News Item: Thousands of U.S. ground troops in Vietnam may have been exposed to the controversial herbicide Agent Orange, far more than the Defense Department previously admitted, the General Accounting Office reported today.
Leroy Brooks doesn't have much to do these days but sit in his home in Southeast Washington and think about it.
And his mind goes back to the day a decade ago when he was an Army draftee, crouched over a machine gun in the open doorway of a helicopter, somewhere over the jungle near Chu Lai, South Vietnam.
A tanker plane lumbered 600 feet above, spraying an umbrella of mist on the trees below -- and into the helicopter onto brooks.
"You could feel it, like a mist," he recalls now. The crew asked their superior what it was and he replied "They're spraying for bugs for you all."
But then, one day in 1975, Brooks was riding on his motorcycle and discovered he couldn't make his left foot change the gears.
Then he became short-tempered and irritable, but he blamed it on overwork and let it go at that.
But now the headaches, pain and numbness have become so unbearable that Brooks has had to quit his job. And even if the Veterans Administration says it doesn't know what his problem is, he says he does: Agent Orange.
Agent Orange, otherwise known as 2,4,5,T, is a powerful herbicide containing the chemical dioxin, which researchers in this country and in Vietnam have linked to nerve degeneration, skin conditions, cancer of the liver and birth defects.
But the problem for Brooks -- and possibly thousands of other veterans -- is that they have been unable to prove that their symptoms have been caused by exposure to Agent Orange. Consequently, they have received virtually no medical or financial help from the government, because they can't prove that their diseases are combat-related.
But Brook's story is a classic one.
During his two-year tour in vietnam in the late Sixties, the Dunbar High School graduate says he didn't have any serious physical problems, other than two cases of pneumonia and a recurring kidney infection.
Brooks was honorably discharged in 1969 and married the following year. A year later, his wife gave birth to a girl, Tamara, who, by all accounts, is normal.
But in April, 1973, Alexis Brooks delivered stillborn twin boys."They couldn't tell us why," said Brooks, "They just died."
The next year, his wife became pregnant again, but this time, suffered a miscarriage.
"I was talking to a friend of mine one day at work," Brooks said, "And he said that when he first got out [of the army after Vietnam] his wife had twins and they died. And they couldn't find the cause. Then she had so many miscarriages."
But Brooks didn't dwell on the stillbirths or the miscarriage -- until he began to experience his own physical problems.
The numbness in his left foot was followed by numbness and pain in both legs. Then one day last spring, Brooks was driving and found "I couldn't lift my leg to take it off the gas. I had to lift it with my hand."
An examination at Howard University Hospital was inconclusive, Brooks said. But the doctor suspected a neurological disorder and referred Brooks to Dr. Richard N. Edelson, a neurologist.
Edelson, examined Brooks extensively, and had him admitted to George Washington University Hospital for further testing. But tests and examinations, Edelson said, did not produce a reasonable explanation for Brooks symptoms.
In a report to the internist who had examined Brooks, Edelson wrote:
"As you have in your notes and which I confirmed with Mr. Brooks, he was exposed to a drug called Agent Orange. I know little about this, but given the time lapse I doubt that it is pertinent."
Agent Orange is not the kind of thing the general medical community is likely to know a lot about, but according to Dr. James Allen of the University of Wisconsin Medical School, Brooks' symptoms and his wife's history of pregnancies sound exactly like reports he has received from around the country from veterans who say they were exposed to Agent Orange.
Allen, who has been studying the effects of dioxin on rats and primates, said that "liver cancer has been confirmed" to rats, as well as blood alterations, reproductive problems and alterations of glandular tissues in the stomach.
But "more than likely," he said," if [Brooks' symptoms are] a result of dioxin exposure, it would be very difficult to prove or disprove."
The Environmental Science Laboratory at Mt. Sinai Medical School has just completed a study of 235 present and former workers who manufactured 2, 4, 5. T for a year at Monsanto's plant in Nitro, W. Va. But the results of that study -- the first-in-depth look at the effect of dioxin exposure on humans -- won't be ready for several months.
In the meantime, Leroy Brooks sits at home wondering how he will pay his $500 monthly mortgage and railing at the insensitivity he sees in the Veterans Administration bureaucracy.
Brooks says he can't remember the names of the persons he has dealt with at the VA. But as of Sept. 30, only two of the 750 veterans who had submitted compensation claims to the VA, citing Agent Orange problems, had recieved benefits, and in those cases, their diseases could be attributed to other causes. About 4,800 veterans have asked the VA to treat Agent Orange problems.
Nov. 8, the aches and pains in his legs, back and neck, together with the excruciating headaches, became too much to work with, and Brooks went on sick leave form his $265-a-week housekeeping supervisor's job at Woodward and Lothrop.
Now his regular sick leave has run out and this week he will begin 20 weeks of extended sick leave, which will pay him about 25 percent of his regular pay. After that, the Brookses will have only Alexis's salary as a secretary to live on.
Asked if his problems had affected his marriage. Brooks became quite, lowering his eyes for a moment.
"My wife was ready to leave for a while. She didn't understand the changes I was going through," he said. She's settled down, but things aren't what they should be."
"Like I explained to the people at the Va, I said, 'my house payment is $500 a month. I put a lot of money into that house. I can't stand to blow it." The guy said, 'The only thing I can say is go home and wait. They'll probably call you."
"But what do I wait for? They don't give a man nothing to hold on to! That's what [ticks] off -- they don't give you no hope.
"It's just the whole system," he said. I really feel that if I wasn't married, I would actually do something to try to get revenge. I really feel bitter about it. I know what kind of shape my body was in before I went to the service.
"It was just like they say," said Leroy Brooks, shaking his head, "it wasn't your job to question why, it was just your job to do or die."