Conn. veteran hopes to build a memorial to Agent Orange victims
By MICHELLE FRANCE | Journal Inquirer, Manchester, Conn. | Published: October 13, 2020
ANDOVER, Conn. (Tribune News Service) — When Gerry Wright was a young man serving in the Army in Vietnam, he sprayed Agent Orange from a tanker truck onto the vegetation where the enemy could hide — and onto himself.
“I didn’t know what it was,” he said, during a recent interview. “No hat, no shirt, no gloves ... I just remember getting a blast back and burning my nose.”
Agent Orange was used extensively during the Vietnam War to clear vegetation that could be used as cover.
“At the time it was great,” he said.
It wasn’t until years later that he learned how exposure to the chemical would affect him and thousands of others — too late, in some cases, to qualify for benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“We’ve been fighting this for 55 years,” Wright said during the interview at Veterans Monument Park, where he hopes to erect a monument to those affected by Agent Orange, including veterans who’ve died and those who’ve survived with related health conditions, as well as their families and friends.
Wright pointed around him at the forest and heavy brush that stand well above his head around the memorial park.
“Within three days, all that right there would be twigs,” if sprayed with Agent Orange, he said.
Wright said he was asked to spray roughly every two months during his 18 months in the country.
The herbicide was also dropped from planes over the jungles, Wright said, sometimes landing in bodies of water, and when it rained, the chemical washed into rivers and basins.
“We were scooping this water up, taking it back to our compounds. Drinking it — showering in it the whole time,” he said.
Wright began having symptoms from his exposure to the chemicals, from severe rashes to blisters the same year. In 1973, he went into cardiac arrest before finding out he had heart disease and other ailments from the chemical exposure.
Over the years, Wright has advocated at the state’s and nation’s capitals for better medical coverage for veterans from the Department of Veterans Affairs. He was a guest of Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., at the 2018 State of the Union address for his work advocating for veterans exposed to Agent Orange.
Agent Orange is linked to several types of diseases, including various cancers; however, VA benefits have limitations on coverage of some that allow benefits only if the person affected files within one year of exposure to the chemical.
“But they didn’t tell us for eight years,” Wright said.
Wright has raised awareness for the cause by riding his motorcycle around the country with the words “Sprayed and Betrayed” and “I was killed in Vietnam. I just haven’t died yet,” sprawled across his bike.
To date, he has driven more than 22,000 miles and collected nearly 7,200 signatures on a petition supporting legislation to remove the end dates on treatments.
“We are trying so hard to keep it in the limelight to let people know that we’re still out there fighting for this,” he said.
Now, Wright wants to honor veterans exposed to Agent Orange right in Andover.
Standing on the green at the corner of routes 6 and 316, Wright points to an outline of white spray paint in the grass where he envisions an Agent Orange monument being placed that would honor those lives.
“Over 250,000 vehicles a week will see it and be a reminder of what our government did to us and is still doing to our veterans,” Wright said.
Wright is trying to raise $25,000 for a monument at Veterans Monument Park. So far, he’s raised about $8,000 by taking to social media and distributing flyers to local businesses.
The monument will be made by Nolan’s Hamden Monument Co., whose artist etches everything freehanded with diamond pens, according to Wright, who is also working with a sketch artist with the Coventry Police Department to design the back of the monument.
Should all go as planned the monument will be unveiled in late spring/early summer 2021.
“This monument is dedicated to every veteran, every family member, and anybody that was poisoned by our government by a dioxin called Agent Orange … This reminder of this monument is for future generations not to make the same mistake that our government did in 1961,” Wright said.
For information, visit: www.facebook.com/Sprayed-Betrayed-AO-406812189768330
©2020 Journal Inquirer, Manchester, Conn.
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