I've never given much thought to Agent Orange or any of the other herbicides used in Vietnam. Born in 1969, I missed most of the war and was too young to remember the rest of it. I knew Dad served in the Air Force in Vietnam, but that pretty well summed up my knowledge on the subject. Anything learned in school has been long since forgotten and I don't think I really connected the war to my father during most of my education.
That all changed the Monday following his funeral when my mom, brother and I went to the local VA office to see about ordering the special headstone veterans were now eligible for as part of a revamped benefit plan.
Standing in the office, Mom started talking to the woman behind the counter. She told her about Dad's sudden death and about his diabetes. The woman stopped typing Dad's information and looked squarely at Mom.
"Adult On-set?" Yes, in fact it was.
"Was he in country Vietnam?" Apparently, if he was, Dad would have been entitled to a bundle of other benefits from the government (and now, with his death, Mom would be eligible for some too).
Dad was stationed in Formosa where he repaired Air Force planes. Mom remembered a couple of stories he shared about volunteering to go into Vietnam to repair planes that were stranded -- one time they even had ground troops surrounding the plane to protect them from any possible enemy fire.
"Do you have his military orders for these trips?"
Mom doubted it. The woman put in a request for Dad's paperwork in hopes of finding something in writing that would suggest he'd put his feet down on Vietnam soil. If so, the VA automatically assumed his diabetes was caused by Agent Orange.
I was surprised. This many years later? Yes, this many years later. Dad was diagnosed around 2000, 30 years after he returned home from the war. It didn't matter the time -- and suddenly the words Agent Orange became a living, breathing demon.
So I did some research. I hadn't realized just how bad Agent Orange truly was. I also didn't realize the Air Force did a large majority of the spraying. It would seem to me that even if Dad wasn't in country Vietnam, he may still have come in contact with the herbicide while working on planes used to carry and spray it.
In fact, I've also learned that many of Dad's adult health issues: diabetes, kidney stones, depression, irritability and the heart attack the doctors say killed him are all symptoms and effects of Agent Orange.
Dad could have been receiving benefits from the VA for years. I don't know if he was unaware or if he never connected his illness to his time spent serving his country.
How hurtful it is to imagine what his life might have been like if he hadn't been in Vietnam. Without the diabetes and subsequent heart attack, he would still be sharing Thanksgiving dinner with us this week. Without the irritability (and possible undiagnosed depression), my brother and I might have had a stronger relationship with him. Without Agent Orange, he and Mom could have gone on one of the trips they had planned instead of the money being used to say good-bye to him.
If you or someone you love served in Vietnam, I urge you to make them aware of the symptoms and the new benefits available by visiting the Department of Veterans Affairs website. Some illnesses associated with Agent Orange have time limits during which time you must file a claim.
To make matters worse, the Vietnamese people are STILL suffering from the effects of Agent Orange. I'm quite sickened by all of this, but unfortunately, I can't go back and undo any of it. All I can do for my dad is make sure this information can help another veteran. If he didn't know, certainly other Vietnam veterans don't know either. Visit the VA's website...learn what you can...make sure you are getting the help you deserve.