I first began writing this story with the title, “Veteran suffers from Agent Orange induced cancer, and from VA’s response.”
My friend, David Dowdell, served in Vietnam where he was exposed to Agent Orange. Over the years, he eventually developed cancer in his kidney. He had that treated, and after 15 years of remission, it showed up again in his spleen and elsewhere.
He is fighting that mightily with help from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, in Lebanon, New Hampshire and their extraordinary doctors and medical staff. He receives strong support from his wife, Bev, and from family and friends.
The point of the story is that when health problems like his develop, they happen years after the exposure and events that likely caused them. When a veteran seeks help from the Veterans Administration, not only must they navigate the administrative hurdles while they are sick, they encounter resistance to accepting the cause of the illness.
Dave’s doctor believes that exposure to Agent Orange may have caused his cancer in the kidney. That ailment eventually metastasized to other organs. His health problems escalated to life threatening.
It seems to me that the American thing to do in these situations is to give the benefit of the doubt to the patient. If the odds are that exposure to Agent Orange during his tour in Vietnam has something to do with his health problems today, let the system accept that and move aggressively to help him. It makes no sense to beat up patients and their families about the technical causes.
That should be true for all sick persons in America under a system that provides affordable quality healthcare for all citizens.
Dave and his wife are sharing their story with their Congressman. I want to share it with Examiner readers everywhere.
I asked Dave to answer some questions for us about the circumstances leading to his exposure to Agent Orange.
Here are Dave’s answers to my questions. Also in September, 2011 Dave was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes, mellitus which our Government/VA says it is presumptive Agent Orange caused his diabetes.
POLITICS EXAMINER: Dave, what was your military branch and rank at the time of exposure?
DOWDELL: I was in the Air Force and had the rank of Sergeant (E-4) during the majority of my year-long Vietnam tour.
POLITICS EXAMINER: When were you first exposed to Agent Orange?
DOWDELL: The Seventh Air Force authorized the use of the defoliant Agent Orange for ground spraying along the twenty-four mile perimeter of the airbase … unbeknownst to the majority of the guys in my unit … and when we patrolled the expansive perimeter, little did we know that we were exposed to the defoliant on a daily basis.
POLITICS EXAMINER: Where was it? What was the mission and your job?
DOWDELL: The location my unit was tasked to defend was Tan Son Nhut Air Base … also known as the Saigon International Airport, which was militarized during the early years of escalation of the Vietnam conflict.
My unit was the 377th Security Forces Squadron. We were commonly called the 377th Light Infantry Brigade … sort of the Air Force’s equivalent of an Army infantry unit.
Our squadron was tasked to provide both air base defense and military police responsibilities for the installation. Tan Son Nhut Air Base was a South Vietnamese facility so we defended the airbase working side-by-side with ARVN infantry and the Nationalist Police forces.
POLITICS EXAMINER: Was there any action taken by military medical personnel at the time as a result from your exposure?
DOWDELL: None whatsoever … in fact, the Air Force brass emphasized that the Agent Orange defoliant only killed vegetation, and it was harmless for troops exposed to the chemical agent.
POLITICS EXAMINER: What were the conditions like on the battlefield at the time?
DOWDELL: My tour with the 377th Security Forces Squadron was during the 1968 Tet Offensive and the 1968 Spring Offensive (commonly called the “mini-Tet Offensive”).
The airbase was subjected to a ground invasion by large units of North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong forces, and frequent shelling by Communist forces with rocket, mortar and recoilless rifle fire.
On 18 February 1968, the airbase was hit with approximately one hundred rounds of 122 mm rocket and 81 mm mortar fire … in a twenty minute barrage, resulting in the loss of American and VNAF aircraft and numerous WIA’s … including myself.
POLITICS EXAMINER: Were you exposed on more than one occasion?
I received orders for a TDY transfer to Vung Tau Airbase, after receiving treatment for shrapnel wounds from a 122 mm rocket. The airbase housed units from the Royal Australian Regiment (or RAR’s, as we called them) and the Number 9 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), which was an attack helicopter squadron.
