When Kammy McCleery Malloy was a Red Cross volunteer in Vietnam, she showered regularly with water stored in an empty Agent Orange drum. Now she can have no more children -- a result, she believes, of her exposure to the chemical defoliant.
One of an estimated 10,000 nonmilitary American volunteers, mostly women, who served in Vietnam, Malloy, who now lives in Northvale, N.J., had a hysterectomy after large fibroid tumors were discovered during the birth of her first child. She also suffers respiratory problems, rashes and scalp lesions, and has had 30 benign skin tumors removed.
Other volunteers suffer from skin disorders and health problems including infertility, miscarriages and cervical cancer. A number of their children have birth defects. Some physicians and volunteers believe these ailments were caused by exposure to Agent Orange.
Malloy and others feel betrayed by the nation, which has neither provided assistance nor recognized their plight. "We were trying our best for our country," said Malloy, who spent 13 months in Vietnam. "It's like the Good Ship Lollipop sprang a giant gash in its bow."
For volunteers who served in Vietnam, the present is bleak and the future is darker. Unlike veterans, says Malloy, volunteers are poorly organized and have no political power.
Because they have been ignored by the government, say Malloy and others, they are neglected by the scientific community, which has not studied the effects of Agent Orange upon women. Excluded from studies, the women cannot prove their health problems result from Agent Orange exposure and so are ineligible for medical benefits.
"Since we are trying to address the problems of veterans, we also ought to take care of civilians who volunteered," said Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.), who recently introduced a bill to study ways the government can help volunteers who served in Vietnam. Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) proposed an identical bill this winter, his third attempt to get such legislation passed.
"Agent Orange was an equal opportunity problem," said Evans. "These women served our country and out of a moral sense, the government owes them something."
Some government officials, however, do not acknowledge the role American civilians played in Vietnam. "As far as the Department of Defense is concerned, we did not have any U.S. civilians in Vietnam," said spokesman Lt. Colonel Keith Schneider.
From 1965 to 1971, the United States sprayed Vietnam with roughly 11 million gallons of Agent Orange, which contains dioxin. Laboratory tests on animals link dioxin to birth defects, cancer, infertility, miscarriage, and damage to the liver, nervous and immunological systems. Whether similar symptoms suffered by Vietnam veterans resulted from Agent Orange exposure is the subject of sharp scientific debate.
Malloy and some volunteers fault organizations like the American Red Cross and USO for not providing assistance or informing them about Agent Orange. "The Red Cross looked upon our job as the Girl Scout deed of our lives. Then we came home -- we were not debriefed, but dropped on our heads and left by ourselves," said Malloy.
Neither the Red Cross nor the USO knows how many volunteers went to Vietnam, nor whether they served in areas sprayed with Agent Orange. Both organizations, though lacking complete records, say it is unlikely that American volunteers were exposed.
"I seriously doubt any of our people were exposed. We had very few Americans in Vietnam; the bulk of our people were Vietnamese," said Pat Elgin, USO spokeswoman.
Little is known about USO volunteers, says Elgin, because a fire destroyed office records. According to USO headquarters, no more than 70 Americans served in Vietnam during any one year. This figure is disputed by numerous volunteers.
The American Red Cross also has incomplete records of its volunteers but believes they were not exposed. "As best we can see, none of the Red Cross personnel were active in areas involved with Agent Orange," said Red Cross spokesman Gene Jeffers.
Some volunteers, however, say they worked in defoliated areas. "I'd fly up to a base perched on top of a mountain. All the other mountaintops would be covered with dense foliage, but the top of this one would be bald," said June Smith, a former Red Cross volunteer. "We didn't ask why or how they cleared off all this vegetation."
According to Penni Evans and others, the herbicide was also used at camps where volunteers were stationed. "I would see guys in shorts and T-shirts spraying it around base camps and calling it 'weed control,' " said Evans, also a former Red Cross volunteer.
According to an Air Force report, chemical residues remained in the 6 million acres of sprayed land, causing defoliation that lasted for four to 12 months or more. The chemical defoliant was impossible to avoid, says Dr. Ronald A. Codario, a medical witness for the veterans in the Agent Orange settlement.
