Fighting for the next generation

Vietnam vets push for help, recognition of Agent Orange's effect on their children

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Al Martinelli, center, and his wife Sharon talk about the challenges of having two sons with birth defects. The younger son Chris, 41, left, has Downs Syndrome and still lives with his parents in Cocolalla. The family believes AlÕs exposure to Agent Organge in the Vietnam War is responsible for the childrenÕs conditions.

After Al and Sharon Martinelli had their first son who was born with short limbs, they thought they had the assurance they needed before having their second child.

"One of the questions that we asked a team of doctors is, if we have more children, what are the chances (of having another child with a disorder)," Al said. "They looked at me in the eye and said the chances would be a million to one."

The Cocolalla couple also had family history on their side. Neither Al nor Sharon had a history of any disorders in their families.

But, three years later, their second son was born with Down syndrome.

"We saw one of the doctors we had seen three years before, and you should have seen the expression on that man's face," Al said. "He was devastated when he saw Chris. That poor guy didn't know what to say."

Martinelli said having two sons with conditions was devastating for the young couple starting out after he had served in the Navy Reserve during the Vietnam War.

"It was a tough situation," he said, fighting back tears. "Having children with completely different maladies - one with a bone disorder and one with a chromosome disorder - was pretty amazing according to the doctors. But we came to the conclusion that it is what it is, and we'll make the best of it."

The situation of the Martinellis and some other Vietnam veterans is at the core of fellow Vietnam vet Dick Phenneger's research and findings on Agent Orange, an herbicide used during the war.

Phenneger, of Post Falls and founder of a nonprofit called Veterans Services Transparency, has interviewed more than 200 area Vietnam vets and their families, assembled a chronological table on Agent Orange findings and has mingled with several lawmakers, scientists and foundations in pursuit of finding more help for those affected by the herbicide.

Agent Orange was intended to defoliate forest, depriving guerrillas of cover. The herbicide was later discovered to be contaminated with a toxic dioxin compound that resulted in deaths, illnesses and birth defects.

When Martinelli participated last year Phenneger's survey of Vietnam veterans, a light came on.

Several of the questions about exposure to the herbicide and medical conditions that resulted afterward to both himself and his children were relevant.

"I'm convinced, after doing a lot of research, that some of my problems and those of my children are the result of my exposure to Agent Orange," Martinelli said.

The duty of the ship Martinelli served on was to offload and retrieve Marines and keep them supplied.

"During the course of our action in that area, they were spraying Agent Orange along the river banks and any roadways they used to transport supplies that we offloaded," he said. "I saw aircrafts spraying it as they'd come off the river. Materials we handled had been exposed. It was everywhere.

"During that time, not knowing it then, but knowing it now, we were exposed to large amounts of Agent Orange both in the water and air."

Martinelli isn't eligible for benefits associated with exposure to the herbicide because he was not "boots on the ground" in Vietnam. He said he has had both physical and psychological effects from the war, but declined to discuss the details.

While Martinelli said he realizes the government won't likely recognize his conditions and those of some fellow Vietnam veterans as being eligible to receive benefits associated with herbicide exposure during his lifetime, he's hoping there will be breakthroughs with studies and research for his children's generation and future generations.

The Martinellis have insurance to help with their children's conditions, but "the monetary strain on the family has still been tremendous," Martinelli said.

Phenneger plans to submit his findings and research to federal lawmakers in hopes of sparking an independent national epidemiological study on the effects of Agent Orange on veterans and their children.

Phenneger said 20 percent of the Vietnam veterans he interviewed had children with birth defects or related illnesses.

Phenneger, who has made trips to Washington, D.C., to discuss his efforts with key players, said the study would cost an estimated $19 million. His talks lead him to believe that amount is reachable.

"This is a drop in the bucket for Congress," Phenneger said.

He said the study can't be completed without the assistance of government agencies that have the records needed.

"So congressional approval of the study with independent scientists is a must," he said.

Phenneger said he hopes the study will result in a national Children of Agent Orange Trust Fund to assist those who were affected by the herbicide.

"The veterans who I have spoken with during the past year have said, 'Dick, what has happened to us, has happened, but we've got to take care of our kids,'" Phenneger said. "That's why I'm shifting focus to getting action to address that Agent Orange causes birth deformities."

Phenneger said the government has fallen short of taking care of Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange, more needs to be done and previous government-funded efforts on the subject have fizzled.

The Department of Veterans Affairs in Spokane directed questions seeking comment to the federal office in Washington, D.C.

Randy Noller, a spokesman for the V.A. in Washington, said children of Vietnam veterans may receive benefits if they are born with spina bifida, a developmental disorder, or with certain other birth defects born to a female veteran. He said such benefits could be expanded to others.

"V.A. makes these decisions relying on our scientific advisers from the independent Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences," Noller wrote in an e-mail. "IOM has ongoing analysis of the scientific literature looking at questions of health effects from exposure to Agent Orange, including birth defects."

Martinelli said Phenneger's efforts to assist veterans and their families is a "noble cause." He said while the time is ticking to help Vietnam veterans, there's hope to help their children and younger generations of veterans.

"The biggest reward for us would be that the folks coming up the line are treated with more respect and get more help," Martinelli said. "It's not going to be a perfect world - we realize that - but when you come back from the combat zone you should be taken care of in a manner that shows respect for these people."

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