Veterans Day for the Living of a Previous Failed War:
That's a photo of Nick Smartt, who was "a rifleman with Company B, 12th Cavalry/Airborne/Air Mobile, 1st Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division, during the Vietnam War. His job was to carry an M79 grenade launcher into firefights." The picture was taken during the Tet Offensive in 1968 and published in Life magazine. Smartt usually goes to DC for Veterans Day, but he won't this year because of post-traumatic stress disorder. He still has nightmares of the war, "especially the night when he was wounded by a mortar round that killed two comrades and he was left to fight alone all night until he was rescued in an early morning airlift." Imagine that: the blown-up bodies of your fellow soldiers as your only companions as you try to survive in the dark under enemy fire.
Decorated multiple times, Smartt also is being hindered this year by physical disabilities he says were caused by being sprayed with the jungle defoliant Agent Orange. Smartt may be getting further help. Last month, the Department of Veterans Affairs, led by former General Eric Shinseki, changed its policy on diseases related to Agent Orange: "Secretary Shinseki decided to establish service-connection for Vietnam Veterans with B cell leukemias, such as hairy cell leukemia; Parkinson’s disease; and ischemic heart disease. This is based on an independent study by the Institute of Medicine showing an association with exposure to Agent Orange. Vietnam veterans with these diseases may be eligible for disability compensation and health care benefits."
In other words, Vietnam vets with Parkinson's, like Jim Graham, can finally, at long last, get VA assistance with their debilitating illness. Graham, by the way, served from 1968-1972 in Vietnam as a Navy jet mechanic, part of the time on an aircraft carrier, part of the time at Da Nang military base, where Agent Orange was kept. Graham said he'd see the chemical in the ditches around the base. Kids were born with birth defects in the towns near the base. Many vets exposed to the dioxin byproduct who have cancer, like Mike Forgach of Hartford, have gotten VA assistance. It took years of research and lobbying to finally get the VA to extend benefits to Parkinson's sufferers who were exposed to Agent Orange.
Today, Toledo, in Reno, orange balloons will be released, as they have on other days, to recognize those afflicted by the herbicide. It is another solemn way to remember the date, less celebratory, but more in touch with reality.
See, after four years of petitions and appeals, last week, James Cripps of Tennessee became the first veteran to get the VA to grant benefits to someone exposed to Agent Orange at a base in the U.S. Meanwhile, in Indiana, Robert Kwak, with his doctors on his side, is desperately trying to convince the VA that his quickly progressing cancer was caused by the one month he spent at Danang.
If, after four decades, we are still wrestling with what veterans of a failed war deserve, we will not live to see a resolution for the vets of this one.