9 Investigates the Orlando-based push to study birth defects and cancers in the children of Vietnam veterans, while national research projects keep getting put off.
Investigative reporter Karla Ray learned a local nonprofit has been gathering data for decades and has discovered some alarming trends.
The National Birth Defect Registry has tracked conditions like leukemia, thyroid cancer and ovarian cysts showing up at a higher rate for children of Vietnam veterans than others with similar health issues.
Despite that and legislation calling for the Veterans Affairs Administration to do similar research, there are still limited health benefits for children of those veterans.
A mom to a bubbly toddler and wife to a loving husband, Courtney Guenther was in the prime of her life when a January 2018 trip to the doctor changed everything.
The Longwood woman was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia.
“I was shocked,” her father, Vietnam veteran Carl Gill said. “I'm just trying to think, why, how, did we do this, no one in my family or my ex's family ever had leukemia.”
Gill watched his daughter battle the aggressive cancer for more than a year, until she died in August 2019. Though it’s impossible to pinpoint why she got sick, Gill is part of a growing number of Vietnam veterans questioning whether potential exposure to the pesticide Agent Orange could be to blame for illnesses plaguing their children and even grandchildren.
The national nonprofit Vietnam Veterans of America has documented hundreds of concerns like Gill’s at town halls across the country. In 2016, the group successfully pushed legislation to force government research on health impacts to Vietnam veterans’ families, but the group says the VA secretary missed a deadline earlier this year to detail how that research will be conducted.
“I would like to go sit down with the head of the VA and say, look, this is not going away,” Betty Mekdeci said. Mekdeci runs the Orlando-based nonprofit Birth Defect Research For Children, which has gathered data from thousands of descendants of Vietnam veterans over the last 30 years.
Mekdeci has documented a greater rate of leukemia, thyroid problems and other conditions in those descendants and has presented that information to government-contracted scientists at their request.
“Nothing has happened, nothing,” Mekdeci said. “So on behalf of the families we work with, we have got to get with the program and help them.”
Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy held a Vietnam veteran recognition event in Winter Springs this month, where we asked her why the government hasn’t done more research into the possible generational affects of Agent Orange.
“I’m not sure why they've been hesitant to do that, but I think it's critically important to study it,” Murphy said. “We can't let this just fade away. The men and women served in our military, and if there are consequences of their service we owe it to them as their government to make sure they and their descendants are properly taken care of.”
Vietnam veterans are dying at an estimated rate of 400 a day.
Last year, in a biennial report related to Agent Orange-associated health problems, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine called for further study on the health effects of paternal chemical exposures on their descendants. The report also called for more research on links to myeloid diseases, like the cancer that killed Guenther.
“It’s like anything else, you've got to prove it. It's a process. The process is not fast,” Gill said. “We've got to identify it, because it's a war that keeps on taking.”
The VA currently provides benefits to children with certain birth defects born to women who served in Vietnam, and to children with spina bifida born to male Vietnam veterans.
DISCLOSURE: Courtney Guenther was Karla Ray’s close friend and hairstylist of 5 years.
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