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Vietnam Veterans who died from Agent Orange effects to be memorialized Saturday

Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund’s Memory Plaque.

VIETNAM VETERANS MEMORIAL FUND

By MARTIN E. COMAS | Orlando Sentinel | Published: June 13, 2019

ORLANDO, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Just months after Robert Earl Hanson graduated from Colonial High School in 1966, the outgoing young man known as “Bobby” found himself thrust into the jungles of Vietnam as an Army private carrying a teletype machine and a rifle.

At the time, U.S. military planes were spraying millions of gallons of the defoliant Agent Orange across the Vietnamese countryside to expose enemy soldiers during the Vietnam War.

Hanson, like millions of other American and Vietnamese soldiers, was exposed to the dangerous herbicide. It led to Hanson’s malignant lung cancer decades later and ultimately caused his death on June 29, 2018, at the age of 69, according to doctors.

On Saturday, Hanson, who is from Winter Park, will be among 534 deceased veterans — including 13 from Florida — who will be inducted into the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund’s “In Memory Program” as part of an annual three-day ceremony held every June in Washington, D.C.

More than 400 of the honorees this year died as a result of Agent Orange exposure.

“It is a big, big honor for us,” said Hanson’s wife, Patricia, as tears welled in her eyes while sitting in the living room of her Winter Park home. “He was very patriotic. And he would always say: ‘I did what had to do for my country.’ ”

She and more than a dozen other of Hanson’s family members including the couple’s grown children plan to attend the event.

The nonprofit Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund also founded the Vietnam Veterans Memorial — commonly known as The Wall — which is inscribed with the names of more than 58,000 people who died in the Vietnam War or remain missing.

The In Memory Program, meanwhile, honors veterans who died years later as a result of the war and therefore wouldn’t qualify for their names to be inscribed on the wall.

“For many Vietnam veterans, coming home from Vietnam was just the beginning of a whole new fight,” said Jim Knotts, president and chief executive officer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. “Many never fully recovered, either physical or emotionally, from their experiences. As these veterans pass, it is our duty and solemn promise to welcome them home to the place that our nation has set aside to remember our Vietnam veterans.”

Since 1993, the fund’s In Memory Program has honored more than 4,000 Vietnam War veterans, whose lives ended early as a result of the war. About 90 percent of those honorees died from complications related to Agent Orange, said Heidi Zimmerman, vice president of communications for the fund.

Other honorees died as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide, cancer or other injuries.

"The Wall was built in 1982 and at that time no one knew that veterans were going to continue dying because of their service in Vietnam,” Zimmerman said. “So this is our way of honoring them.”

Photos and biographies of the veterans will be part of an online “In Memory Honor Roll.” The names also will be part of the mobile exhibit “The Wall That Heals.”

After serving 30 months in Vietnam, Hanson returned home to Orlando in 1970.

He rarely talked about serving in the jungles of southeast Asia, Patricia Hanson said. But he did remark a few times that Agent Orange “was sprayed all over” and that he felt it on the skin of his arms, she said.

“It was something very hard for him to talk about,” she said.

Bobby Hanson enrolled at Florida Technological University — later renamed the University of Central Florida — to study chemistry and started dating Patricia, whom he met at Colonial High years earlier.

The couple married in 1972. In 1976, Bobby Hanson decided to reenlist in the Army because it was a stable job. The young family with two children — Ronald and Kim — left Orlando to live on military bases in El Paso, Texas, and Germany.

Bobby Hanson retired from the Army in 1993 as a chief warrant officer. He later worked as a technical writer for Harris Corp., Lockheed Martin and defense contractors.

But the effects of being exposed to Agent Orange lingered.

In mid-2016, he came home from work and told his wife he wasn’t feel well and had body chills. With a 102-degree temperature, Patricia Hanson took her husband to Winter Park Memorial Hospital with fears it was just a bad flu.

But doctors diagnosed Bobby Hanson with lung cancer. They later determined in a report that the cancer was caused by exposure to Agent Orange.

“He kept saying: ‘I just have to take it day by day,’” Patricia Hanson said. “But he never blamed anyone.”

Agent Orange — named for the orange band around the storage barrels that held the defoliant — was used by the military from 1962 to 1975 and generally sprayed by Air Force cargo planes, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Ron Hanson, 51, of Tallahassee called it a “tremendous honor” that his father and other veterans are being honored — especially those who suffered from the ill effects from Agent Orange and PTSD — decades after they came home.

“The way I look at it is that the gun was fired in Vietnam 50 years ago, but it didn’t meet its mark until last year,” Ron Hanson said of his father’s death as a result of Agent Orange. “It was a highly toxic solution that they spread. And unfortunately they spread it on as many of their own soldiers as they did on the vegetation….But they just didn’t know at the time.”

Gerard Glenn Vanderhoof of The Villages, a Marine Corps veteran who died on Dec. 29, 2016, also will be honored at the event. Vanderhoof’s family couldn’t be reached for comment.

©2019 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

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