When I started working on this article, I honestly thought I’d be writing about something else. I’d been contacted by Tracee Beebe, a filmmaker who was working on a documentary about Vietnam veterans, and she told me that they were being denied benefits from the VA because their military records didn’t reflect their service accurately. I was intrigued, and I pitched my editor the story. At the same time, my father had just been awarded disability compensation by the VA for exposure to Agent Orange, something that he’d been fighting for since he returned home, and I had pitched another story about that issue. I even thought I might interview my dad, make him tell me all the stories I’ve never heard, and all the ones I have that I want to hear again.
Then I started doing my interviews for this piece. It turned out that all the vets I was in touch with were trying to get benefits for exposure to Agent Orange, and all of them were being denied because they didn’t have “boots on the ground.” The story had changed.
My dad helped me out with a lot of the research as I worked on the story, and he sent me every scrap of paper and internet link he had that had some useful information. But because he’d (finally) been given a disability rating, he was no longer part of my Agent Orange story. And, actually, I was glad. Not because I didn’t want to interview him or hear his stories. We talk every week, multiple times, and I love hearing his stories. No, I was glad he was out of the story because of how hard it was to talk to the men who hadn’t gotten a rating and weren’t receiving benefits. Some of them cried when we spoke. Sometimes, I cried after I hung up. One man who’d agreed to an interview died before we could actually talk. That was tough. And all of them sounded a lot like my dad.
Tracee had started her documentary because of her father’s experience with the VA and Agent Orange, and when she and I spoke, it was like we were talking about the same person. The way she described her father—his attitude, the things he said, the way he thought about his service, the worries he had—sounded exactly like my dad. All of the men, really, were similar to my father. Maybe it’s just that they all come from the same generation, or maybe because they all fought the same wars, literally and figuratively. Whatever it was, it was like talking to and about my dad, all day, every day, while I worked on this. Except that my dad wasn’t sick like they were. And my dad wasn’t still waiting for someone to admit that something had happened to him and he deserved to be compensated. My dad, unlike some of the men I spoke to, was doing better than ever.
I know that there are so many more issues out there, and with wounded troops still coming home from Afghanistan, and the VA still mired in scandal, Agent Orange seems like a minor, far-away issue. But it’s still something that so many men (and women) are battling. And Agent Orange doesn’t only affect the veterans who were exposed, but their children and grandchildren. And while the number of people affected dwindles every day, as the older generations die off, it doesn’t make the issue go away. If we’re still fighting to get vets taken care of more than four decades after the Vietnam War, how long will this newest generation of vets have to fight to get the care they deserve?
While we wait for that answer, I’d love it if you’d take a minute to read my article, “Denied Till They Die,” from the May 2014 issue of Penthouse. You can read it by clicking the above image or by clicking here.