. He would have terrible nightmares. Josh believed he was tortured as well by the thought he had caused his son’s birth defects.

This was a terror Daniel Kelley could not escape. Daniel Kelley drove out into the desert and took his own life. Josh was told on Father’s Day in 1997 after his father’s body was discovered in his car badly decomposed. Daniel struggled emotionally, but Josh never doubted his father deeply loved him. His unexpected death devastated Josh. In 2000 Josh’s brother was tragically murdered and his mother died of cancer. This left Josh with no family. The people who traveled this journey with him since he was a child were gone.

Charities and Agendas
The famous actor John Wayne took interest in Josh at a Rodeo he attended with his family. Then only ten months old, Mr. Wayne held Josh and inquired as to what may have caused his physical birth defects. He never offered Josh’s family assistance. This may have been the first time Josh was used as a photo opportunity.

In his early childhood, Josh worked through multiple charities and private corporations wishing to assist him with his birth defects. He became a Poster Child with one of the largest charities in North America. Josh’s pictures were utilized to prompt philanthropic financial donations to major charities. Indeed, the picture of a child using prosthetic limbs is a powerful image. The dollar amount Josh’s images raised can only be speculated upon.

A second major charity sought to assist in providing medical treatments, physical therapy, and prosthetic arms and legs for Josh over his childhood. This did help Josh. Just like a child grows out of shoes, Josh would grow out of limbs. Limbs were expensive and beyond the means of average families. However, this charity also suggested experimental medical treatments that scared Josh as a child. Once, a surgery that called for breaking the bones in his residual limbs and placing rods through them in hopes of stretching his arms to a normal length was suggested to his parents. This would have required some ten years of extremely painful surgery. Josh recalls he threatened to run away to avoid such experimental surgeries. Thankfully, his parents listened and declined the treatment.

When Josh was ten, a local dirt track driver, was involved in an accident that tore his arm from his torso. It was reattached by Doctors. The surgery was at first successful, but ultimately failed and the arm was removed. The Doctors who had performed the surgery saw Josh in the publicized posters and contacted his family in hopes of trying the surgery again, but this time to attach a cadaver’s arm to Josh. Josh refused the idea of having a forearm from another person grafted to his left limb. Everyone wanted a piece of Josh to fulfill their needs.

Josh far preferred to work with his limbs utilizing prosthetics. Josh’s father and friend developed a bow allowing Josh to shoot arrows with his prosthetic forearms by drawing the string back with his teeth. He became extremely successful outdoors men at a very young age. He could fish; use a bow, and was an excellent marksman with a rifle. The outdoors brought him peace of mind and escape when he was bullied and picked on at school. A Fishing organization took interest in studying how Josh adapted a rod and reel system allowing him to fish with standard poles. A bow and arrow manufacturer took interest in potentially producing bows for individuals with physical issues similar to those faced by Josh. Sadly, though as Josh grew older, the charities lost interest, as the child grew into a man.

Josh with Bow JK 1

Since going through a divorce and moving to rural Arkansas several years ago, he has been unable to find a job or financial security. He lives in poverty. Issues with an alleged Social Security over payment while he was married has made it impossible to know month to month if he will receive even a portion of his disability payment. His attempts to get answers from Social Security have failed. This uncertainty has lead to homelessness in the past. He has lived in his car and in the woods. Today, he routinely supplements his family’s food with the food he has caught or shot.

Josh Kelley with FishMany places of employment have called Josh based on his application, however once they see a man with no arms and missing a leg come in for an interview, he is never offered a position. He is never given a chance. He has taken to finding whatever labor intensive job he can do to make extra money. This has included, cutting lumber, working as a mechanic, cleaning fence rows, loading rocks, and hauling scrap metal. This is hard on his body and his artificial limbs, but he has to support himself and his children.

Currently, Josh has no prosthetic arms and a prosthetic leg that is held together with improper, improvised parts, and duct tape. Think in the style of Mad Max. His insurance will not cover a new limb for him until next year after he mistakenly, changed Medicaid insurance plans. This was discovered after a generous prosthetists traveled round trip twelve hours to cast his arms and leg with intention of making him new limbs. While Josh is discouraged he simply does not give up.

Due to where he lives and limited income he has found it nearly impossible to connect successfully to offices that can help sort out a multi-state issue with his disability benefits.

In December, Josh was invited to Washington D.C. to support H.R.2114 – Victims of Agent Orange Relief Act of 2015. There is a section of the bill that mandates the children of male Vietnam Veterans would be covered for the same birth defects the VA currently acknowledges in the children of female Vietnam Veterans. Josh’s birth defects would be eligible for compensation if the legislation were passed. Josh told his story at a briefing and to Congressional Staff on damages Dioxin inflicts upon Vietnam veterans, generations of their children and the people of Vietnam.

