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March/April 2007

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On April 26, 1984, after returning from a trip to Vietnam, VVA National Board Member Dr. Jim Rogers filed a report to the Board in which he laid out the case for the toxic effects of Agent Orange. That document, “Agent Orange Research in Vietnam,” stands as a historic manifesto for VVA and for all Vietnam veterans.
Rogers, a physician, wrote in his report that “in most heavily defoliated areas, the natural flora has not yet returned. Sparse grasses now grow in areas which were once heavily forested. This profound change, together with the direct toxic effect of the [Agent Orange] chemicals, has resulted in the local and regional disappearance of many species of large predatory animals and birds.”

It was clear that Agent Orange and similar defoliants were not just harmful to trees but, even if indirectly, to every living thing these chemicals came in contact with.
Rogers’ report went on to describe the impact of herbicidal defoliants on human reproduction (increased rates of miscarriages, stillbirths, sterility, and birth defects), increased cancer rates, stomach and liver diseases, and psychological disturbances.

“VVA should take the lead in organizing the necessary scientific cooperation between Vietnamese researchers and American scientists,” Rogers wrote, “and should also undertake consultations with leading medical researchers in the United States to determine the relevance of [Vietnamese] studies to research on veterans currently under way in the United States.”

At the time that Rogers submitted his report, Agent Orange was still largely dismissed by the VA. “I think a number of people in the VA thought it was a passing fad,” Rogers says, “a bandwagon people wanted to jump on. But the fact is that there was a great deal of compelling evidence that Agent Orange causes all kinds of illness, even at that time.”

Rogers helped a researcher named Arnold Schecter, who was studying the effects of herbicides and defoliants. One such study demonstrated that North Vietnamese Army veterans who had fought in the South had elevated fat tissue levels of dioxin while North Vietnamese who had never been in the South did not. “It was quite clear that something was going on with Agent Orange,” Rogers says. “I wrote about the growing body of evidence for The VVA Veteran and other publications in this period, making the case that the VA was not considering all the scientific evidence when deciding what conditions were related to Agent Orange exposure.”

Rogers published a similar report, “Agent Orange in Vietnam: America’s Shared Legacy,” in Indochina Issues in the fall of 1985. “All delegates to the 1986 VVA National Convention received a copy of that,” Rogers recalls.

Jim Rogers’ professional clout as a practicing physician brought additional legitimacy to Agent Orange at a time when more than one federal agency would have been happy to dismiss the controversy. Many veterans have since been served, through disability ratings and VA assistance, by Dr. Jim Rogers’ early campaign to get the word out on a problem unique to Vietnam veterans. Rogers continues to practice medicine today, as a surgeon in the Department of Surgery at the Northern Navajo Medical Center, on the Navajo Reservation in the Four Corners area of New Mexico.

But Rogers did not start out in New Mexico—he’s a native Appalachian, born nearly 1,500 miles to the east in the small town of New Martinsville, West Virginia. “I graduated from high school and spent three semesters in college,” Rogers says. “By that time most of the guys in my high school graduating class had been to or were still in Vietnam. I didn’t feel too good about that, so I decided I’d go, too.”

To do so, though, Rogers notes that he “didn’t enlist in the Army and wasn’t exactly drafted.” That’s because even though he was volunteering, Jim Rogers figured he shouldn’t spend any longer in the Army than he needed to. When he discovered that the term of enlistment was three years but draftees served only two years, he decided it might be better to get drafted. “The lady at the draft board was very accommodating and moved my name to the head of the list,” Rogers says. “Her only question was, ‘Does your mother know about this?’”

Rogers married before he shipped out and served with MACV Advisory Team 98 as a radio operator in 1968-69, both in the bush and in the rear. Meanwhile, back home in West Virginia, his first child, a daughter, was born.

The young father and veteran came home from the war to work with his father installing carpet. “Then I got a job in the coal mines,” Rogers says. “That didn’t last too long, because I got fired during a wildcat strike.”

Rogers decided to return to college and graduated from West Virginia University with a B.A. in philosophy in 1973. “I was a supporter of the antiwar movement,” Rogers recalls. “I went on to medical school in New York, at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Then it was back to West Virginia and a residency in general surgery at the Charleston Area Medical Center.”

Rogers became active with VVA in the early 1980s and served as president of Chapter 38 in Charleston, West Virginia. He served three terms on the VVA National Board of Directors and returned to Vietnam twice in 1984 with VVA delegations.

The return to Vietnam was, in part, to participate in Agent Orange research and look at the results of defoliation ten years after the war was over. Rogers revisited areas where he had once been on combat missions, and stood where he had stood sixteen years earlier, but in a different country—one at peace, but with the forests and wildlife fighting to return despite the old assaults of toxic clouds of herbicides.

Rogers returned to write his seminal report to the VVA Board. “For the next several years, I did a lot of public speaking about Agent Orange, mostly to VVA chapters and state councils.” While serving as a kind of organizational expert on the impact of Agent Orange, Rogers continued to practice medicine in West Virginia. “But I’d been thinking about a different horizon for a while,” he says. “I answered an ad in a medical recruiting magazine for a position in Glendive, Montana. My wife, Roxane, and I went to visit. It was February in Montana and the Yellowstone River was frozen solid. But we liked it and decided to give it a shot.”

They stayed on in Montana, and Rogers’ career has been Western-based ever since. He continued his VVA activities in Montana, serving as president of VVA Chapter 420 in Havre and as president of the Montana State Council. He finally closed his Montana surgical practice in 2004, dividing his time between the Indian Health Service and the VA medical system over the next two years. Then, in October 2006, he joined the Northern Navajo Medical Center, and he lives in the small town of Shiprock, New Mexico, with his wife.

Rogers’ passion and concerns as a Vietnam veteran, coupled with his medical and scientific knowledge as a physician, helped legitimize Agent Orange as a medical issue. By working to establish the reality of Agent Orange’s toxicity, Rogers helped set the stage for more responsive treatment and improved benefits for an entire generation of veterans. That contribution continues today, as veterans and veterans service organizations recognize that exposures to a plethora of agents, from herbicides to depleted uranium to vaccines, carry toxicities that are difficult to track, define, or even identify, all while inflicting often debilitating medical damage.

“I would recommend to new veterans that they commit some time to veterans affairs and veterans issues,” says Dr. Jim Rogers. “They have no reason to believe that their needs as veterans will be met without active involvement in the political process. Ours weren’t.”

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