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Dennis Marek: Orange is not always a pretty color

November 11, 2018

A friend who I knew had served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War left a book at my office entitled “When We Came Home,’’ by author Jack McCabe.

It wasn’t fiction, and it wasn’t an author composing a piece of literature. It was a group of recollections of American soldiers and sailors about what they experienced not so much in Southeast Asia, but what they encountered on their arrival back home. The book is based on over 150 interviews and accounts. I just couldn’t finish reading it. It was just too hard and brought back some unwanted memories.

I remember those years and not wanting to fly in my uniform for reduced fares on airlines because of the harassment by American civilians. I often paid more and wore civvies. I was tired of the taunts of “baby killer’ and similar derisive challenges we military persons faced in the American public.

As I read many of these pieces, I was struck with another pain of those years. Many of the contributors wrote of their battle with illnesses. Many of these men and some women had severe cases of PTSD, but what was equally saddening was the number who suffered the effects of being exposed to Agent Orange.

Agent Orange is an herbicide and defoliant chemical. It was sprayed over Vietnam and Laos from 1961-71 as part of an herbicidal warfare program called Ranch Hand. Used to eliminate vegetation that hid the enemy, it became even more damaging to our own troops. Up to four million people in Vietnam were exposed to these poisons, and perhaps as many as 3 million have suffered diseases from its contact.

Our veterans have suffered a higher number of cases of leukemia, Hodgkin’s lymphoma and various other cancers than the general population. Yet, our own government has challenged these numbers as “unreliable,” in spite of the fact that records show 20 million gallons of various chemicals were sprayed in Vietnam during that time.

Exactly eight years ago, I wrote of the horrific experiences of a local man in his tour in Vietnam. Arlen Bertrand, of Clifton, was one of the few survivors of a battle known as the Slopes of Dak To. I wrote it as a salute to a brave man who still then suffered from PTSD and disease. While the Army claims Bertrand was never “near” the spraying of Agent Orange, his life of diseases stood as a testament to the chemical warfare used around him.

Bertrand, in later years, suffered from cancer of his prostate. He developed a tumor behind one eye. He lost all his teeth because of the needed radiation. He lost his hearing and, at the age of 55, was walking with a cane. Yet, Agent Orange benefits were denied, as the government would not admit he was near enough to show a relationship between the poison and his diseases.

The number of dead in Vietnam is expressed with names carved on the Wall in Washington, D.C. It lists all those men and women who died in Southeast Asia during the conflict. Since then, a few names have been added where the conditions surrounding their deaths were closely tied to that war, though they died later at home. I have written of one named Alan Brudno who was the first suicide upon his release as a POW. Through the tireless efforts of his brother, Bill, his name was added to the Wall decades later.

But not all the names of those who later died as a result of that war are carved there. Those men who died later as a result of their poisoning have not been added. Yet, they died fighting our fight just as much as those who were killed in the field.

The stories in “When We Came Home” illustrate the results of those chemicals in case after case. Cancer, tumors, skin diseases and even brain deterioration are almost common in these returnees. In spite of massive legal consequences demanding compensation, most cases against the government and the VA were lost.

These chemical combinations actually were started during WWII, and Britain was heavily involved. Soon, it was known their use had devastating health effects. Resolutions to ban such use were presented in the U.N. as early as 1966 stating the United States was violating the Geneva Protocol, which regulated the use of chemicals in warfare. The U.S. vote defeated these resolutions each time with their vote.

In November of last year, Bertrand and his long-time companion, Lynn Luehrs, were crossing a street in Clifton to have dinner. Bert’s pace was slow, and he lagged behind as Lynn reached the other curb. On his cane, he needed more time to cross and waited in the middle of the road for a truck that had come to pass by. The truck’s extended rear view side mirror struck Bert as it passed, and Bert was killed. Another casualty of the war in Vietnam? Was he on that cane because of Agent Orange? Does it matter to our government?

As I read more about Agent Orange, I discovered Rockford now has a memorial for victims of Agent Orange. At this point, there are 47 names on that wall. Forty-one died of various cancers, and six lost their lives to heart disease. The committee professes, “It does not matter what branch of service you were in or what your job was. If you were there, you were exposed.” To qualify for the wall, the deceased must have been military with an honorable discharge and a paper from the Veterans Administration showing the veteran was being treated or had a disability because of Agent Orange.

For years, it was not fashionable to talk about what these soldiers did and saw in Vietnam. The war was just ugly and ended with our withdrawal, perhaps better called “defeat.” But on this Veterans Day, perhaps we and, most importantly, our government should own up and treat these soldiers as they should be, with respect, admiration and, most of all, with the medical and financial support they need in their later years. Let’s not decide the case on whether the veteran was 40 miles or 4 miles from this barbaric defoliant. To our veterans, it is finally your day, and may the newly elected improve your care.

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