Rena Kopystenski’s An Unbelievable Life: The Woman Who Became Vietnam Veterans’ Voice Against Agent Orange (Strategic Media Books, 300 pp., $19.95, paper) is a tour de force of how one person can affect and benefit millions of others.
As Vietnam veterans know only too well, the U.S. military heavily sprayed the herbicide Agent Orange throughout South Vietnam during the war. The catastrophic effects on plant life were almost instantaneous; however, the effects on human life began to appear much later—and still wreak havoc in 2015.
Kopystenski encountered Agent Orange for the first time while watching a news broadcast in late 1977. She was pregnant with her first child when she heard the words “suspected of causing birth defects.” Knowing that her husband had been an Army door gunner on a medivac helicopter in Vietnam, she believed there might be a connection between his exposure to Agent Orange and her first child.
The author begins to describe the problems with her son Alex during his first few months of life. Skin conditions became prevalent almost immediately, followed by other painful and frightening ailments. At three and a half months, the child had severe stomach pains. He would have died had her husband not literally held a doctor against a locker until he agreed to take a second look at the boy.
These events with her child set the stage for Rena Kopystenski’s decades-long, national and international campaign to uncover the horrific price of Agent Orange.
Although the book needs some editing—the author consistently misuses the word “effect” for “affect, ” for example—Kopystenski pulls no punches describing her quest for the elimination of AO and its extremely toxic byproduct, dioxin, and compensation for its victims.
She and her “band of brothers” formed Agent Orange Victims of New Jersey in 1978. Then, while listening to a news report, the author heard the words “dioxin, toxic waste, and children with cancer.” The battlefield expanded.
Throughout the book Kopystenski expresses her appreciation for the many people who worked with her in the struggle, including Annie Bailey, “a whole 100 pounds sopping wet, ” who became known as a battler for the cause.
While the focus is primarily on U.S. citizens, the author takes the reader to present-day Vietnam to learn of the tragic rate of Agent-Orange-related birth defects among its people.
Kopystenski is not reluctant in pointing fingers at politicians, even in the Oval Office, who have taken little or no interest in the sufferings of AO victims. She is equally quick to thank politicians who have made an effort to right the wrongs.
Rena Kopystenski presented her findings to the International People’s Tribunal of Conscience in Support of the Vietnamese Victims of Agent Orange, which took place in Paris in May 2009. Both the chemical companies and the United States government were asked to appear; neither did.
The Tribunal noted: “Wars do not end when the bombs stop falling and the fighting ceases. The devastation continues long after, in the land and in the minds and bodies of the affected population.”
Today, in a world where the term “weapons of mass destruction” slides so casually from the tongue, An Unbelievable Life is a must-read.