Bill Hall never heard the words Agent Orange until his wife was pregnant with his second son, a full 10 years after he returned from service in Vietnam.
He had never heard of the dioxin-based herbicide when his first son, Billy, showed the first signs of a degenerative neurological condition that would leave him paralyzed, blind and confined to his bed or wheelchair -- totally dependent on the care of others.
When his wife, Alice, became pregnant again, he started hearing news reports about Vietnam veterans who suffered from cancer and other diseases and blamed Agent Orange -- a chemical sprayed from planes to clear forests and expose the enemy.
Some veterans also questioned whether it caused birth defects in their children.
The Halls' biggest shock came when their second son, Buddy, was born with the same affliction as Billy -- a disease so rare it remains unnamed. The Halls, who live in a modest home in Pasadena, aren't crying "Agent Orange" but say they can't help but wonder if the chemical caused the afflictions that so far have defied explanation.
"I've thought that it might have something to do with Agent Orange, but I couldn't prove it," said Mr. Hall, a husky truck driver who said he recalled Army trucks spraying chemicals to clear roadside vegetation but not planes showering forests from the sky. Mr. Hall served with an engineering outfit in Vietnam in 1970 and 1971.
Remarkably, Mr. Hall does not have to prove an Agent Orange connection to qualify for help under a 1 1/2 -year-old program designed to help Vietnam veterans and their spouses cope with the around-the-clock burdens of caring for disabled children. To qualify, he must simply certify that he served in Vietnam sometime between 1961 and 1972 -- the time Agent Orange was sprayed there -- and that he needs help caring for his children.
In 1984, veterans who claimed that the chemical caused them direct biological damage settled their lawsuit against seven Agent Orange manufacturers for $170 million. The money was earmarked for direct payments to thousands of ex-servicemen. But before it was spent, it sat in an escrow account for four years while lawyers worked out legal details of the payout.
And it earned interest -- more than $50 million of it.
Finally, the federal judge hearing the case agreed to set aside the newfound money for the separate purpose of helping veterans care for disabled children. He authorized a Washington-based committee to award grants to local organizations that, in turn, find the veterans who need help.
The criteria for qualifying for aid remain loose, and there is good reason.
Although dioxin is known to cause cancer and the skin disorder chloracne in people directly exposed, its potential to cause birth defects remains a subject of scientific debate. "The question may never be solved in our lifetime," said Michael Leaveck, deputy director of the Washington-based steering committee.
So far, the committee has distributed grants to 78 organizations, which in turn have helped about 10,000 individuals. In most of these cases, the group has simply steered families to other programs that lay hidden within confusing bureaucracies. In other cases, the organizations are providing direct aid.
In Baltimore, the lone grant recipient is the Kennedy Institute, an East Baltimore facility for handicapped children. The Halls are one of five families so far who have applied to Kennedy since the institute won a $217,000 first-year grant in July. But the organization has enough money to help 30 parents this year, and officials there are still looking for families in need.
What the Halls want is simple: help building an easy-to-maneuver bathroom with a wheel-in shower stall where they can bathe their growing boys more easily.
Now, bathing time is a back-wrenching, assembly line procedure: Mr. Hall carries one son through a narrow doorway, bends at the knees and hands him to his wife, who already sits in the low tub. She washes him, while Mr. Hall bends to hold his son's head above water.
When the task is done, he lifts his son out of the tub and hands him to a nurse, who dries him. Then, he gets the other boy.
"The boys are getting so big we can hardly get them through the door," said Mrs. Hall, in a tone that was matter-of-fact but not complaining.
The boys are now 13 and 10 years old.
So far, the Kennedy Institute is using its grant money to "help kids with neurological disorders, children who have seizure disorders and children with multiple problems -- say, mental retardation and vision and hearing problems," said Vicki Almquist, program coordinator at the Kennedy Institute. The veterans' $50 million is expected to fund such programs for four more years.
The institute cannot pass money along to families. Rather, the institute spends the money to provide equipment or services. This can mean a wheelchair or a stationary chair designed to help a youngster sit up without flopping over -- or a therapist to help a child speak, learn or perform physical tasks.
Or, it can mean building a bathroom.
"That would make it a lot easier," Mrs. Hall said. "Just being able to push him into a shower without breaking your back -- that would be a big deal."
Where to call
In Baltimore, the Kennedy Institute is helping Vietnam veterans and spouses provide for the special needs of their disabled children. To apply for services, call project coordinator Vicki Almquist at 550-9700.