Casualties of war

By Steve Liewer / World-Herald staff writer

Sunday, June 5, 2016


Read more about Agent Orange

» Life after Agent Orange: For exposed veterans and their families, the battle continues


» ‘Nobody ever said anything about’ chemical he saw loaded on aircraft


» Former radar operator feels the effects of Agent Orange

» Vets advised: Don’t hesitate to seek rightful disability claim

» Daughter says problems began with ‘chemicals coming out of the sky’


» Lack of baseline data has hindered research


» Agent Orange research center has backing among many in Congress


» U.S. helping defuse Vietnam’s dioxin hot spots blamed on Agent Orange

Homecoming tonight after trip to D.C.

Five hundred Vietnam veterans from Nebraska were scheduled to be in Washington, D.C., today for a quick tour of the area’s patriotic sites, including the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery.
Traveling on three jets, the veterans will return home to Eppley Airfield’s South Terminal tonight between 9 and 10 o’clock to what organizers Bill and Evonne Williams hope will be a huge throng of flag-waving well-wishers. Hy-Vee Supermarkets is sponsoring the homecoming.
Called the Vietnam Combat Veterans Flight, the trip follows the model of previous Honor Flights that have ferried 2,100 World War II and Korean War veterans to Washington since 2008. Through their nonprofit organization, Patriotic Productions, the Williamses raised $450,000 from individual and corporate donors to cover the Vietnam flights.

Richard Noddings survived 18 months of combat in Vietnam, but he still considers himself a casualty of the war.
He uses a walker to navigate his rural home near Wilber, Nebraska, because of fibromyalgia that leaves the 64-year-old in constant pain that he relieves with acupuncture treatments. Nitroglycerin pills boost his failing heart, which has been damaged by a 15-year string of heart attacks.
Noddings said doctors have attributed his health problems to his wartime exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange, sprayed widely across rural areas of South Vietnam to kill jungle and crops.
In a project called Operation Ranch Hand, more than 19 million gallons of the stuff was sprayed from Air Force C-123 cargo planes and UH-1 Huey helicopters. Playing off the Smokey Bear slogan, crews adopted the flippant motto “Only you can prevent a forest.”
“We liked it because it killed the vegetation. It kept us alive,” said Dan Gannon, of Ankeny, Iowa, a platoon leader in Vietnam who now serves on the Iowa Commission of Veterans Affairs. “But what killed the vegetation is killing us.”
Agent Orange contained a toxic byproduct called dioxin, which was later linked to several types of cancers, heart disease, diabetes and
various neurological conditions.
As a result, the Vietnam War continues to claim the lives of thousands of service members beyond the 58,000-plus who died in combat. Noddings fully expects to be one of them.
“Eventually, realistically, Vietnam will kill me,” Noddings said. “It’s just taking its damn sweet time doing it.”

Life after Agent Orange: Richard Noddings

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Today he will be among 500 Vietnam veterans from Nebraska flying to Washington, D.C., as part of the Vietnam Combat Veterans Flight. Modeled on the earlier World War II and Korean War Honor Flights, the veterans and those accompanying them will tour the capital’s monuments.
More than 30 percent of the veterans said they are sick from illnesses linked to Agent Orange, said Bill Williams, co-organizer of the trip.
Noddings and the other veterans are among an estimated 2.6 million service members who are presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange — including everyone who set foot on South Vietnamese soil between 1962 and 1975.
Agent Orange was sprayed over at least 3 million acres of South Vietnam, at rates six to 25 times what manufacturers recommended.
“Because the material was to be used on the ‘enemy,’ none of us were overly concerned,” James Clary, an Air Force research scientist who worked on Operation Ranch Hand, would tell Congress years later. “We never considered a scenario in which our own personnel would become contaminated with the herbicide.”
Despite Clary’s statement, there’s now evidence that government scientists were concerned about the health impacts from chemical defoliants as early as the late 1960s, even as those serving in Vietnam were told the chemicals were perfectly safe. Ever resourceful, soldiers reclaimed empty barrels of Agent Orange to use as barbecues or as water tanks for their field showers.
“We practically swam in the crap,” said Bob Witt, 69, a Vietnam War helicopter pilot who now lives in Atlanta. “We had no idea.”

