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Medical legacies of Vietnam live on

Lynda Van Devanter Buckley, a surgical nurse in Vietnam, says she still struggles with the aftereffects of the war  

In this story:

The legacy of Agent Orange

Dealing with post-traumatic stress


April 28, 2000
Web posted at: 3:38 p.m. EDT (1938 GMT)

(CNN) -- As the United States military looks back on the lessons of the Vietnam War, one debate that extends into the new century concerns the health consequences facing those who survived the conflict.

Lynda Van Devanter Buckley served as a surgical nurse near the Cambodian border. Like some of the other 9.2 million Vietnam veterans, she says 25 years later, she's still fighting the effects of that war every day.

"What I did was try and put back together again the bits and pieces of all these kids," she says.

Besides battling her memories, Buckley is now fighting a degenerative disease that is attacking her joints and organs. Her doctors say the cause of her illness is exposure during the war to a combination of chemical agents and pesticides used to clear trees and identify targets.

The legacy of Agent Orange

Buckley is battling a degenerative disease attacking her joints and organs  

While the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) does not acknowledge the Vietnam War as the cause Buckley's illness, it does recognize problems with the defoliant Agent Orange as a medical legacy of Vietnam.

Some 3,000 children have been born with spina bifida linked to their parents' exposure to Agent Orange, a chemical that new evidence suggests may also be linked to a higher incidence of adult onset diabetes.

"Scientific studies have shown that that (Agent Orange) can be associated with the developments of soft tissue sarcomas, non-Hodgkin's lymphomas, Hodgkin's lymphoma, a skin disease called chloracne, some respiratory cancers," says the VA's Dr. Frances Murphy.

According to a veterans group study issued in the 1980s, 37 percent of Vietnam vets experienced some kind of disruption in their lives as a result of their service, much of it caused by illness.

That type of evidence has changed the way the military health system operates today.

"We did learn a lot of lessons from the Vietnam veterans experience and we were much quicker at getting the specialized health care programs in place for Gulf War veterans," Murphy said.

Dealing with post-traumatic stress

Officials from the VA say Vietnam introduced the phrase "post-traumatic stress disorder" to medicine. This is the emotional trauma that led many Vietnam Vets into homelessness and alcoholism upon returning to the U.S.

"You learn pretty early on that if you drink enough, you don't dream and if you don't dream, you don't have nightmares. So consequently, you have all these people coming back drinking," said Buckley.

Medical Correspondent Eileen O'Connor investigates medical conditions that are linked to wartime chemical exposures.
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It took until 1979 for the government to open a readjustment counseling service, even though veterans groups estimate as many as 200,000 vets at any given time are homeless.

But the study of post-traumatic stress has led to treatments for the disorder that have benefited not only Vietnam veterans, but also victims of other traumas, including survivors of hurricanes, earthquakes and other natural disasters.

Members of Congress say there is still much to learn about dealing with the aftermath of war.

"There's a natural tendency after a war ends to put it away and put it to the side. But if you don't face up to the consequences from the get go, you're basically going to face these problems later on," said Illinois Democratic Rep. Lane Evans.

Ignoring Vietnam veterans and their problems, Buckley says, has been a loss for the whole country.

"We have strength inside us that other people don't even know about. As we begin to get better and get back into the world, we make this world a better place," Buckley said.

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A look back at the Vietnam War
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AsiaWeek Special Report: War And Peace
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Cohen says visit goes far to improve U.S. ties with Vietnam
March 14, 2000
Images of Vietnam remembered
March 9, 2000

Department of Veterans Affairs Home Page
National Alliance of POW/MIA Families
U.S. Department of Defense
Vietnam government information
Vietnam Veterans Home Page
Embassy of Vietnam - Washington, D.C.

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