When he was a soldier fighting in Vietnam in 1968, Robert Schmid of Leverett didn’t think much about the planes overhead spraying herbicide to flush out enemy troops hiding in the jungle foliage. His focus was on the artillery raining down around him.
“There is so much activity, that was just another thing happening,” he said. “I now realize what it was.”
It was Agent Orange, a blend of chemicals including dioxin, which scientists have linked to serious health problems in those who have been exposed to it. According to the Environmental Protection Agency this chemical can cause cancer, disrupt the immune system and interfere with hormones.
During the war, the U.S. military sprayed close to 11 million gallons of Agent Orange in Vietnam.
Today, Schmid, 72, who suffered a heart attack a year and a half ago, has coronary artery disease that he attributes to his time in Vietnam.
“It surprised the hell out of me,” he said when he got his diagnosis two years ago. He had no family history of heart disease, didn’t smoke and got plenty of exercise by working on construction as a private contractor.
But this type of heart disease – which thickens and narrows the arteries supplying blood to the heart – is one of the conditions the federal government has agreed can be connected to Agent Orange exposure and Schmid is now receiving $300 every month from the government on top of payments he receives to compensate him for PTSD. Long list of ailments
There are dozens of conditions on the government’s list including Parkinson’s, testicular cancer, hypothyroidism and type II diabetes.
Thanks to the Agent Orange Act of 1991 passed by Congress, if a veteran spent even one day on the ground in Vietnam between Jan. 9, 1962 and May 7, 1975, he or she may be eligible for benefits related to Agent Orange-related illnesses. Some 3 million men and women served the U.S. military in Southeast Asia, and no one is sure exactly how many were exposed to the herbicide, according to Vietnam Veterans of America.
Funds are distributed depending on the severity of a veteran’s illness. For instance, someone with a controlled case of diabetes might receive no money, but a veteran who loses mobility due to nerve damage caused by diabetes could get about $3,000 per month, which is at the top of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ range for disability payments, said Timothy Niejadlik, the director of the Upper Pioneer Valley Veterans’ Services District in Greenfield. Benefits also are calculated according to a veteran’s dependents.
When a veteran dies, his or her spouse will continue to recieve the money.
Niejadlik says many people have no idea these benefits are available to them.
“A lot of these diseases are equated to age, so they’re just thinking that it’s part of their natural aging process,” he said in a recent interview.
That’s why he and others are trying to get the word out.
The Upper Pioneer Valley Veterans’ Services, a resource center on Main Street in Greenfield, will hold a town hall meeting open to all veterans throughout New England Saturday from noon to 4 p.m. at Greenfield Community College. There will be speakers, free health screenings and help determining eligibility to file a claim. To apply for benefits, veterans can fill out an application on the VA’s website and must submit supporting evidence from their doctors.
“There are a lot of vets who don’t take advantage – either they don’t know about it or they are shy about asking for it – and I was like that, too,” said Schmid. “I finally did go to the VA and they have given me alot of help and I am grateful for it.”Life-threatening illness
Another Vietnam veteran John “Rob” Riggan, 73, of Buckland, who was diagnosed five years ago with prostate cancer, never had made the connection to his military service until he saw the Upper Pioneer Valley Veterans’ Services District flier on the wall at the post office in Shelburne Falls.
“It is a surprise,” he said. “It was nothing that I expected.” Riggan, who has already completed radiation treatments at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield and is in remission, says he had applied for benefits and is waiting to see whether he will be approved.
Other people like Air Force veteran Verne Sund, 68, remember Agent Orange well. The substance isn’t orange, as it names implies, but a clear liquid, he says. It got its name from the large barrels that contained it, which each had a big orange stripe on it. Sund’s job in 1971 was to load those barrels into planes, and as he did, he says, the contents would often leak onto his arms.
He had no gloves, no protective gear.
But after he left Vietnam, Sund says, he mostly enjoyed good health for nearly 40 years. Eight years ago, however, that seemed to change overnight.
He was dining with his wife at Arby’s in Chicopee when suddenly he couldn’t swallow.
“My throat was just seized up,” he said.
A CAT scan revealed a cancerous tumor the size of a golf ball in his esophagus. He received radiation treatments four days a week for months and couldn’t eat any solid food until he was finally able to have surgery.
The surgeon removed his entire esophagus — the organ that carries food from the throat to the stomach — and rebuilt it using tissue from his stomach.
He says it took five years for the VA to approve his claim which kept getting either denied or lost. Finally, with a lawyer’s help, he now receives a little more than $3,000 every month from the government.
Since cases sometimes get backed up at the VA, some veterans find that it can take a long time to get a response, said Niejadlik, but they should be persistent.
“Even if the veterans have passed, even the spouse should come in because they could get a nugget,” he said.
Sund, a retired Air Force staff sergeant, says the money helps him pay for his bills and has improved his quality of life, but it can’t make up for what he has been through.
“It will never be enough because I could have died,” he said.
He does take comfort in knowing that if he passes away before his wife, she will continue to get the payments.
Like Riggan’s, Sund’s cancer is in remission. Both will have to get checkups every few months for the rest of their lives, they say.
“They do their best to kill cancer,” Riggan said, “but they can’t guarantee anything. Once you’ve got cancer in your body, it just takes one cell.”
Schmid has to take heart medication every day and has sought the help of a therapist to deal with depression and anxiety.
“It changes your life,” Riggan said, but, “You learn to live with it.”
The Agent Orange event at Greenfield Community College runs from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday. For more information call Timothy Niejadlik at 772-1571 or Christopher Demars at 775-1825.
Lisa Spear can be reached at email@example.com.