Agent Orange: Widows of Veterans Begin
First Appeared in the Long Beach Press Telegram on Sunday, October 31, 1999
by Tom Hennessy
Karen Olszewski can tell her husband's story in fewer than 20 words: "Bob was killed in Vietnam," she says, "but he died in Long Beach in 1996."
Genevieve Douglass has a similar story about her husband, also named Bob. He too was "killed" in Vietnam, but died in Long Beach last February.
The explanation behind those cryptic lines is this: Both men died of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a form of cancer related to exposure to Agent Orange, a trademark defoliant of the Vietnam War. Olszewski was 47; Douglass, 49. Neither realized until near the end that their illnesses traced to Vietnam.
"If Bob had known what to look for or even that there was something he needed to look for, he may well be alive today," says Olzewski.
The women say America has yet to realize the staggering price of its involvement in the Vietnam War. "Fifty-eight thousand Americans died in Vietnam," Douglass notes, "but 250,000 Vietnam veterans have died since the war from war-related causes." These have ranged, she says, from cancer to suicide.
On a Father's Day visit to her husband's grave at the Riverside National Military Cemetery, Douglass counted 20 graves in his row. Eight were for Vietnam Veterans. "I thought, 'Oh, my God, which cancers did they have? Did they know it was related to Vietnam?'"
Fighting for Others
After meeting recently and discovering their terrible common bond, Olszewski and Douglass launched what they hope will be a nationwide effort to alert Vietnam vets who may be ill without realizing why and who, perhaps, can still be cured.
They have founded the Agent Orange Widows Awareness Coalition.
The women, and four others who say they are Agent Orange Widows, will appear Saturday in Long Beach's third annual Veterans Day parade. The will ride in a car with an AOWAC banner and will distribute literature along the parade route in North Long Beach.
The contingent will include the organization's first recruited member, Dixie Miler, a Long Beach woman who says her husband, Mike, was initially diagnosed as having psychiatric problems. Because of this, she convinced him to go to a psychiatric hospital.
"The morning after he was admitted, a doctor called and told me to come get him and take him to the hospital, that he was very ill." Miller says the doctor had taken a chest X-ray, the first Mike had been given in two years.
"Within a week, he was diagnosed with cancer. They said it was every major organ. They gave him less than a month to live. He came home, had a heart attack within a week, went back to the hospital and died three days later. He was 45."
Miller's story, says the women, reflects the fact that doctors often fail to consider that some patients may have illnesses contracted from Agent Orange during the war. Indeed, the patients themselves may not realize they were exposed to Agent Orange.
"My Bob served as a cook at a base camp for 14 months," says Douglass. "He was not in the jungle. The area was heavily sprayed before he got there. That's why there was no jungle."
The AOWAC women say they do not know yet how, if at all, their husband's illnesses will affect their families' future generations.
Defining the Mission
Douglass says AOWAC's principal aims are threefold:
1) Pressure the government to find Vietnam Vets and notify them of
potential health risks to them and their children. "The Department of Veterans
Affairs has granted 100 percent disability rating status to 11 diseases since
1990 ... (Officials) should ... send out a report letter and an Agent Orange
2) Spread the word that those who served in Vietnam for a lengthy amount of time from 1962 to 1971 (the Agent Orange period) could be at risk. Navy veterans, says Douglass, may have been adversely affected through shipments of chemicals and leakage.
3) Educate medical practitioners, especially oncologists, about problems associated with Vietnam vets. "They need to be thoroughly informed of the studies and research being conducted on behalf of veterans." Non-government physicians, she says, must learn to ask patients if they served in Vietnam.
Says Douglass, "Our oncologist was stumped when Bob did not respond to treatment... (The oncologist) was looking forward to the opinion of the Veterans Affairs oncologist in his review of Bob's case. After waiting six weeks to get into the V.A., the V.A. oncologist suggested a new treatment called Rituxin. But the wait was too long, and it was too late with the amount of disease in his body."
Olszewski says veterans who find they have a problem should "register at their local V.A. medical center and apply for the benefits they deserve, even if they subsequently donate the money to other Vietnam veterans groups."
This is not to suggest that every person who served in Vietnam during the critical Agent Orange period is ill or will become ill. Yet, so many Vietnam vets now appear to be dying before their time, the woman say, that there is a movement afoot to add a plaque or even a second wall to the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C. Legislation to that effect is expected to be introduced next week by Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Simi Valley.
The AOWAC also hopes to establish a National Veteran Widows Day. It notes that some states already plan to issue appropriate proclamation for widows on June 28, 2000.
For further information, AOWAC can be reached at (562) 421-4640.
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