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Fifty years ago, the Vietnam War wound down and soldiers who survived it returned home. More than 36,000 Montanans served in the war. For the 50th anniversary of its end, students at the University of Montana School of Journalism spoke with Vietnam vets across the state. Here are their stories.

Children of Vietnam vets exposed to Agent Orange are fighting for medical coverage

Monte Jenkins Sr. (left), Monte Jenkins Jr. (right) and Marylyn Jenkins (center). Both father and son suffer from illnesses that can be connected to Agent Orange exposure from when Jenkins Sr. served in Vietnam.
Monte Jenkins Sr. (left), Monte Jenkins Jr. (right) and Marylyn Jenkins (center). Both father and son suffer from illnesses that can be connected to Agent Orange exposure from when Jenkins Sr. served in Vietnam.

The U.S. government spread the chemical defoliant known as Agent Orange over 10 million acres of jungle in Vietnam during the war that wound down 50 years ago. The purpose was to uncover the enemy's hiding places by clearing dense vegetation in the jungle. Soldiers who were exposed to it were told it was harmless.

Monte Jenkins of Ronan, Montana, served two tours in Vietnam with the United States Air Force. He came home in 1968. But it wasn't until 1992, after he noticed problems with his skin, that he sought out treatment from the VA for his exposure to chemicals during the war.

"I made an appointment to see a doctor in Fort Harrison. It was the middle of the winter, and I left the house about 4 o'clock, drove 200 miles, and there was a doctor in the back of the space with a stethoscope around his neck. When I told the gal I was here for an Agent Orange examination, without looking up, he said, Agent Orange, huh? Agent Orange. Give him some Agent Orange. And, uh, I didn't stay for the rest of the, uh, appointment. I just left. I was kind of angry," said Jenkins Sr.

Jenkins gave up on trying to get help from the VA for his skin problems and focused his attention on his son. From the day he was born, his son, Monte Jr., struggled. Monte and his wife, Marylyn, are confident their son's long list of illnesses is connected to his father's exposure to Agent Orange. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has researched the effects of Agent Orange exposure. The studies have found a link between a father's exposure and an increased risk of birth defects in their children. Marylyn recalled contacting the VA several times and being told they wouldn't help.

"And we've had so many issues. Sorry. I just see him when he's a baby. He's just so sick. In a hospital after a hospital. Fourteen doctors before they even knew it was his kidneys was the main issue," said Marylyn.

"You know, they had to try to put a catheter in me, and it failed. And it was like, to this day, I have PTSD over that torture situation," said Jenkins Jr.

Monte Jr. is now 40, an age he never expected to live to. His father was diagnosed with Parkinson's a year ago. Parkinson's is a disease linked to Agent Orange, a recognition that came from the VA in 2010. But it's been a long, complicated fight to get medical care for health problems experienced by both veterans and their descendants. Molly Loomis of Bozeman is the daughter of a Vietnam veteran and has spina bifida.

Molly Loomis
Molly Loomis is the daughter of a Vietnam vet and was born with spina bifida. After conversations about her and her father's health with Senator Jon Tester, Senate Bill 3958 was officially named the Molly R. Loomis Research for Descendants of Toxic Exposed Veterans Act of 2024 following her involvement with the PACT Act.

"And In 2010, he was diagnosed with bladder cancer, and in 2013, he died. Actually, the exact same time I was going through my own health journey, where I was diagnosed with a form of spina bifida, it was discovered that my spinal cord had a growth and was tethered. My dad was going through chemo, um, literally, I was undergoing spinal cord surgery and then bladder surgery. It, it had always struck us all as odd to have this very, unusual birth defect in me and then my dad also to be having these health issues that really had no clear link or history," said Loomis.

Loomis worked for the National Park Service until her condition made that impossible. She knew about the PACT Act, a law passed in 2022 that made it easier for veterans to get benefits because their exposure and resulting health problems were presumed. It also included provisions for survivors of those who died. Loomis applied for benefits based on this law and was denied. She knew that her condition was tied to her father's service. She started reaching out. She talked to a benefits specialist for the state and talked to someone at Paralyzed Veterans for America. Then she called U. S. Senator Jon Tester, who had been involved in the PACT Act and is the chairman of the Senate's Veterans Affairs Committee. Eventually, his office got back to her with an idea.

"It was not at all expected," Loomis said. "I got an email from his head guy at the Veteran Affairs Committee saying that they were going to propose this bill and would it be all right to affiliate my name with it?"

Senate Bill 3958 is officially named the Molly R. Loomis Research for Descendants of Toxic Exposed Veterans Act of 2024. It's a bipartisan bill sponsored by Tester, a Democrat, and Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican. The bill is in its early stages. It's nowhere near a law, but it's a start.

"It's the beginning of something much bigger and us, as a government, as a culture, starting to take more responsibility for some of the decisions that we make," said Loomis.

For Monte Jenkins Sr., proposed legislation that might help his son is of little comfort as he struggles to think about the bigger problems affecting his family.

"I have been carrying a lot of guilt for most of my son's life, especially after we found out what his problems were and are. I realized that I did not intentionally bring back Agent Orange and infect him the way he's been infected. I know it's not my fault, but I still feel this huge guilt when I look at him, especially when he's getting emotional, thinking about the pain and stuff that he's been exposed to. I just say to myself, what would life be like had I not gone over there? I volunteered, you know? I thought it was the right thing to do at the time. But looking back, things could have been and should have been different, I suppose. Because I didn't stop the war and I didn't save anybody over there," said Jenkins Sr.

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