There was also a United States Navy helicopter detachment assigned to Vung Tau Airbase. They were designated the “Seawolves,” and their primary mission were to provide UH-1D helicopter gunship support to elements of the Navy’s “brown water navy,” or the coastal riverine patrol assets assigned to the Mekong River Delta.
The “Seawolves” had a secondary mission of spraying the agent orange defoliant from low altitude passes by their ‘Huey’ helicopters, along the banks of the Mekong River.
A cluster of fifty-five gallon drums containing the defoliant was stored adjacent to their helicopters … these drums were painted a bright orange … thus, the origin of the defoliant nickname.
The residual spillage of the toxin was evident in and around the storage area, as well as on the helipads where the defoliant was hand pumped into the helicopter’s saddle tanks.
I recall sitting atop a drum of agent orange, on more than one occasion, after returning from perimeter patrol with RAAF airbase defense forces.
Another means of exposure to the defoliant were whenever USAF C-123 aircraft, assigned to “Operation Ranch Hand,” landed at Vung Tau Airbase.
These aircraft were tasked with spraying strategic locations where double or triple canopy vegetation concealed both VC and NVA troop movements, from the Cambodian border into the South Vietnamese jungle.
I recall when the parked C-123 aircraft were sitting on the airbase tarmac, there would be instances when the bleed off valves for the defoliants wing tanks would release the pressure by expelling a gaseous mist of the toxins out into the air.
You could see the mist descending downward onto the ground and circulating through our defensive positions and the nearby structures adjacent to the tarmac and active runway.
POLITICS EXAMINER: In the course of seeking diagnosis and treatment, did you tell your doctor about your exposure to Agent Orange?
DOWDELL: I discussed my exposure to Agent Orange as a causative factor for my renal cell carcinoma diagnoses. This was after I talked to a CDC Veterinarian involved in research on the frequency that Vietnam military working dogs were diagnosed with cancers of their kidneys and testicles.
This researcher told me that many of the necropsies conducted on military working dogs revealed cancerous tumors similar to what their handlers (and other troops assigned to the same units) were diagnosed with years after leaving the military.
He said both the DOD and the Pentagon have refused to provide him military records that would pair up the deceased military working dogs with their handlers, during the Vietnam Conflict.
Without such corroborating evidence he’s unable to acquire a sufficient number of cases to where he could author a paper showing evidence that the toxin has had similar effects on both handlers and their working dogs.
POLITICS EXAMINER: What did your urologist tell you?
He suggested making a case that the exposure to the toxins caused my renal cell carcinoma, in 1998, would be all but impossible to prove.
POLITICS EXAMINER: Did you report that to the Veterans Administration and Military Medical personnel?
DOWDELL: Yes. I filed a claim that the deadly toxin caused my kidney cancer.
POLITICS EXAMINER: What was their reaction?
It was denied since clear cell cancers were not on the list of approved diseases caused by a veteran’s exposure to Agent Orange.
POLITICS EXAMINER: What is your status with them today?
DOWDELL: I recently read an article on a blog dealing with Agent Orange exposure and saw that the Veteran’s Affairs has “hinted” that clear cell … or renal cell carcinomas are actually caused by exposure to the deadly toxin.
I haven’t talked directly with the VA about the article. I’m still recovering from the surgery and chemotherapy, and I don’t have the stamina to start dealing with the layers of obstacles and all the red tape the VA has shown to all veterans since the end of the Vietnam War … and beyond.
“Environmental Exposures: The Basics
updated November 28, 2012
Many veterans were exposed to environmental hazards during their military service. The effects of some of these hazards are more easily understood than others. If you were exposed to certain environmental hazards, you may be eligible for a free medical assessment from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). If you have injuries, diseases, or conditions that can be connected to your military service, you also might be eligible for VA disability compensation.”