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Vietnam Veterans’ Children Share in Agent Orange Claim

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bright-eyed 9-year-old Tanya Bills laughed and jumped so much that her mother had to shush her.

Eight-year-old Winona Bartley crooned softly to herself.

And Ireana Price, 12, waited quietly with her mother.

The three children--all with serious medical problems--were at the Inglewood-based Children of Vietnam Veterans Assistance Program on Friday.

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They are clients of the first agency in Los Angeles County to receive a grant from the multimillion-dollar settlement of a historic class-action lawsuit on the effects of Agent Orange on Vietnam veterans and their children.

Noting that Los Angeles County has the largest number of Vietnam veterans of any county in the country, Dennis K. Rhoades, executive director of the private Agent Orange Class Assistance Program, said he expects to be awarding more grants in the Los Angeles area shortly. He was here last week from Washington to inspect the Inglewood program, which received $147,000.

The grant program stems from a 1984 settlement of the lawsuit, which veterans won against seven chemical manufacturers after claiming that exposure to the defoliant in Vietnam resulted in medical problems for themselves and genetic defects in their children.

Legal entanglements, including appeals, tied up the $240-million settlement. Only within the last two years have cash awards been paid to veterans. Besides those awards, 50 grants totaling $7.3 million from a $52-million fund were handed out to aid assistance programs for the veterans and their children.

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Other grants have gone to organizations aiding homeless veterans and a national hot line for developmental disabilities used by the Inglewood agency for referrals and information.

The hot line number is (800) 922-9234 Ext. 401.

In Inglewood, the $147,000 grant will enable the Children of Vietnam Veterans Assistance Program, which now serves 60 children, to expand so that some of the 29 on the waiting list can be included.

The program, which is run out of the Church of Religious Science in the 500 block of North Market Street, provides evaluation, referral and counseling services.

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Most significantly, there is no requirement that a veteran’s child’s problems be traced to Agent Orange exposure of the father.

The parents of the three children who had come Friday were hoping for help, although none of the children’s problems have been conclusively linked to Agent Orange.

The most disabled of the children was Winona Bartley, whose mother, Winona Stephenson, said her daughter is severely retarded, unable to walk or talk, and suffers from seizures and cerebral palsy.

Despite her problems, a smile crossed the child’s face at times. Her mother said Winona enjoys watching Sesame Street and entertainer Michael Jackson.

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“Her teacher told me she is the first child in a wheelchair she has seen who shakes her head and pops her fingers in time to the music,” she said.

Winona’s father, Ben Bartley, served in Vietnam in 1970. A neighbor put the family in touch with the assistance program.

Ireana Price, who lives in southwest Los Angeles, has suffered intense stomach spasms, eczema, wheezing, and blood in her urine and feces. Her father was a Marine who spent 13 months in Vietnam during some of the worst fighting.

Tanya Bills, a fourth-grader at Anza Elementary School in Torrance, was born with her left leg shorter than the right and has endured surgery and months of a stretching process to lengthen the leg. She has no mental complications.

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“It was going to be half the length of the other leg,” her mother, Roxanne, said. The stretching added “about three inches in the last procedure,” she said.

The child’s father, Michael Bills, a longshoreman who served near Danang in 1969 and 1970, said he suffered memory loss after returning from Vietnam. He said he filed a claim, joining the Agent Orange lawsuit after his daughter was born.

Asked whether any of their other children had genetic problems, Tanya interrupted to say her 14-year-old brother Christopher had a problem.

“What’s his problem,” her alarmed mother asked.

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“He hits me,” the girl replied, giggling. “He doesn’t share his candy that he buys, either.”


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