Those of us who served in Vietnam are acquainted with a pesticide called, innocently enough, Agent Orange. Even these many years later, some former soldiers, Marines and airmen are battling residual effects of that poison introduced to them by their own government. Even some blue water Navy personnel were exposed to it, although only recently has Congress and the Veteran’s Administration admitted the same.
I’d even go so far as to stipulate that any of us who served in that country know of fellow warriors who have died from the effects of Agent Orange exposure. Some of those deaths were long and agonizing – in fact, most of them were. I watched as my best friend turned from a vibrant, healthy 40-something to an aged old man, withered and eaten with pain, seemingly overnight, before he died. Agent Orange, and similarly Agent Blue, were code names for defoliants dropped into the jungle canopy to deforest the terrain and enable spotters to find “Charlie.” There was a plethora of others. My generation was the beneficiary of war through chemistry.
Those defoliants were also highly toxic to any life form that came into contact with them. Whether contact made by drinking the water or merely showering in it. Contact from watching as clouds of the poisonous crap spread across the sky and rained down on all life forms. Contact made while on patrol by wading or swimming across canals and rivers whose waters floated oily skims of the crap down river or just stayed poised in the paddies to contaminate whatever passed by. Even more insidious, contact made as you ate local foods in the mess hall, watered with contaminated water, washed and prepared with contaminated water and washed down into G.I. stomachs by contaminated water. It wasn’t like you had a choice.
So, all these years later, what’s new? Well, for a start, many former G.I.s are still dying agonizing deaths from the lingering effects of that evil. Like your worst nightmare, that crap can leave effects that only surface years later in the form of allergies, cancers and various diseases. Some of the more subtle, residual effects, like reproductive problems, can even be inherited by your children and perhaps even their kids. Even so, many newer deaths among younger veterans are appearing and many of them bear an eerie resemblance to the Agent Orange screwup.
I read recently that now there’s an organization, formed in 1994 (who knew?) to help military spouses and children of veterans who die from the effects of service-related chemical exposure, as opposed to those organizations that only help if the veteran is shot, injured in an explosion , or another active, combat injury, including suicide from the effects of PTSD. It’s called TAPS, which stands for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. But I don’t know if the organization’s mission extends as far back as Vietnam or not.
In the last five years, TAPS has reported a 51% increase in the numbers of families that have lost a family member, a former service member, who died due to a connected illness or a cancer. It’s estimated that this year, 2020, the top killer driving military families to join TAPS won’t be suicide, it will be deaths from cancers and other illnesses. But just like the toxic defoliants used in Vietnam, it’s not unusual anymore to see tumors, some of them extremely rare types, in younger service members and veterans.
Unfortunately, for now, much of our knowledge about these deaths is mostly anecdotal. Stories passed from one spouse to another or one family to another and by veterans in online forums and private support groups. Primarily because the various databases run by the VA or the Defense Department responsible for tracking cancer-related entries for health care are grossly unwieldy and also inaccessible for compiling trends.
Granted, there are also government registries where service members can self-report. But accessing holistic, specific information on what individual units may have been exposed to, what illnesses their members have suffered from and are presently suffering from and relating those illnesses to former or present military service is difficult.
My point is Memorial Day is not just about those brave warriors who fell in the fighting or succumbed to their wounds at a later date. My point is that there are many ways to die in a military confrontation or while in service and, while being dead from a cancer that developed because someone showered using contaminated water isn’t as heroic-sounding as throwing oneself on a live grenade, the warriors are still dead due to service for their country.
The bitch of it all is that this warrior and all the rest who suffered the effects of chemical disease and death didn’t even qualify for the Purple Heart. And their VA benefits really suck. And while many understand and respect the sacrifices made by our military members serving our country and enabling the average citizen to continue with their Big Macs, beers and football games, most of the population neither knows much about those sacrifices nor really cares. Especially the younger generation and those liberals who think it’s inconvenient to stand for the National Anthem.