Kerrie Ryan was born eight years ago with 18 birth defects: missing bones, twisted limbs, a hole in her heart, deformed intestines, a partial spine, shrunken fingers, no rectum. During surgery, a blood clot developed and she suffered brain damage. Doctors say she will never walk.
Kerrie, her parents told a congressional hearing yesterday, is a casualty of the Vietnam war. She is, they claim, a victim of Agent Orange, an herbicide the Air Force sprayed over Vietnam to defoliate jungles and destroy crops.
Kerrie's father, Michael, a Long Island policeman who served in Vietnam in 1966, was exposed to the chemical. It has caused him severe weight loss, migraine headaches and other illnesses, he said. And, five years after his exposure, he says he believes it caused his daughter's deformities.
The dramatic testimony of the Ryans, and of another couple, the John Woods of Hempstead, N.Y., opened a new chapter in the history of sinister allegations against Agent Orange.
While evidence has been building over the last few months that hundreds of veterans around the nation are suffering nervous disorders, cancer, kidney failure and other illnesses possibly related to their exposure, the idea that the chemical may have affected their children has only begun to surface.
Julian Morrison, a Veterans' Administration spokesman, said while evidence exists that 2, 4, 5-T, a chemical component of Agent Orange, has affected children whose mothers are exposed, "There is no medical evidence this can be transmitted from the father to a baby."
However, members of the House Commerce subcommittee on investigations and oversight and members of the Vietnam Veterans in Congress severely criticized the VA yesterday for with-holding veterans medical records, failing to study the issue and inadequately examining veterans for medical problems possibly related to Agent Orange.
Rep. Bob Eckhardt (D-Tex.) termed the government's failure to conduct research on Orange-exposed veterans "a national disgrace." He called on the National Institutes of Health and the Center for Disease Control to conduct a massive epidemiological study similar to the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission which studied Hiroshima victims.
Rep. Andrew Maguire (D-N.J.) said that animal studies had shown 2, 4, 5-T and Agent Orange to be carcinogenic and teratogenic (causing birth defects), "but the Veterans' Administration wants to ignore the data."
Rep. Martin A. Russo (D-Ill.) said the government is ducking the Agent Orange problem. "We are trying to wipe out the thought of the whole war . . . I would like to send the generals and the Veterans' Administration [officials] and the chemical company [executives] to fly the helicopters and spray [Orange], I'd like them to be the guinea pigs. I wonder how many of them would volunteer."
During the emotion-laden hearing, Kerrie, a frail child with short brown hair, sat in her wheelchair gazing wide-eyed at the television cameras, the congressmen high on the wood-paneled dais and the roomful of lobbyists and reporters.
"She's a dynamite little kid," her mother told the committee.
Kerrie's father said that when she came home from the hospital after open heart surgery, balled up in a fetal position, doctors said she would never talk or see again, "But I petted her for six months and said, 'say da-da,' and one day she said 'da-da,' and she began to talk. And I shone a flashlight in her eyes over and over to stimulate the pupils. One day she woke up and could see the light," he said in an interview.
Ryan said neither he nor his wife has any family history of genetic defects. He said the government never warned him that the defoliant sprayed all around him might be harmful.
"'We were told the enemy was in the bush and he wore black pajamas and scandals. We never suspected the enemy could be in the air around us. No precautions were taken."
John Woods, 36, a bus driver, served in Vietnam from 1962 to 1966 as a Green Beret. After he was exposed to Agent Orange, his weight dropped from 200 to 139 pounds, he said. In the years since, he has suffered severe skin rashes, migraine headaches, temporary blindness, puss pockets and chest pains, which he attributes to the chemical.
"But the doctors think I'm crazy," he said. Tests show nothing, and the Veterans' Administration has refused to pay his medical bills, he added.
Worst of all, although he had two normal children before Vietnam, two sons born since his exposure have had problems since birth. His 8-year-old suffers skin rashes, muscle cramps and spasms. His 5-year-old was born with a tumor on the face and is hypertensive.
"We are not the veterans. Our kids are the veterans," Woods said. CAPTION: Picture, Kerrie Ryan talks with Robert Muller, chairman of Council of Vietnam Veterans, during hearing. By James K. W. Atherton - The Washington Post