A letter and a drawing from Richard Nodding's grandson, Evan, hang on a cabinet at his home. MEGAN FARMER/THE WORLD-HERALD

A photograph of Richard Noddings after he graduated from basic training in 1969. MEGAN FARMER/THE WORLD-HERALD

Agent Orange was named for the orange stripe on the 55-gallon barrels in which the herbicide was stored before its use.

Michael William Craighead, 57, was a managing member of North Star Development Associates. He died April 27 of cholangiocarcinoma, a rare cancer of the bile ducts of the liver.

Early journalistic exposés tied Agent Orange to cancer and other diseases in the late 1970s, and a class-action lawsuit was filed in 1979 against the herbicide manufacturers. It was settled out of court in 1984 and resulted in the Agent Orange Settlement Fund, which disbursed nearly $200 million to veterans between 1988 and 1996.
Initially the Department of Veterans Affairs cited a lack of scientific evidence. For years that uncertainty gave the VA cover to deny disability benefits to most veterans who filed claims related to Agent Orange.
But in the 1980s, veterans groups — led by the Vietnam Veterans of America — pushed back with a campaign to boost research on Agent Orange. They also fought to get disability payments for those with diseases connected to defoliants.
The result: the Agent Orange Act of 1991. To collect benefits or receive medical treatment for certain diseases, a veteran need only prove that he or she served in Vietnam, not that his or her disease was directly caused by Agent Orange exposure.
The VA also offers Vietnam veterans free Agent Orange health exams that include a physical, their medical history and lab tests. VA doctors will inform the veteran if he or she needs any medical treatment and refer the veteran to the VA’s benefits administrators if the vet may be eligible for compensation.
As a result, the VA registry of veterans exposed to Agent Orange now includes more than 655,000 names, though it is considered far short of complete.
Locally, 3,258 Vietnam veterans in Nebraska are receiving disability payments for diseases linked to Agent Orange, according to figures from the VA Regional Office in Lincoln, and 692 spouses are receiving death benefits.
In Iowa, the numbers are 4,190 veterans on disability and 881 spouses receiving death benefits.
Those numbers, too, are almost certainly low. They omit veterans who died or were denied benefits before their disease was connected to Agent Orange, or those who died unmarried or whose spouses remarried before age 57 and are no longer eligible for benefits.
They don’t include, for example, Michael Craighead, an Army cryptanalyst who served in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969. He was stationed at Phu Bai, an area doused with 54,300 gallons of Agent Orange during the war.
After the war he was married for five years and had a daughter. He earned a degree in accounting and became a federal auditor in Topeka, Kansas. He met his second wife, Joni, there, and they were married in 1977. They moved to Omaha in 1991.
Craighead developed Type 2 diabetes a year later. It was recognized as a service-connected disability for Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange in 2001, but Joni Craighead — who is now a member of the Nebraska Legislature — said he never applied for benefits because he never made the connection to his wartime service.
“Had I known then what I know now, I would have fought for him to get the benefits he deserved,” she said.
In 2006 he was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, a cancer of the bile ducts that is rare in the United States but is widespread in Vietnam — and occurs frequently among Vietnam veterans. It’s believed to be connected to a parasite found in the water there, but based on her own research and conversations with his oncologist, Joni Craighead believes it was actually linked to Agent Orange.
“He took very good care of himself, but he died when he was 57,” she said. “He did everything he could to combat this. He wanted to see his daughter grow up.”

Four-ship formation on a defoliation spray run.

Over time, the list of diseases presumptively linked to Agent Orange has grown on the basis of new research reviewed by a committee of the National Academy of Medicine (formerly the Institute of Medicine). Its most recent report also found “limited or suggestive evidence” of a link to bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, hypertension and Parkinson’s-like conditions. The VA currently is reviewing whether to add any of them to the presumptive list.
“We want the policy to be rooted in the best science,” said Dr. Ralph Erickson, the VA’s chief consultant for post-deployment health services.
Veterans groups also have lobbied to make more veterans eligible for benefits. As a result, “brown water” Navy veterans who served on ships that entered Vietnam’s rivers and inland waterways now can receive benefits. So can Air Force veterans who flew C-123 aircraft even after the war because some Agent Orange residue was found to cling to the plane’s interior years later.
Current lobbying efforts are focused on adding “blue water” Navy veterans who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam. Former sailors believe they were exposed because the chemical drifted offshore with the wind or because it flowed into the ocean water that their ships’ onboard desalinization systems converted into drinking water.
The VA rejected that idea in February, but, after Navy veterans protested in Washington last month, the House of Representatives attached it as a rider to a military and VA construction bill. The full Congress has yet to act.
Veterans groups also have pushed for research into the possible effects of Agent Orange on the children and grandchildren of Vietnam veterans.
Richard Noddings doesn’t hold back on his opinions, and he has some thoughts about Agent Orange.
“There should have been more research done on the vets, more testing,” Noddings said. “Our government — they’re not the brightest nail in the pack.”

