Dick Phenneger was stunned when he recently visited Vietnam orphanages that have children who suffered from the effects of having Agent Orange in their DNA.
"I had to see for myself what their conditions were," said Phenneger, founder and president of the local nonprofit Veterans Services Transparency. "To see so many children with different levels of deformity shocked me. It was far more emotional than I had planned."
Phenneger, of Post Falls, made the trip with Jim Daugherty, a VST board member from Spokane Valley, and Dr. Tiana Pavlik, of Spokane, to complement his ongoing mission of studying the effects of the Agent Orange herbicide used during the Vietnam War.
For several years, Phenneger, who was a pilot in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, has been waging his own war for recognition and accountability for Agent Orange's impact on soldiers, their progeny and civilians. He said the U.S. government has refused to accept responsibility for the physical and mental anguish caused by birth defects.
"Our own government caused it," he said. "Our leadership knew Agent Orange was dangerous to man, but the Vietnamese and our soldiers were told that it wasn't dangerous."
At the Vietnam orphanages, the children's needs ranged from extreme to functional. One child Phenneger said he'll never forget was a blind boy who felt his face.
"I was unaware that he was blind until he did that," Phenneger said.
Others had deformities on various parts of their bodies. Some rested on mats on the floors due to limited space and the number of children.
"The deformities were broad," Phenneger said. "The children's legs, arms, feet and hands are very small and often deformed. Mental deformity also exists. They all got to me, especially the ones with large heads."
One of the take-home messages — and a possible next mission — was the need to develop a program to help rebuild homes for affected families, Phenneger said.
"That got my attention," he said. "The homes are really bad. They need a decent place for their parents to take care of them. One of the most important things for the development of children is the home environment. Let's fix homes so the parents can take care of them."
The team worked with the Vietnam Association and Victims of Agent Orange Dioxin to visit the orphanages.
Phenneger said he'll return to Vietnam in June to further assess the home situation because the recent trip focused mostly on the orphanage visits.
"We're also looking into a clinic idea and the adoption of those not wanted," he said, adding there will be government barriers to overcome to open the adoption route.
About a week after returning, Phenneger said he's still recovering from the emotions of the trip.
"Seeing all of these children is something I will never, ever forget," he said. "It is clear to me that the U.S. (government) is absent, totally, from any involvement of the children deformed by Agent Orange. No different than in the U.S."
In 2012, Phenneger conducted a survey with the help of the Coeur d’Alene Press to assess the damage of Agent Orange to veterans in North Idaho. He found about 20 percent of the Vietnam veterans living in Kootenai County had deformed children as a result of their contact with the herbicide during the war.
Phenneger submitted 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. He 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.
Officials at the Department of Veteran Affairs 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. They said such benefits could be expanded to others. The V.A. makes such decisions relying on its scientific advisers from the independent Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.
For more information or questions about Phenneger's efforts to assess the effects of Agent Orange to veterans, their families and Vietnamese families, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.