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Agent Orange used on Okinawa to control vegetation

Records from the United States Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) contain hundreds of accounts of Agent Orange on Okinawa during the late 1960s and early '70s, a time when the island was under U.S. rule and served as a forward base for the American war in Vietnam. The testimonies reveal that the dioxin-laden 4 herbicide was not only stored in large quantities on Okinawa before being transported to the war zone, but also that it was routinely used to clear weeds on military installations and tested in the northern Yanbaru jungle.

In the late 1960s, James Spencer was a United States Navy longshoreman on Okinawa's military docks. "During this time, we handled all kinds of cargo, including these barrels with orange stripes on them," he said. "When we unloaded them, they'd leak and the Agent Orange would get all over us. It was as if it were raining."

Between 1965 and 1967, Lamar Threet was a medic at the island's Camp Kue. "Agent Orange was stored at Kadena (Air Force Base) and it was used on Okinawa for vegetation control," Threet said. "I personally observed the spray crews around the hospital grounds, and was present when they brought a guy into the ER that had his clothes soaked in herbicide."

In 1970, Joe Sipala was stationed at the Awase Communication Site in central Okinawa. "The antennas were classified as 'mission critical,' so that meant no vegetation was allowed to grow around them," Sipala said. "Every few weeks, a truck would come and refill our barrel of Agent Orange. It was my responsibility to mix it and spray the weeds around the perimeter fence."

This protracted, widespread use of Agent Orange on the island has left many of the service members who handled it seriously ill. Spencer, Threet and Sipala are today suffering from a litany of dioxin-related sicknesses including cancer, type 2 diabetes and ischemic heart disease. Moreover, Sipala's first child died in the womb so misshapen that the doctor said he should be thankful the baby didn't see the light of day and his two surviving children suffered from deformities consistent with Agent Orange-poisoning.

If these veterans' exposure had occurred in Vietnam, where the U.S. government assumes that all service members came into contact with harmful herbicides, they would be eligible for VA assistance with health care costs. However, because their exposure occurred on Okinawa, their claims for compensation have been repeatedly rejected due to Department of Defense denials that Agent Orange was ever on the island. The most recent assertion of this stance came in July 2004 when Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared that government "records contain no information linking use or storage of Agent Orange or other herbicides in Okinawa." Denials such as this make it almost impossible for U.S. veterans to win compensation from the VA. Sipala's case highlights the challenges that veterans face. His military orders prove he was on Okinawa at the time, and his medical history is consistent with dioxin exposure. A photograph of him riding his motorbike past a barrel of Agent Orange even convinced his veteran's representative that he had a "slam-dunk case." After 11 months of deliberations, though, the VA denied Sipala's claim, citing two grounds.

First, it stated there was no proof of him having developed illnesses due to exposure in spite of the fact that he developed diabetes right after he returned from Okinawa.

Second, the VA stated, "We were unable to find any evidence of spraying, testing, storage (or) usage of Agent Orange in Okinawa, Japan, by the personnel in your unit."

This phrase is common among denials issued by the VA, and it baffles Sipala. "I don't understand how they can keep rejecting claims due to lack of data," he said. "Do they expect us to believe that the 1998 ruling was the one time anyone ever used the herbicide on Okinawa?" The VA decision to which Sipala is referring made world headlines when it was reported in 2007. Dated January 1998, the case concerned an unnamed veteran who claimed he was exposed to Agent Orange between 1961 and 1962 while spraying it on the sides of Okinawa's roads and transporting it by truck. As a result, the serviceman developed prostate cancer. Deciding in the veteran's favor, the VA concluded, "Credible evidence sustains a reasonable probability that the veteran was exposed to dioxins while serving in Okinawa." The case raised hopes that this would finally pave the way for the U.S. military to admit using Agent Orange on the island. To date, however, the 1998 decision remains the sole successful claim by an Okinawa-stationed service member. In the ensuing years, the VA has rejected hundreds of similar claims on the basis that previous decisions do not set a precedent. In the words of one denial of a claim in 2010, "Each case will be decided on the individual facts."

Often, the evidence demanded by the VA includes written documents pertaining to the veteran's use of Agent Orange. Such papers, though, have proven impossible to track down. Exacerbating veterans' difficulties in obtaining information about Okinawa is the degree of secrecy under which the U.S. military operated at the time. Throughout the 1960s, for instance, Okinawan residents suspected that America was storing biochemical munitions on the island. But the authorities denied these claims until a 1969 leak of nerve gas sickened 23 U.S. soldiers. Due to the international uproar that surrounded the accident, the military launched Operation Red Hat an eight-month-long campaign to remove over 12,000 tons of poisonous munitions from Okinawa to Johnston Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Many veterans believe that the military also shipped the majority of its Agent Orange supplies from Okinawa during Operation Red Hat. Their speculation was seemingly vindicated by a VA ruling in 2009 that stated, "The records pertaining to Operation Red Hat show herbicide agents were stored and later disposed in Okinawa from August 1969 to March 1972."

There is some cause for optimism. Until 2000, the U.S. government had asserted that military herbicides were solely used in Vietnam. But when evidence was uncovered of their usage along the Korean demilitarized zone between 1968 and 1971, veterans who had been stationed there were able to receive dioxin-related health care benefits. Likewise, following VA rulings in favor of veterans exposed to Agent Orange on Guam, President Barack Obama is under increasing pressure to add the Micronesian territory to its list of places military herbicides were deployed.

Please see your local county veterans service officer if you have any questions. You can contact your local VSO at (218) 631-7617 or by e-mail at As always, have a great week.