'I came back the devil:' Vietnam vets open up about ill effects of Agent Orange
By JOANNE KIMBERLIN | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: December 16, 2016
NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Blue. White. Tan. Green. The colors of military uniforms thread communities like Hampton Roads.
A more sinister hue weaves through some of the region’s families:
At 68, Eddie Avery has worried eyes. He has one grandchild– and hopes he never has another.
His wife, Nora, pats his arm softly.
“We want it to stop with us,” she explains for him. “It needs to end here.”
The “us” is sitting at a conference table at The Virginian-Pilot: Eddie and Nora Avery, their eldest son, Jerry, and his son, Josh.
Eddie’s own health is so poor these days he rarely leaves his house in tiny Cove City, N.C., but he’s packed up the family and made the 3-hour drive to Norfolk to talk about “it” – Agent Orange.
He opens a scrapbook from his year in Vietnam. The photos show a strapping Seabee working bare-chested in the heat. Confident. Cocky. No clue that the defoliant used to kill the jungle outside the wire might be worming its way into his cells.
Or that it could lie in wait to hurt the children – even the grandchildren – he’d one day have.
There’s no absolute proof it did. But statistics have long shown that a higher-than-normal percentage of Vietnam veterans like Eddie have particular health problems.
Now, a year-long investigation by ProPublica and The Pilot reveals new evidence suggesting their offspring might, too.
The investigation examined data from the Department of Veterans Affairs that has never before been analyzed.
Why would only some vets and their offspring be affected and not others? There hasn't been enough research to answer that question.
But the Averys believe the color orange runs like poison through their family's veins. Eddie’s worried look developed shortly after his war hitch. He and Nora conceived Jerry two months after his return from Vietnam in 1970. No babies in their families had ever emerged with birth defects, but here was Jerry, with deformed fingers and toes, a cleft lip and palate and a host of other problems.
Jerry’s first surgery – number one of more than 40 – took place at Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk when he was 4 months old.
“We got to know CHKD very well,” Nora says.
Their second child, Chris, born four years later, was normal. Luck of the draw? They have no idea.
They only know that Jerry’s life has been a struggle. Speech difficulties. Hearing aid at age 7. Kids making fun of his malformed or missing fingers. To cope, he became the class clown.
Now 45, he picks up a pen and demonstrates a crowd-pleaser from his school days, drawing a face on one of his oddly shaped digits. “Looks like a dinosaur, right?” he says, laughing. “The kids on the bus liked that one.”
After school, Jerry went into public service – firefighter, sheriff’s deputy – somehow managing to pass the required physicals. His own son was born in 1997.
Josh, now 19 and a volunteer firefighter, sits next to his father at the conference table. His bloodshot eyes look irritated. No tear ducts, like Jerry. His kidneys are so troubled doctors are stunned they still work. He speaks with a slight lisp – cleft palate, like Jerry. He takes off a shoe, wiggling fused toes.
“A flipper,” he says. “But man, can I swim.”
A joker, like Jerry.
After Josh’s birth, the Averys underwent genetic testing at Duke University. Eddie and Nora’s genes showed no abnormalities.
“Jerry is the first to have the flawed gene,” Nora says. “Josh has it, too. They gave us no explanation. They didn’t have one.”
Chris, the Averys’ second son, tested normal, but he's decided not to have children – just in case.
“We hope Josh doesn’t either,” Nora says.
In Vietnam, where children come faster, orphanages house fourth-generation sufferers.
Medical bills gutted the Averys' finances decades ago. Life revolves around doctor visits.
“It makes me feel terrible,” Eddie says, barely choking out the words as Nora promptly hands him a tissue. She’s learned to keep them at hand.
Jerry looks at Josh: “I love my son with all my heart, but if I’d known, I would have never chosen to put him through all this. But he’ll have to search his own heart about having kids. He’s the spearhead of the Agent Orange story now.”
In a rambling house off Chesapeake’s Fentress Road, an 8-year-old boy is two stories up in an open stairwell, scooting down the banister.
His mother, Lindsey Harris, isn’t worried. Kids like Owen are unstoppable daredevils – not to mention good climbers.
In this house, orange is the color of chaos. And cancer. Lindsey, the middle daughter of a Vietnam vet, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma on her last day of seventh grade at Lynnhaven Middle School.
”My sisters? No problems. I was the bubble child.”
Non-Hodgkins lymphoma typically strikes older men and is often associated with chemical exposure. Vietnam vets with the disease can qualify for Agent Orange compensation.
