EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Dan Barrett was through with the Vietnam War almost as soon as he managed his way past a taunting, spitting ant-war protester at the airport.
The war, however, wasn’t done with him.
The retired Evansville businessman has spent the better part of four decades trying to forget the horrors of combat only to find himself fighting new battles with cancer and bureaucracy.
Barrett has received chemotherapy every four weeks since being diagnosed with esophageal cancer in September 2009 — a cancer he believes originated with his almost daily exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.
“I can’t believe how patient Dan has been. I’ve learned a lot about dignity from him. It’s unbelievable,” said Evansville Vietnam veteran Keith Weisheit.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is paying to treat Barrett’s cancer — which has since spread into his lymphoid system and spine — and he receives monthly disability compensation for his war-related post-traumatic stress disorder.
Like many veterans, Barrett suppressed his feelings about the war for years and refused to acknowledge the emotional trauma it caused.
However, the VA has declined to recognize that Barrett’s cancer is linked to Agent Orange, denying him disability compensation for it.
Barrett, who lost his wife to breast cancer in November, is hopeful that recognition of his case might help other Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange whose illnesses have gone unrecognized by the VA.
The VA has a list of cancers and other health problems it presumes are diseases associated with Agent Orange or other herbicide exposure during military service. It even recognizes certain birth defects in children of Vietnam and Korea veterans (including spina bifida) are linked to it.
Veterans and their survivors may be eligible for benefits for those diseases if their military service qualifies them.
Barrett’s cancer is not on the list.
“It’s hard to believe they can say it causes stomach cancer (soft tissue sarcomas) and cancer of the larynx and trachea but not the esophagus,” Barrett said.
However, in 2007 the VA ruled that the esphogeal cancer death of another veteran, Thomas Schubert of Wisconsin, was related to Agent Orange exposure and it awarded his widow benefits.
In July 2009, just month’s before Barrett’s own diagnosis, former Democratic congressman Steve Kagen, then a Wisconsin representative, introduced a bill that would have added esphogeal cancer to the list of presumptive illnesses but it died in committee.
“In practical terms, veterans who served in Vietnam during the war and who have a “presumed” illness don’t have to prove an association between their illnesses and their military service. This “presumption” simplifies and speeds up the application process for benefits,” said Meagan Lutz, a VA public affairs specialist. “Presumptions of service connection exists because there are adverse health effects secondary to military service that may occur years after military service or there is no established casual relationship between an exposure during military service and later development of a medical condition.”
Just weeks after Barrett’s cancer diagnosis, the VA added three new conditions to its list of presumed illnesses connected to Agent Orange: B-cell leukemias, Parkinson’s disease and ischemic heart disease.
Something a VA physician told him six years earlier came back to Barrett. After learning where Barrett had served his tour of duty in Vietnam, the doctor had his blood tested for dioxin, a toxic component of the Agent Orange sprayed there. The test came back negative.
“He said, you might not have it now but it could raise its ugly head anytime,” Barrett said.
Although the VA has since denied his claim for a service connection and subsequent appeals, Barrett is convinced that Agent Orange has finally caught up to him.
It’s estimated that the United States military sprayed, often from the air, nearly 20 million gallons of Agent Orange on the country to destroy food crops that might feed enemy fighters and defoliate the thick jungle where guerrilla fighters hid for ambushes.
“The area of our operations was in the central highlands which had the second highest concentration of spray missions,” he said.
One of the chemicals used to make Agent Orange was later found to have been contaminated with a an extremely toxic dioxin compound.
“I never saw a vehicle spray it but I would see the dead foliage. When it rained we drank off the leaves for fresh water,” Barrett said.
Herbicide-laden rain swelled the streams in which Barrett and the men of the infantry squad he led filled their canteens, washed and occasionally even swam. Soldiers drank the only water available to wash down pills for preventing malaria, unaware they were exposing themselves to health threats graver than mosquito borne illness.
“I witnessed firsthand, up close and personal, what the herbicides in question did to jungle so thick as to be impenetrable,” Barrett wrote in letters he sent to legislators and government officials.
Barrett carried his M-16 rifle with grenade launcher on search and destroy missions in the mountain jungles of Vietnam’s Quang Ngai province, often for up to 90 days, interspersed with a few days rest at their base camp before going out again. He endured close calls in combat, monsoons and even starvation when his unit was stranded after running out of rations.
After a year in Vietnam, Barrett was ready get on with life and start a family with Pam, his high school sweetheart who he married shortly before joining the Army in 1969 after graduating from Bosse High.
“I wanted nothing to do with the Army, the VA, anything green,” he said.
He succeeded, for the most part, working his way into management and sales for General Electric, then as a vice president of operations/sales manager for Superior Electric before striking out on his own selling electric lighting. He became a father and a grandfather.
Immersion in daily life became, if not his therapy, at least an effective distraction from the memories of war.
“I worked a lot. I had a daughter and raised a family,” he said.
Then it began to change. On an outing with his grandson Barrett’s throat restricted to the point where he couldn’t even swallow his coffee. Food refused to stay down.
In letters Barrett submitted to the VA to support his cancer claim, Barrett’s oncologist wrote that he had no other potential risk factors for his disease other than Agent Orange exposure.
Lutz said the VA contracts with the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academy of Sciences, a nongovernmental organization, to scientifically review evidence on the long-term health effects of Agent Orange and other herbicides on Vietnam Veterans.
“IOM determines whether the evidence points to a statistically valid association that would suggest or establish a relationship between diseases studied and herbicide use,” Lutz said.
Barrett’s is appealing his claim denial for a third time. He has sought help from Indiana’s senators and congressman Larry Buschon, who wrote to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs on Barrett’s behalf asking for another review of the presumptive illnesses for Agent Orange. Nothing has happened so far.
He wrote to, and received no response from, former Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki — who resigned May 30 — and President Obama.