August 10 is Agent Orange Awareness Day.

Agent Orange is a herbicide and defoliant the U.S. military used during the Vietnam War. Many Vietnam veterans have since been diagnosed with illnesses and health conditions linked to exposure to the chemical. 

James Sklenar of Fishkill joined the U.S. Marine Corps right out of high school in 1964. He served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969, and is still living with the effects of his service there.

“Very hard to describe. To look at, it’s a paradise. To live there, it’s hell,” Sklenar said.

What You Need To Know

  • Agent Orange is a herbicide and defoliant chemical the U.S. military used during the Vietnam War

  • Many Vietnam veterans have dealt with, and are still dealing with, illnesses as a result of Agent Orange exposure

  • Agent Orange exposure is linked to at least 15 known diseases, such as cancers, diabetes and heart disease

Veterans who served in Vietnam are still living with the effects of Agent Orange, which the military weaponized and deployed in battle.

“Agent Orange was a defoliant used in the Vietnam conflict from 1961 to 1971 aimed at changing the terrain in Vietnam, which, unfortunately, contained a number of substances, which eventually led to toxicities and cancers in veterans,” said Timothy Hall, deputy chief of staff at the Hudson Valley VA Healthcare System.

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Sklenar said he’s had two brushes with cancer.

“When I did come back and I started having problems, I went to a doctor in Manhattan, a VA doctor. He told me, ‘If you were in Vietnam, you were exposed to Agent Orange, no matter where you were,’” Sklenar said.

He was part of the crew on a jet that delivered bombs, and remembered a specific time where he was exposed.

“One particular day, one of the bombs broke loose from the bomb bay, from the rack, and broke open, and that was filled with napalm and Agent Orange. Subsequently, we all had to wear gas masks to just get around. You could hardly breathe,” Sklenar said.

Doctors diagnosed him with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He had to have part of his right lung removed in 1994. In 2002, he underwent triple bypass heart surgery. He then had mantle cell lymphoma (MCL), which required a stem cell transplant in 2010.

“You always have that in the back of your mind. No matter if something happens, boom right away, it’s the first thing you think,” Sklenar said.

Sklenar said he’s lost friends to several different cancers as a result of Agent Orange exposures.

According to Hall, the chemical is linked to at least 15 known diseases.

“In general, they’re related to cancers like leukemias and lymphomas, but also recently extended to things, including diabetes and heart disease,” Hall said.

Sklenar said he ran into issues getting his health benefits due to red tape. The VA said those problems were addressed with care and options now available for veterans who were exposed. Their kids are also eligible for benefits pending a VA evaluation.

“It was discovered while it was in use to have toxicities and carcinogenic properties. The VA moved through studies and reviews to properly assess that and then provide care for those people effected,” Hall said.

Sklenar said Vietnam veterans are still dying every day from the effects of Agent Orange.

“I have no rhyme or reason why they don’t count these people as casualties of war,” Sklenar said.