Agent Orange’s deadly legacy spreads to Japan
The US military presence has long been a point of contention for locals on the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa, a cluster of islands located some 400 miles south of Japan.
A slew of violent crimes committed over the last 40 years by US servicemen has led 85 per cent of locals to oppose the presence of American bases on Okinawa. However, the military’s most deadly mark on the islands may be a far less visible killer: Agent Orange.
Scores of barrels of the defoliating chemical were clandestinely buried at Futenma Air Base on Okinawa Island following the Vietnam War, the Japan Times reports.
The Pentagon allegedly ignored repeated requests from soldiers serving on the island in the 70s and 80s to safely dispose of a pesticide a million times more toxic than any naturally occurring poison.
In the Summer of 1981, “unacceptably high readings” of chemicals in the wastewater flowing out of the installation prompted Lt. Col. Kris Roberts, the former head of maintenance projects on Futenma, to start digging up the ground near the end of the base’s runway.
"We unearthed over 100 barrels buried in rows. They were rusty and leaking and we could see orange markings around some of their middles," Roberts, now a state representative in New Hampshire, told the Japan Times in a recent interview.
Agent Orange, the most widely-used of the “Rainbow Herbicides” deployed during the United States’ decade-long herbicidal warfare program in Vietnam, got its moniker from the orange-stripped barrels in which it was shipped. The US used over 76 million liters of defoliants to rob the Vietcong of cover and food.
As Okinawa was a forward staging post for the US military during the war, the base was a likely transit point for the herbicides despite the Pentagon’s insistence to the contrary.
Roberts’ ranking officers tried to hush the find up by having local workers haul off the seeping barrels to an undisclosed location. A typhoon soon flooded the burial site, whereby Roberts and his men jumped down into the toxic cesspool and drained “the contaminated water off the base.”
Since his contact with the chemicals, Roberts has been plagued by a series of life-threatening illnesses, including prostate cancer, precursors of lung cancer, and heart problems. His doctors have no doubt his ailments stem from his exposure to Agent Orange.
Roberts has fought to have the US Marine Corps and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) contact his former crew out of fear they were similarly poisoned, but his appeals have fallen on deaf ears.
Despite the official Pentagon position, in February the Department of Veterans’ Affairs awarded two former service members compensation for exposure to Agent Orange during their deployment on Okinawa at the time.
One of the sick veterans said it was routine to ship goods contaminated with Agent Orange for cleaning as the Vietnam War was winding down.
In fact, between 1962 and 2010, 132 Veterans serving on Okinawa during the Vietnam War era claim to have been exposed to Agent Orange, despite repeated denials from the Pentagon that the defoliant was ever present on the islands.
While 1.8 million US soldiers with their “boots on the ground” were potentially exposed to dioxin-contaminated herbicides, up to 4.8 million more Vietnamese civilians were sprayed with the virulent poison. As dioxin is not water soluble, it can remain in the soil for decades, poisoning future generations exposed to contaminated land and food supplies.
The Vietnamese Red Cross estimates that up to three million Vietnamese have suffered the affects of dioxin exposure, with 150,000 children being born with birth defects, the Non-profit War Legacies Project reports.
Multiple skin diseases, cancers, and horrific birth defects are directly attributable to exposure to Agent Orange.
Back on Okinawa, the US military has no legal obligation to clean up former military bases amid fears the bottom line has taken precedence over human health.
"It was cheaper to bury stuff than to ship it back to the States for proper disposal. It's what the military always did on Okinawa," one former soldier fearing reprisals from the VA told the Japanese daily on condition of anonymity.
The former mayor of the nearby town of Ginowan said local authorities had never been told of the 1981 Agent Orange find, and was worried about the potential level of contamination in the ground water and land.
As Futenma is ringed by 20 schools and 10 more elementary schools in close proximity to the location where the barrels were stored, it has been dubbed “the world’s most dangerous base” by locals.
Fears were sparked throughout the island last year after another US veteran recounted the 1969 burial of hundreds of barrels of Agent Orange in nearby Chatan Town.
With the Japanese government refusing to test the soil for dioxin so as not to upset their relationship with the US government, the people of Okinawa, as in Vietnam, are likely to suffer for decades to come.