3 Jun 2021

Māori war veteran’s skin still peeling 50 years after Agent Orange exposure

10:39 am on 3 June 2021

Turoa Karatea frequently scratches himself until he bleeds, but time is running out for him to get compensation for a condition he says was caused by Agent Orange. Will a Waitangi Tribunal inquiry finally deliver for Karatea and other Vietnam veterans before the last of the veterans die?

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Photo: Supplied

An ominous, oil-like substance fell from the sky during Turoa Karatea's first week in Vietnam. It was 1970, and 23-year-old Karatea, a Rereahu descendant from Feilding, was stationed at the ANZAC base Nui Dat in Vietnam's southeast. He was in the middle of familiarisation training when he looked up and saw, over to the west, two US Army Baby Hercs flying side by side, spraying a dense liquid that splattered into waterways and stuck to leaves in the pockets of dense jungle covering the land.

Karatea had joined the army a year earlier, and those oily showers were the least of his concerns as war unfolded around him. But the showers were always there. The planes were always spraying. It wouldn't be until Karatea's unit was withdrawn a year later, in 1971, that he would stop to question exactly what it was that fell from the sky.

Karatea was not long into his journey home when the skin on his legs, arms, back, and chest began to itch and peel. Within hours, the itch intensified and soon more than three-quarters of his skin had completely peeled off. It burned. He'd never had skin issues before. Through the piercing pain, he thought about those showers.

"On the way back we stopped in Singapore and I went to a medical centre," he says. "They sent me to a specialist. This dermatologist, an English woman, examined me and said, 'I think it's insect bites'."

"[I believed] it was more than that. It was like sunburn, but it was all over my body and it was burning. I knew it wasn't insects that did it... But that was just the start of it really."

Karatea believes his skin condition, from which he still suffers today, was caused by Agent Orange. During the Vietnam War, the US military used the notorious herbicide, containing the dangerous chemical compound dioxin, to clear crops and plantations that could conceal their enemy, the Viet Cong. Seventy-six million litres of herbicides were sprayed in Vietnam between 1962 to 1971. More than half of that was Agent Orange. Soldiers spent years crawling through these toxin-soaked jungles.

But despite many Vietnam veterans' concerns at the impact the chemical may have had on their health, the New Zealand government spent 30 years after the war denying they had ever been exposed to it. It was only in 2008 that the government formally acknowledged New Zealand personnel in Vietnam had been exposed to Agent Orange, and apologised for that lack of recognition, as well as the lack of inadequate support when they got home. By that time, Karatea was 61.

Karatea is now in his seventies. When the itch comes back, the only way he gets relief is to scratch until he bleeds. And it recently got worse. Eighteen months ago, Karatea's skin began peeling off again.

Photographs taken on his iPad show the skin across most of his body flaky and raw, a striking resemblance to how it looked all those years ago as he left Vietnam.

"This was all down my legs and up my back," he says, gliding his hands to the areas on his body that were affected. "And it just spread. I just couldn't stop rubbing and scratching it. It was everywhere."

Few veterans qualify for compensation

Six years ago, the Waitangi Tribunal began the Military Veterans Kaupapa Inquiry, Wai 2500. The purpose of the inquiry is to investigate any Crown breaches of Te Tiriti o Waitangi in the way Māori veterans were treated during and after service. The Tribunal has now received more than 100 claims in total from veterans who fought in different campaigns across decades, and is yet to review all of the research it has commissioned. Many of the claims have been made by Vietnam veterans calling for compensation for the impact Agent Orange has had on their health. But the process is slow. As more and more veterans die, time is running out.

The government already offers one-off $40,000 ex gratia payments - a voluntary payment made to show kindness without admitting blame - to those who were exposed to Agent Orange. These payments were introduced in 2006, two years after a Health Select Committee Inquiry reviewed new evidence which demonstrated, beyond doubt, that New Zealanders had in fact been deployed in areas of chemical defoliation in Vietnam. The payments can also be given to a veteran's child if they are diagnosed with cleft lip, cleft palate, spina bifida, adrenal gland cancer or acute myeloid leukaemia - all conditions linked to Agent Orange.

But the only veterans who can get a payment are those who served between 29 May 1964 and March 1975 and suffer from an illness included on a brief list. They are: the cystic skin condition chloracne, chronic lymphocytic leukaemia, Hodgkin's disease, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma or soft tissue sarcoma. The list of illnesses, set out in a 2006 Memorandum of Understanding between the Crown and the Ex-Vietnam Services Association, is based on 2004 research by the National Academy of Sciences, a United States non-profit NGO that produces a biennial report on health conditions strongly associated with Agent Orange exposure.

Very few New Zealand Vietnam veterans have received payments; documents released under the Official Information Act show just 97 ex gratia payments have been made to veterans so far - less than 3 percent of the more than 3400 New Zealanders who served in Vietnam.

Karatea has not received a payment. He doesn't qualify, because he doesn't have one of the five accepted illnesses. He's one of many.