Richard Noddings, a Vietnam veteran, smokes a cigarette in the garage of his home in Wilber, Nebraska. MEGAN FARMER/THE WORLD-HERALD

A collection of pins and medals, including two bronze stars, that were awarded to Richard Noddings. MEGAN FARMER/THE WORLD-HERALD

Now a prematurely aged Army veteran, Noddings was once a buff young soldier who spent his 18th birthday on a flight to Vietnam and earned his sergeant’s bars within a year humping through the barren A Shau Valley on the Laotian frontier.
Parts of the valley were barren because of the U.S. military’s liberal use of herbicides such as Agent Orange during the Vietnam War to obliterate large swaths of jungle and farmland across rural South Vietnam.
“Army choppers would come out and spray the foliage so Charlie didn’t have so many places to hide,” Noddings said, using military slang for enemy guerrilla forces.
Over the course of the war, about 62,000 gallons were sprayed in the A Shau Valley, according to data gathered by the VVA. Another 34,000 gallons were used on and around Camp Evans and Camp Eagle, 101st Airborne Division bases near Hue where Noddings spent part of his 1½-year tour in Vietnam.
“I imagine part of me figured it wasn’t good that we were breathing it, that it was all over our skin and uniforms,” Noddings said. “Consciously, I didn’t think about it at all. I was trying to make sure my men didn’t die.”
He was wounded in combat and evacuated to the U.S. — a Purple Heart earned that he doesn’t want to discuss today.

During the Vietnam War, U.S. military aircraft sprayed Agent Orange over several million acres of jungle, forest and cropland in South Vietnam, and across the border in Laos and Cambodia. The largest concentrations were north of Saigon, and in the northern part of the country near the Demilitarized Zone.
Source: U.S. Department of the Army via Wikimedia Commons

“I zigged when I should have zagged,” is all Noddings will say about it now.
He remained in the Army until 1977, working in California at a testing facility for military helicopters. But he suffered — and still suffers — from post-traumatic stress and was medically discharged.
Noddings moved to Nebraska to care for his ailing father. He owned rental properties and ran a construction business in Lincoln for 30 years. He moved to Wilber with his fourth wife, Janet, an Army veteran, because he liked the people there.
He has had six heart surgeries since 2002 and wears an internal defibrillator to shock his heart into action if it stops. At first, he said, VA doctors said stress was causing his heart attacks. But a Lincoln cardiologist, not affiliated with the VA, suggested it was his wartime exposure to Agent Orange.
“As far as I’m concerned, I paid for this — a long time ago,” Noddings said. “I never expected to get this old anyway.”
His doctor didn’t try to stop him from going on today’s Vietnam Combat Veterans Flight.
“He said, ‘Take your walker, take your nitro,’?” Noddings said. “I’m going to be hurtin’ like a mother bear. Is that going to stop me? Hell, no!”
For Noddings and the other veterans, the highlight likely will be a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The names of all 58,307 service members killed in the war are etched on the shiny black-granite face of the memorial wall. Noddings knows some of those long-gone soldiers, and he expects to talk with them on what will most likely be his last visit to the Wall. He was there when it was dedicated in 1982.
“I’ll tell them I’ll probably be joining them pretty soon,” Noddings said. “Save me some beer.”

Contact the writer:
402-444-1186, steve.liewer@owh.com



Read more about Agent Orange

» Life after Agent Orange: For exposed veterans and their families, the battle continues


» ‘Nobody ever said anything about’ chemical he saw loaded on aircraft

» Former radar operator feels the effects of Agent Orange

» Vets advised: Don’t hesitate to seek rightful disability claim

» Daughter says problems began with ‘chemicals coming out of the sky’


» Lack of baseline data has hindered research


» Agent Orange research center has backing among many in Congress


» U.S. helping defuse Vietnam’s dioxin hot spots blamed on Agent Orange

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