"The country was literally saturated with dioxin," said Codario, who conducted a study of 900 Vietnam veterans. "Any individual in Vietnam between 1964 and 1973 had the potential of being exposed to dioxin, and that individual has the potential to develop health problems."
The manufacturers of Agent Orange, however, have never acknowledged that the defoliant causes health problems. After years of litigation, a $180 million fund for Vietnam veterans was established to resolve a class action suit filed against the manufacturers. The settlement does not cover civilians.
The Veterans Administration provides free medical exams for military personnel concerned about Agent Orange. In addition, the government commissioned the federal Centers for Disease Control to conduct a $150 million Agent Orange study. The study, the largest ever done, will be finished in 1989 but does not include women.
Preliminary government studies by the Air Force failed to find any link between Agent Orange exposure and health problems suffered by male Vietnam veterans.
Unless volunteers like Malloy are included in the government study, or a similar one, they cannot prove a connection between their ailments and Agent Orange. Without showing a connection, they cannot obtain compensation from government, former employers or chemical manufacturers.
"It's as though our service didn't count," said Joan Maiman, a Red Cross volunteer who served in Vietnam and now suffers rashes, allergies and immunological problems.
During the war, Maiman worked in the 24th Evacuation Hospital in Long Binh. She distributed playing cards and matches, delivered messages from home and held the hands of dying soldiers. In her free time, Maiman worked at orphanages where she dispensed clothing and blankets, cleaned wounds and washed excrement off children who lay six abreast on one cot.
Maiman, a patriotic and idealistic 21-year old, volunteered for Vietnam after graduating from college. "I stepped off the plane thinking John Wayne would be there," said Maiman, a Girl Scout through high school.
Like Maiman, Jeanne Christie was a Red Cross volunteer. She worked with soldiers, often just before they went into combat. "These boys were like my brothers," said Christie. "You'd be with them laughing and playing games in the morning, then they'd be blown to pieces in the afternoon."
Soldiers sometimes brought her gifts. "One of my boys brought me a string of apricots," said Christie, who examined the gift and realized it was a string of dried ears severed from the bodies of enemy soldiers. "You learned not to see atrocities -- it was a matter of survival."
Maiman also adjusted but not without loss. "What you miss is something that never comes back and that's the knowledge that the world is safe," she said.
Today, Maiman does not fear mortar attacks but health problems. She hopes the government will investigate the effects of Agent Orange on women.
Government officials, however, say civilians cannot be scientifically studied. "We cannot find any listing of nonmilitary individuals," said Dr. Vernon N. Houk, CDC's director of environmental health. "If you use people who volunteer for the study, you cannot produce valid results."
Some dioxin specialists, including Codario and toxicologist Ellen Silbergeld of the Environmental Defense Fund, believe a study can be conducted.
Citing animal studies that show a higher incidence of reproductive side effects among females, Codario and Silbergeld say women may be particularly sensitive to dioxin. Both believe further study is necessary.
"Now that we've resolved the veterans' concerns, we must start considering the forgotten populations like the women," said Silbergeld. "On the basis of animal data, which consistently and overwhelmingly show that dioxin attacks the ovaries, damages the reproductive system and specifically damages the fetus, I would expect to see infertility, early menopause and a disruption in the hormonal cycle among women exposed to Agent Orange."
A number of volunteers suffer from precisely those symptoms. At age 31, Penni Evans had a hysterectomy after menstrual irregularities and the discovery of cysts on her fallopian tubes and ovaries.
In other ways, too, Evans' body has changed since the war. Her scalp bleeds, a rash frequently appears on her shoulders, back, cheeks and hands, and growths form on her skin. Evans also suffers constant pain caused by chronic inflammation of her tendons and joints, a condition that caused her to lose her job.
Like Evans, Maureen Nerli dreads the future. A former USO volunteer, Nerli suffers from a rash on most of her body, and also recurrent cysts, vertigo and hearing loss.
"What's going to happen to us?" asked Nerli. "Are we going to get cancer? Are other things going to happen? Where do we go? The answer is nowhere -- nobody gives a damn."