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Vietnam veterans gather for Gunners Reunion (Turoa Karatea 2nd from right) Photo: Supplied

Vietnam veterans who aren't covered by the compensation package and are still suffering from health conditions they believe to be a result of their exposure to Agent Orange. Many of the former soldiers who made submissions to the Military Veterans Kaupapa Inquiry describe their struggle with severe eczema and skin rashes, cancers, respiratory problems and children born with deformities, such as legs and arms of different lengths. Many of them recall how deeply frustrating it was watching former governments deny they had been exposed at all.

One submission from veteran Roger Greenaway and wife Mihingarangi explained how five of their children suffer from serious medical issues:

"Our daughter was born with a vertebrae missing from her spine and this gives her pain and limits what she can do," they wrote in their submission. "For example, she has had to have caesarean births because the missing vertebrae prevents her from pushing during birth. Another daughter would just faint and collapse without any warning… [We also have] a son who has had cancer and has had a testicle removed. Another son has lumps that appear on him and then go away and return."

Veteran, Wayne John McCallion, described his battle with prostate cancer in his submission:

"I've had on-going problems with Prostate which a lot of our guys have got… And I have a very good friend in Rotorua. He's dying from bowel cancer. He doesn't get nothing at all out of this whatsoever. He's slowly dying.

"I've got conditions not accepted by the government in terms of pay-outs… A handful of people get $40,000. Ka pai, good on them, but there are very few. Everybody should be compensated. Every one of them!"

The Vietnam veterans involved have been clear from the outset that the compensation they are calling for should apply to all those who served in Vietnam. They want a blanket payment for everyone.

"I think a compensation package goes some way to rectifying what was wrong," Karatea says.

Deputy Head of Veterans' Affairs Marti Eller wouldn't comment on veterans' calls for a new compensation package, but says there's plenty of support available to veterans who aren't eligible for an ex gratia payment.

"That includes any treatment that's related to that medical condition, compensatory payments (pension) and rehabilitation, where that's relevant. They can get home support, which includes a range of things like home health equipment, home services, health alarms, house cleaning, house washing, hedge trimming, and that kind of stuff," she says.

Sixty-seven percent of Vietnam veterans do or will receive these types of support services from Veteran Affairs. Veterans' spouses are also eligible for a surviving spouse pension following the death of the veteran.

In total $19.4m is paid to Vietnam veterans each year as non-taxable allowance and approximately $4.9m in medical costs. There are 974 Vietnam veterans receiving home help services.

"As to the outcome of the inquiry, that's bigger than us. But in terms of, obviously, taking an interest, listening to what people are saying, and trying to respond more appropriately to that, we're very much engaged in that."

She says there's simply not enough scientific evidence to prove many of the illnesses from which Vietnam veterans suffer are related to their exposure to Agent Orange.

However, evidence of long-term effects from exposure to Agent Orange emerges slowly. In the National Academy of Science's latest Agent Orange update in 2018, 43 years after the war ended, two more illnesses were added to its original list of five: hypertension and monoclonal gammopathy (a condition in which abnormal proteins form in your blood, and which means a slightly higher risk of myeloma or lymphoma). New Zealand and the United States are yet to recognise these additions.

The mental toll of Agent Orange

In his living room in Feilding, Karatea shifts slightly in his chair and exhales. As he peers out the window to his nicely-cut lawn, there's a shine in his eyes, and he looks as though he might cry. Agent Orange has cast a long shadow over his life. It's the mental toll he struggles with most. The proud husband and retiree says Agent Orange made him afraid to have children.

Not long after his service in Vietnam, his then-partner suffered a devastating miscarriage six months into pregnancy. When Karatea saw the "horribly deformed" fetus, he thought about those herbicides showering the jungles of Vietnam, and vowed never to try for a baby again.

"Some of them have not had children from the exposure; they've become impotent," says Moana Sinclair, the lawyer representing Karatea in the Military Veterans Inquiry. Sinclair, founder and principal of Otaki's Te Haa Legal, was the first person Karatea ever told about the miscarriage. "It's a big deal, I think, for a Māori man who gets to a certain age. No uri, no descendants."

Moana Sinclair.

Moana Sinclair. Photo: Supplied/Moana Sinclair

Karatea spent many years traumatised by his experience in Vietnam, but he couldn't access mental health support. If services existed, he didn't know where to find them. All the while, stories continued to emerge about children of Vietnam veterans being born with deformities in New Zealand and around the world.

"We got no support. Zero. Not from the army, not from anyone. You dealt with it yourself," he says. "We just really had no access to any of the psychiatrists or anything like that."

Chris Mullane, a spokesperson for the Ex-Vietnam Services Association, says the former 1954 War Pension Act largely focused on physical injuries.

"There was little provision for mental health issues that would arise because society hadn't really caught up with mental health issues and the result of traumatic experiences," he says. "So people coming back from any of the recent wars up until the Act was changed in 2014 would have had difficulties accessing mental health support. That's not to say it wasn't available, but it wasn't readily out there for people as it is today."

