Spraying was usually done either from helicopters or from low-flying C-123 Provider aircraft, fitted with sprayers and "MC-1 Hourglass" pump systems and 1,000 US gal (3,800 L) chemical tanks. Spray runs were also conducted from trucks, boats, and backpack sprayers.
The first batch of herbicides was unloaded at Tan Son Nhut Airbase in South Vietnam, on January 9, 1962. Air Force records show at least 6,542 spraying missions took place over the course of Operation Ranch Hand. By 1971, 12 percent of the total area of South Vietnam had been sprayed with defoliating chemicals, which were often applied at rates that were 13 times higher than the legal USDA limit. In South Vietnam alone, an estimated 10 million hectares of agricultural land were ultimately destroyed. In some areas, TCDD concentrations in soil and water were hundreds of times greater than the levels considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The campaign destroyed 5 million acres (20,000 km2) of upland and mangrove forests and millions of acres of crops. Overall, more than 20% of South Vietnam's forests were sprayed at least once over a nine year period.
In 1965, members of the U.S. Congress were told "crop destruction is understood to be the more important purpose ... but the emphasis is usually given to the jungle defoliation in public mention of the program." Soldiers were told they were destroying crops because they were going to be used to feed guerrillas. They later discovered nearly all of the food they had been destroying was not being produced for guerrillas; it was, in reality, only being grown to support the local civilian population. For example, in Quang Ngai province, 85% of the crop lands were scheduled to be destroyed in 1970 alone. Widespread famine occurred as a result, leaving hundreds of thousands of people malnourished or starving.
The U.S. military began targeting food crops in October 1962, primarily using Agent Blue; the American public was not made aware of the crop destruction programs until 1965 (and it was then believed that crop spraying had begun that spring). In 1965, 42 percent of all herbicide spraying was dedicated to food crops. The first official acknowledgement of the programs came from the State Department in March 1966.
Many experts at the time, including Arthur Galston, the biologist who developed and intensively studied TCDD, opposed herbicidal warfare, due to concerns about the side effects to humans and the environment by indiscriminately spraying the chemical over a wide area. As early as 1966, resolutions were introduced to the United Nations charging that the U.S. was violating the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which regulated the use of chemical and biological weapons.
Effects on U.S. veterans
Studies of veterans who served in the South during the war have increased rates of cancer, nerve, digestive, skin and respiratory disorders. Veterans from the south had higher rates of throat cancer, acute/chronic leukemia, Hodgkin's lymphoma and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, prostate cancer, lung cancer, soft tissue sarcoma and liver cancer. Other than liver cancer, these are the same conditions the US Veteran's Administration has found to be associated with exposure to Agent Orange/dioxin, and are on the list of conditions eligible for compensation and treatment.
Military personnel who loaded airplanes and helicopters used in Ranch Hand probably sustained some of the heaviest exposures. Members of the Army Chemical Corps, who stored and mixed herbicides and defoliated the perimeters of military bases, are also thought to have had some of the heaviest exposures. Others with potentially heavy exposures included members of U.S. Army Special Forces units who defoliated remote campsites, and members of U.S. Navy river units who cleared base perimeters. Military members who served on Okinawa also claim to have been exposed to the chemical.
While in Vietnam, the veterans were told not to worry, and were persuaded the chemical was harmless. After returning home, Vietnam veterans began to suspect their ill health or the instances of their wives having miscarriages or children born with birth defects may be related to Agent Orange and the other toxic herbicides to which they were exposed in Vietnam. Veterans began to file claims in 1977 to the Department of Veterans Affairs for disability payments for health care for conditions they believed were associated with exposure to Agent Orange, or more specifically, dioxin, but their claims were denied unless they could prove the condition began when they were in the service or within one year of their discharge.
By April 1993, the Department of Veterans Affairs had only compensated 486 victims, although it had received disability claims from 39,419 soldiers who had been exposed to Agent Orange while serving in Vietnam.
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