Clifford Anderson’s serious health problems began when he was in his 30s.
It began with a diagnosis of colitis, an inflammation of the inner lining of his colon, in the early 1980s. By 1990, his colon had to be removed.
“When they took the colon out, the doctor at the university said they’ve never seen a colon like that before,” Anderson said. “It was like battleship gray.”
His health continued to deteriorate over the years as he developed poor circulation, bleeding ulcers on his ankles, blood clots, eye disease and now a rare cancer that leaves small tumors on the inside of his intestines.
Anderson, 67, of Joy, Ill., is convinced that his health problems stem from his exposure to Agent Orange, a highly toxic chemical sprayed on trees and vegetation during the Vietnam War. Anderson served with the 101st Airborne Division from February 1966 to September 1967.
“I felt sorry for myself for a long time,” Anderson said Saturday. “But I tell you the worst thing is, and I’ll just put it very bluntly, the hell I put my family through.”
Now, he worries about the effects of the drug being passed down genetically to his son and eventually his granddaughter.
In fact, the effects of Agent Orange and other toxic chemicals that soldiers may come in contact with during war may be felt in the next five to seven generations, said Maynard Kaderlik of the Minnesota State Council, Vietnam Veterans of America.
“We beat up ourselves a lot over the years,” Kaderlik told a packed room of veterans and their families at the Rogalski Center at St. Ambrose University in Davenport on Saturday. “Don’t blame yourself for this issue, OK? We didn’t know that the stuff was going to do this to us.”
The town hall forum lasted much of Saturday and is the first of its kind in Iowa, said Gary Paulline, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 776, Bettendorf.
The Department of Veterans Affairs currently recognizes about 50 illnesses, such as Parkinson ’s disease and multiple forms of cancer, connected to exposure to Agent Orange.
The VA also recognizes some birth defects, such as spina bifida and hip dysplasia, of children born to female Vietnam War veterans.
"We believe genetically we passed it on to our children and now the dioxin is in our tissue, so we don't know when the bomb's going to go off," Kaderlik said.
Since the Vietnam Veterans of America began doing the town hall meeting several years ago, they have identified about 750 diseases that may be linked to Agent Orange and other toxins, Kaderlik said.
It's not just Vietnam War veterans who were exposed to toxic agents.
In the Gulf War, service men and women were exposed to such things as depleted uranium used extensively in American armor-piercing ammunition and to enhance armor protection for some tanks. In the case of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, they were exposed to the smoke and fumes of burn pits used to burn everything from basic trash to chemical waste and human feces.
During the Agent Orange town hall meetings, the Vietnam Veterans of America also has collected stories from Vietnam War veterans and their families and plan to share them Congress in a push for legislation that calls for more research for toxic exposure research and support for military families.
They are doing it, in large part, for the future generations who may be affected by Agent Orange and other toxic chemicals, Kaderlik said.
"We have to fight the fight, we have to keep at it," he said.
Kaderlik encouraged veterans to file claims with the Veterans Administration for themselves and family members and register with the VA's Agent Orange registry, which provides a comprehensive health exam that alerts veterans to possible long-term effects related to Agent Orange.
Anderson said his son, born in Belgium in 1970, has had issues with his teeth, heart and hips for much of his life. He worries about his granddaughter, who has not shown any symptoms.
“We’re talking about the children here, but I’m still a firm believer that if we don’t get this on the registry and get proof of this, we’re all in trouble,” Anderson said.