HOLIDAY, Fla. (WFLA) - Birth defects and heart problems are showing up not only in the children, but the grandchildren of veterans who served in America's military during the Vietnam War.
The question is whether Agent Orange, a powerful poison sprayed by the military to wipe out vegetation, is a contributing factor.
Emma Ackerson, 9, of Holiday, looks like any other little girl playing her with dog.
But this list of Emma's medical problems keeps growing:
- Connective tissue disorder, which is EDS ( Ehlers Danlos syndrome)
- Vision problems
- Muscle weakness
- Sleep apnea
- Epilepsy (benign occipital epilepsy)
- Orthostatic hypotension
- Long QT syndrome
- Joint pain
- GI problems
- Acid reflux
- Balance problems
Emma suffers headaches and stomach pain, as well as heart problems.
"All of a sudden she gets pale. She gets dark circles under her eyes and you either have to lay her down on the floor, you have top pick her up, because she'll pass out," explained Emma's mother, Keri Ackerson.
According to her mom, Emma's problems stem from a birth defect called Chiari malformation, a neural tube defect.
"It's a structural defect in the brain where part of the brain is going down in to the spinal column," said Keri.
Chiari malformation is also a condition associated with Agent Orange.
The military sprayed more than 20 million gallons of the powerful defoliant in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to deny the enemy food sources and cover.
Tens of thousands of American military personnel handled, sprayed or were sprayed by this herbicide.
The chemicals in Agent Orange are known to cause a variety of illnesses including several types of cancers, among other diseases.
This list of illnesses tied to Agent Orange is posted on the Department of Veterans Affairs web site:
- AL Amyloidosis
- Chronic B-cell Leukemias
- Chloracne (or similar acneform disease)
- Diabetes Mellitus Type 2
- Hodgkin's Disease
- Ischemic Heart Disease
- Multiple Myeloma
- Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma
- Parkinson's Disease
- Peripheral Neuropathy, Early-Onset
- Porphyria Cutanea Tarda
- Prostate Cancer
- Respiratory Cancers (includes lung cancer)
- Cancers of the lung, larynx, trachea, and bronchus.
- Soft Tissue Sarcomas (other than osteosarcoma, chondrosarcoma, Kaposi's sarcoma, or mesothelioma)
- A group of different types of cancers in body tissues such as muscle, fat, blood and lymph vessels, and connective tissues.
It took decades for the Department of Veterans Affairs to admit that the powerful herbicide poisoned thousands of U.S. service members.
It took even longer for the government to acknowledge the children of those contaminated could also be affected.
Emma Ackerson's grandfather, Navy veteran Lonnie Kilpatrick, was exposed to the toxic herbicide while on Guam in the 70s.
The effects destroyed his heart.
After an eight-year struggle, 8 On Your Side assisted Lonnie in obtaining Agent Orange benefits from the VA.
Lonnie died weeks later from cancer that the VA missed.
Sheila Kilpatrick, Emma's grandmother, also lived on Guam, in an apartment complex near a jungle that was also sprayed.
"All my kids, they all have something, heart problems," explained Sheila. "We've pulled up all this information to link to Agent Orange."
Keri Ackerson, Sheila and Lonnie's daughter, was diagnosed with heart trouble at age 20.
"I black out probably 20 times a day, every time I stand up my vision goes black," stated Keri. "I wake up in the middle of the night feeling like I'm going to die."
Keri was also born with Chiari malformation.
Many of Emma's and Keri's medical issues show up on lists of illnesses associated with Agent Orange.
The VA dismisses most as not Agent Orange connected.
Its current policy is that children born with Spina Bifida, who are the biological children of men who served in Vietnam and the Korean Demilitarized Zone, are eligible for VA benefits.
According to the VA, covered birth defects for children born to women who served in Vietnam and the Korean Demilitarized Zone include:
- Cleft lip and cleft palate
- Congenital heart disease
- Congenital talipes equinovarus (clubfoot)
- Esophageal and intestinal atresia
- Hallerman-Streiff syndrome
- Hip dysplasia
- Hirschprung's disease (congenital megacolon)
- Hydrocephalus due to aqueductal stenosis
- Imperforate anus
- Neural tube defects
- Poland syndrome
- Pyloric stenosis
- Syndactyly (fused digits)
- Tracheoesophageal fistula
- Undescended testicle
- Williams syndrome
Leroy Foster of Lakeland claims he sprayed hundreds of thousands of gallons of Agent Orange while stationed on Guam.
Master Sgt. Foster suffers from 28 auto-immune diseases and terminal cancer.
His granddaughter was born with 24 fingers and toes.
"I carry terrible guilt. There's all these children I've hurt," explained Foster. "And all the unborn children that died and didn't have a chance to live."
Betty Medkeci, executive director of Birth Defect Research for Children Inc., is gathering data on children of veterans who served in Vietnam.
"I am absolutely convinced by the data that there's something significant going on in the children of Vietnam veterans," stated Medkeci. "We have found impressive increases in learning, attention, immune, endocrine and skin disorders."
Medkeci points out Agent Orange isn't the cause of every birth defect to every child whose parent fought in Vietnam. In fact, some veterans were not affected by Agent Orange at all.
Others, whose systems had a deficiency in the ability to break down toxins, were more likely to have a child with Spina Bifida.
"The higher level of dioxin in the veteran who had this deficiency, the more like they had a child with a neural tube defect," added Medkeci.
She claims studies to date are insufficient and she chides the VA for dragging its feet on research mandated by Congress.
"I know that industry doesn't want these connections made, but if it's happening. It's happening. It isn't going to go away because you don't like the answer," said Medkeci.
Medkeci believes not enough research exists to confirm Agent Orange exposure to veterans caused birth defects in their grandchildren.
"We need to solve questions about the effects on the first generation before we jump to grandchildren," she said.
At age 6, Emma Ackerson underwent corrective brain surgery. Her symptoms returned within weeks.
"She asks, you know, why is she being punished. And I try to explain 'you're not being punished.'You know, we just have to find a cure,'" said Keri.
At night, it's worse.
"When I get into bed, after a few minutes, I just start feeling hot and sweaty," explained Emma.
Emma wears a cooling vest and ice packs to help cool her body temperature.
Then there's the pain.
"When you have to lay in bed every night and watch your child suffer and there's nothing you can do, I feel like I apologize to her all the time, but I can't help her," said Keri.
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