U.S. troops taking a break while on patrol in Vietnam. It didn’t really matter where you were in Vietnam, or what your job was. If you were there, you were probably exposed to the deadly herbicide – the troops in this photo might have actually been sitting on foliage soaked in Agent Orange. Photo: Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr. Collection: The Vietnam Archive, Texas Tech University.
Agent Orange: A Slow and Certain Death
After his return from Vietnam, an American soldier suffered for years from problems related to his service in Vietnam. PTSD came first, followed by an early death caused by Agent Orange.
By Michele Dunckel
Although I came of age in the 1960s, I wasn’t a hippie, nor did I ever protest the Vietnam War. But I was angry about it. My classmates and friends were being killed, maimed, and emotionally destroyed – and for what? Even worse was the way these brave soldiers, who had no choice in the matter, were treated when they returned. I was aware of Agent Orange, but knew very little about it. I certainly had no idea the impact it would have on my life.
After a disastrous first marriage, I married Don, a Vietnam veteran. Ours was a blended family, and very challenging. Between us we had four children ranging in ages from six to seventeen, one of whom had significant emotional issues that required extended psychiatric hospitalization. It was hard, but our love was strong, and we persevered. But the longer we were together, the more I recognized the problems Don suffered daily as a result of his military service.
I was aware of Agent Orange, but knew very little about it. I certainly had no idea the impact it would have on my life.
Don never talked about his time in Vietnam, so I know very little about what happened during those thirteen months he spent over there. He worked by day as a mechanic on helicopters, and manned a gun on those same helicopters at night. I saw the few photos he’d taken of his living area and of a cobra that was crossing the parade area.
We hadn’t been married very long when I learned never to wake Don up by physically touching him. He would immediately jump out of bed, his face contorted with fear and rage, ready to strike. As soon as he saw me, and realized where he was, relief swept over him. This behavior never changed.
He never struck me or hurt me in any way when he was awake, but nighttime was a different story. He thrashed about violently in his sleep, tossing and turning, throwing his arms and legs about. I always started the night in bed with him, but I finished most nights on the couch.
Over the years Don developed a serious drinking problem, an all-too-common symptom of depression and self-medication. We separated while he sought treatment and conquered its hold on his life.
The day came when all of our kids were out on their own and we were a couple alone for the first time. For one year we enjoyed life in a new way. We traveled some, and made plans. He was a partner in a law firm doing very well. We worked side by side in our very large vegetable garden in the summer, and huddled close in front of our wood-burning stove in the winter. It was the happiest time of my life.
Then, suddenly, my husband’s personality seemed to spiral out of control. He became erratic, more visibly angry in general, tired all the time. We would make plans to do something minor, such as going to dinner or a movie, but when it came time to go, he’d refuse, often followed by a tirade that didn’t make a lot of sense. I contacted the family counselor who had helped us through our son’s difficulties to try to figure out what was going on. Our therapist felt Don’s experiences in Vietnam were the catalyst of this new behavior, and Don agreed to start down the painful road to relieve this burden.
Except, he never got the chance. Within days of the conversation with the therapist, my husband lost his voice, a real concern since a trial attorney isn’t much good in court if he can’t speak. He immediately went to the doctor who told him it was just a virus, and that it would have to run its course. A few weeks later, when his voice hadn’t returned, he went back to the doctor, and was told the same thing again.
By this time there were other symptoms that, while subtle on their own, now took on more import. He had a cough that had gotten much worse, and he was increasingly tired – falling asleep even when he meant to be doing something else. He also appeared to be losing weight, while the scales showed his weight hadn’t changed. Another week went by with no return of his voice, and he felt so unwell that he didn’t go to work. In all our years together, he had never missed a day of work because of not feeling well.
They gave him six months to a year to live, but he only lasted four months. He was only 52.
This time I went with him to the doctor, and heard my husband admit he’d been coughing up blood. He looked at me sheepishly when he revealed this. Don knew I’d be furious that he had kept this from me, and that he hadn’t been back to see the doctor as soon as this symptom appeared. This time they took an x-ray. Things went downhill very quickly from there.
Over the next few weeks he was diagnosed with end-stage lung cancer. The malignancy had already entered the lymph nodes in his chest, and grown so large that they pressed on his vocal cords, causing the loss of his voice. Eventually the nodes completely blocked his esophagus, and he wasn’t even able to swallow water. All meds and nutrition went through a tube in his stomach or a catheter in his chest. They gave him six months to a year to live, but he only lasted four months. He died August 5, 2000. He was only 52.
About six months after his passing I was having lunch at the home of a friend whom I saw infrequently. Unbeknownst to me, her husband worked as a VA benefits administrator, helping VA claimants obtain veteran’s benefits. As I was discussing the turmoil of Don’s illness and death with my friend, he overheard our conversation. He told me that the VA had determined that lung cancer in Vietnam veterans could be caused by Agent Orange, and that I was eligible for a widow’s pension and medical benefits.
At first I was hesitant to apply. Don had been a light smoker for many years, though never before he was drafted. Then I read all the research I could find on Agent Orange, and my anger at this war again bubbled to the surface. I found that the spraying of Agent Orange had been at its peak in 1969. Don lived in this through the entire year of 1969, breathing this poison day after day. And since he never worked in a factory, and had no other risk factors, either in his life or his family, I had to agree with the VA. Agent Orange killed my husband, and forever changed my life.
If not for Agent Orange, my husband would still be alive, and we would still be living in our beloved homestead.
But it was only responsible for Don’s physical condition. Emotionally, he was wounded just as certainly as if a bullet had pierced his body. He was as much a casualty as those who had been killed or wounded during their tour – it just took him thirty painful years to die.
I had my own business, and together we had a “gentleman’s farm” in Michigan. When Don died, I did the best I could to continue, but the economy in Michigan was so terrible that I was forced to close my business and abandon my farm to foreclosure. With jobs few and far between, I ended up moving to another state, and am now grateful to have a good job. I’m also beyond grateful for the pension and medical care provided by the VA.
If not for Agent Orange, my husband would be alive, and even in the crippled economy of the last decade, we would still be living in our beloved homestead. He’s been gone for fifteen years, and I still miss him every day.
And I’m still angry.
I’m angry about our government’s pathetic efforts to care for the brave soldiers who returned from Vietnam. I’m angry that my husband was called names and hit with tomatoes when he returned to the States following his tour. I’m angry that it took Don weeks to stop hiding under the dining-room table if a car backfired.
I can only hope that some day the leaders of our country recognize the responsibility we have to our soldiers when we send them to war, and pray that those returning from their duty will heal quickly of both their physical and emotional injuries. And that no other spouse’s heart breaks as they watch their hero needlessly deteriorate and die.
Michele Dunckel is a writer as well as an executive assistant at Biogen, Early Stage Program Leadership. She lives with her daughter and granddaughter.