“It’s so rare in kids,” Lindsey says, “that CHKD had to develop protocols for treating me.”
After a punishing summer of chemotherapy, she found herself bald at age 12 – “It’s a good thing I have a nice, round head” – but with the disease in remission.
She went on to law school, married and had two children. Both suffer from allergies and asthma, but her 6-year-old girl seems otherwise fine.
Owen has autism and sensory processing disorders – conditions linked by some researchers to genetic chemical exposure.
He takes special education classes and attends occupational therapy every Thursday. It helps, but his emotions remain unpredictable. Will he accept a hug or lash out? Everyday tasks, like getting dressed, are an ordeal. He can’t bear the feel of certain fabrics. A too-tight cuff is enough to send him bouncing off the walls.
“He ties his shoes over and over – dozens of times – to make sure they’re just right,” his mother says.
It’s not easy for Lindsey, now 35, to air such things in public. They’re hard enough to discuss at home. She and her father both have their suspicions about Agent Orange, but he’s one of those vets who never truly left Vietnam.
Sitting next to his daughter, Terry Thomas, 68, explains that he did two years in the war zone, a Marine working with the CIA on covert operations he still won’t discuss. A few quiet words are pretty much all he’ll share.
“Before Vietnam, I was planning to go into the ministry. But I came back the devil.”
Lindsey adds: “Our family went through a lot with his PTSD, and he already feels guilty enough about that. I don’t want to keep bringing up Agent Orange.”
Guilt is a theme that echoes through these families. No amount of reasoning seems to quell it.
“My parents had millions in chemo debt,” Lindsey says, “and now I feel guilty that I’ve passed something on. We don’t know for sure if any of it’s connected to Agent Orange, but I’d sure like to be able to rule it out.”
She worries about her son’s future and about being able to afford his treatments. She works in retail risk management but wonders what would happen if she lost her job.
“I pay for Owen’s therapy with my credit card, but what if I couldn’t anymore?”
Drive toward Suffolk, where cotton blown from farm trucks dots the shoulders like dandelion fluff.
Reggie and Deborah Russell live a few miles off the main road, not far from the graveyard where their youngest son is buried. A wind chime behind their modular home clanks mournfully.
Orange is the color of loss and resentment here.
Reggie served 20 years in the Army, some of it as a Green Beret. In Vietnam, he was a field radio mechanic and operator in areas where Agent Orange had turned vegetation crispy brown and soldiers used empty defoliant barrels as BBQ grills.
He has a deep, booming voice and shoulders still thick with muscle, despite diabetes, neuropathy and other ailments associated with exposure to Agent Orange.
For decades, Reggie rarely spoke about the war. That changed on Aug. 5, 2012, when Deborah found Roland, their youngest, dead in his bed – a heart attack at age 32.
Clutching a napkin in his big hands, Reggie wipes the fog from his glasses, embarrassed he’s crying.
“I started wondering what’s the matter with all my children. Why did so many die?”
The first three never drew a breath. One son was born dead. Two girls were lost to miscarriages.
The first to survive, Reggie Jr., quickly became a psychological nightmare. Aggressive. Suicidal. Always in trouble at school and with the law.
In the military, trouble at home translates into trouble at work. “I got calls from the company commander,” Reggie says, “and I’m sure it cost me promotions. They figure if you can’t keep your family in line, you can’t lead.”
Roland, five years younger, was the family’s light. Born with a hole in his heart – doctors said it didn’t require treatment – Roland was laid back, even-tempered. While his older brother ended up in prison for life for murdering a relative in North Carolina, Roland joined the Marines, then returned to Hampton Roads to work as an electrician.
He and his girlfriend had a daughter. After they separated, he remained devoted to his little girl.
In the Russell home, Sundays usually include church. Deborah assumed Roland had merely overslept when she went in to wake him for services.
“I heard her scream,” Reggie says. “That’s about all I remember.”
Somewhere in the long, dark tunnel of grief, Reggie began paying attention to speculation that Agent Orange might jump through the generations.
“I started going to every meeting or forum within driving distance,” he says. “I’ve found a lot of people wearing the same shoes I do. They’ve lost sons and daughters, and now they’re talking about their grandchildren, too.”
The Russells’ sole surviving son was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He's 42. They visit him in prison once a week.
“We still love him no matter what he did,” Reggie says. “When he was growing up, I didn’t know at least part of his problem was Agent Orange cooking in him. I think the military knew though – or at least the VA did. And they didn’t do anything to help us.”
"I always thought my sons would be burying me," he says. "Instead, I’m burying them."
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