Josh at Senator Boozman's office in December, 2015.

Josh at Senator Boozman’s office in December, 2015.

Josh joined COVVHA Members, Vietnamese representatives from the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange, Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign, Veterans for Peace, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Iraq Veterans Against the War, also voicing their dire concerns and avenues of action desired to be taken in addressing widespread diseases related to Dioxin, in Vietnam, Vietnamese-Americans, and children of Vietnam Veterans. He also discussed extension of the Veterans Affairs Expiring Authorities Act of 2015 (S.2082) and discussed his thoughts on the Toxic Exposure Act of 2015-2016 (H.R. 1769).

The last day he was in D.C. he stopped by his Senator John Boozman’s office and sat with one his aids asking for his office to look into the issues with his disability payments. As of the writing of this article, Josh is still waiting for help in getting his payments straightened out and has not heard from the Senator’s office.

In 2014, after fund raising and receiving a grant Josh traveled to Vietnam as a delegation member from the non-profit Children of Vietnam Veterans Health Alliance (COVVHA) to see the Country where his Father’s life was profoundly altered. Josh found he was openly accepted in Vietnam as an Agent Orange Victim. Something he is not recognized as here in the United States. He met others in Vietnam who had the same birth defects as he has. He found comfort in obtaining a greater understanding of the suffering endured by his Father in Vietnam. The trip moved Josh to advocate for Victims from the U.S. but also his own peers in Vietnam. Twenty eight hot spots that test high for Agent Orange Dioxin continue to poison generations of Vietnamese children.

Josh meets Hoan at Tu Du Hospital, HCMC. Meeting others with similar birth defects was very moving.

Josh meets Hoan at Tu Du Hospital, HCMC. Meeting others with similar birth defects was very moving.

Josh Kelley at Friendship Village. Started by an American Vietnam Veteran this Hanoi center cares for children affected by Agent Orange.

Josh Kelley at Friendship Village. Started by an American Vietnam Veteran this Hanoi center cares for children affected by Agent Orange.

The Future
Josh does not expect the VA to ever offer individuals like him any healthcare services, yet this does not deter him in seeking such a goal. Rather than seeking assistance Josh has focused far more on providing assistance to other’s facing questions similar to those he once held. While Josh dearly wishes to see progress allowing all Vietnam veterans and their children suffering from Dioxin related diseases and birth defects access to benefits, he realizes he may never see such progress in his lifetime. Yet, as with overcoming his birth defects Josh finds opportunity where others find only barriers.

The Washington Post piece sited above, suggested PTSD may have been a factor in why children of Vietnam Veterans, especially their sons, earn less today then their peers. Living with a family member with PTSD can effect the entire family unit. Many families of Vietnam Veterans struggled with the difficulties of nightmares, flashbacks, withdraw, intense anger, and the like. However, the economist did not consider the health impact of Agent Orange on the Children of Vietnam Veterans (COVVs). Josh like many other COVVs struggle with disabilities. Many COVVs have unexplained chronic illness that have trumped their ability to work, leaving them in financial desperation.

The Agent Orange effected demographic’s age range is roughly between twenty-five to fifty years old. Their fathers served between 1961-1975.  Agent Orange was sprayed from 1962-1971. Doctor’s do not take a 30 year old very seriously for back pain for example. COVVs seem to suffer from severe degenerative disc disease in very high numbers. This takes long periods of time and determination to get a proper diagnosis when you are seemingly “young.” Most are turned away from health care when they mention their father served in Vietnam and was exposed to Agent Orange. Terrible cases of autoimmune, endocrine, and  reproductive disorders are common. Just like their fathers, COVVs are being hit in the prime of their lives. Plus, just like their fathers they are being denied. The old Vietnam Veteran’s adage, Deny Until they Die, carries on.

This Bob Cat was killing chickens depended on for food. Using his marksmanship skills Josh was able to protect the poultry.

This bob cat was killing chickens depended on for food. Using his marksmanship skills Josh was able to protect the poultry.

When asked what his dream job would be, Josh describes being a big game hunting guide and showing others with disabilities or limb loss how to hunt or fish. Josh believes very few outdoor sporting activities are available to the disabled. Working with recently disabled veterans would bring him great satisfaction as well. He wants to teach others techniques for using a fishing pole, a rifle, or a bow despite their own perceived limitations. Hunting and fishing provides a great opportunity to enjoy being outside in a healthy environment. He desires others to find the solace and confidence he has, in his skills as an outdoors-man. Healing the wounds of war and making the most of what life gives you is important to Josh.

Washington Post Article link

Written by: Jason Van Orsdol, and Heather Bowser