Karatea believes a compensation package needs to recognise all those years he and others suffered in silence.

"Some of these injuries, they're life-lasting," he says. "Only certain people get that [$40,000] payout. But I think that they should look seriously at people who have had long-term mental health problems. They should compensate us."

For Vietnam veterans like Karatea, who are suffering from health effects and can't access ex gratia payments, the next best thing is a Disablement Pension. A veteran is eligible if they have a conclusively presumed condition related to military service. But Mullane says a veteran needs to be nearly dead to access the highest pension rate of up to $411.25 a week, which they can only get when they have a terminal condition. Karatea receives a smaller amount from this fund due to suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but says doctors have never been able to diagnosis for his skin issues.

A history of difficulty getting support

Some Vietnam veterans participating in the Military Veterans Kaupapa Inquiry say the process of accessing support has historically been complex and daunting.

At the Waikato-Tainui College for Research and Development in Hopuhopu, not far from Ngāruawahia, Hemana Waaka is transcribing 30 interviews with veterans who fought in the Malaya and Vietnam conflicts. Alongside Waikato-Tainui, he's undertaking a research project into their health since they retired from the army, and has been blown away by their stories.

"There were a lot of frustrations and disappointments with Veterans' Affairs because of the process and having to prove that they got poisoned. And that they were affected by it. And you nearly had to be dead before something was done."

Waaka says Veterans' Affairs set up regional offices so that veterans had somewhere they could go to describe the health conditions they believed were caused by Agent Orange. But he says these were later taken away in favour of a centralised Wellington office. Many veterans had to be consulted over the phone.

"Our soldiers were very reluctant to talk to a stranger at the other end of the line, and talk to them about some of their medical details, only to be passed over to a group of specialists sitting around a table and assessing them based on the information given to them," he says. "No kanohi ki te kanohi consultation."

Waaka says a common issue was veterans simply did not know where to find information about the support and benefits they were entitled to. An old friend he fought alongside in Malaya only found out two years ago that he could get free hearing aids and a pension.

Auckland lawyer David Stone, the principal at Te Mata Law, represents six claimants in the inquiry, and says this has been a theme for many Māori veterans across multiple conflicts.

"When I interviewed Māori Battalion veterans, when I interviewed Korean and [Malayan] veterans, right through to today, including Vietnam veterans, they all raised the same concerns and evidence in respect of not knowing what benefits and services were out there for them to utilise," he says.

"And of course, with our people at the time in the 1940s still living in the more hard-to-reach areas, they certainly didn't have access to the medical facilities that would have been afforded to them if they had lived in the biggest cities."

Karatea remembers his first health examination, and how terrifying it was speaking about his health conditions after suffering on his own for so long.

"They send you to a medical specialist and he examines you. And you have to prove to him that what you're saying is correct. I don't think that's the right process," he says.

"The Crown needs to have people who those [veterans] will trust to talk to them. They need to go to them, not them go to you. Go to where they are, and where they live."

Of the roughly 2000 Vietnam veterans still alive, about 300 do not access any support. Karatea and others say they are simply too afraid, and it's Veterans' Affairs' responsibility to do more to engage with them.

But Eller says that's precisely what the Ministry has been doing, and there are some veterans who just don't want the help.

"We're an opt-in service… you can well imagine that people coming back from Vietnam may have simply chosen to have nothing to do with the system," she says. "We try and reach out to them pretty much through their own colleagues. And we've done quite a lot of work with the Vietnam Veterans Association over the last few years to try to make sure we can track down whoever we can."

Waaka expects Waikato-Tainui to release a report based on his research by November this year.

"I'm hoping the recommendation of this report will be for the government to appoint a commissioner to investigate clinically, scientifically, the damages that this poison has done," he says.

Time is running out

More than five years has passed since the Military Veterans Kaupapa Inquiry began, but the soldiers can't wait much longer.

"People are still waiting and dying," says lawyer Moana Sinclair. "It's a slow death, if you like. It's hard to watch and it's hard to be a part of sometimes. The encouraging thing is the people's spirit to keep going, like Turoa's."

Waaka says it's deeply sad to think about the thousand or so Vietnam veterans who never got to see the outcome of the inquiry.

"As my mate Miki Apiti alluded to me, how many more of us have to die before they finally recognise us? He's right, we're losing them left, right and centre right now."

However, for Karatea, giving up is not an option. He's fighting for himself and all the mates he fought alongside in Vietnam, who could only turn to each other for support when they got home to an indifferent, sometimes hostile reception.

"One of our mates had a car and we just came back here to Feilding," he recalls, thinking of the first few weeks home after Vietnam. "We stayed a few days here, then we went to another mate's place, then we ended up all the way in Kaitaia. And that's how we sort of got through."

They were there for him when it felt like no one else was. Karatea says this inquiry is for them.

Veterans can get in touch with Veteran Affairs about support services by calling 0800 483 745.

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