Military Yearbook 2012: Local Vietnam veteran affected by Agent OrangeWritten by Morgan Delp | | firstname.lastname@example.org
When Toledo native Peter Brown was 19 years old, he enlisted in the Marine Corps without hesitation. He was sent to the jungles of Vietnam a few months later.
“It was my generation,” Brown said. “Some guys were going to Canada, some were getting deferments. That wasn’t in my book. I figured I could do something for my country rather than my country doing something for me.”
At age 63, Brown feels the effects of his service every day, as he endures painful diseases brought on by his wartime exposure to Agent Orange. The chemical herbicide was used by the United States to kill vegetation and foliage in the Vietnamese jungles.
“Someone from veterans services said it’s like a cancer that’s eating you alive from the inside out,” said Peter’s wife, Conni Urbanski-Brown.
Brown left Vietnam in 1970, and although he experienced some medical problems in the 1990s, his symptoms didn’t flare up until about 10 years ago. He began undergoing medical testing and three years later began receiving U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical care.
Type 1 diabetes, chronic pain, neuropathy and ischemic heart disease —the conditions have cropped up over time, one after another, said Brown, who has also suffered multiple seizures and heart attacks. He said he often wakes up in the morning wondering what is going to happen that day.
“It stuck out its ugly head, and I was like, ‘Wow, what’s happening?” Brown said. “It had lain dormant for 35 years in my system.”
Hard to track
Veterans do not receive compensation for Agent Orange exposure, but for the diseases the dioxin causes. This makes it difficult to know how many veterans are affected by Agent Orange or receiving compensation from the government due to its effects, said Deborah Heaney, staff physician with the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System.
Heaney said the VA currently recognizes 14 diseases as presumptive conditions that, if a veteran has served in certain areas during certain time periods, qualify them to automatically receive compensation from the government. Diabetes, a form of neuropathy and ischemic heart disease are three of these diseases, according to publichealth.va.gov.
“For most compensation issues, the veteran has to prove a link between exposure and their condition. For these presumptive conditions, the veteran doesn’t have to prove any causation,” Haney said. “The government has decided it’s the dioxin in Agent Orange.”
The Agent Orange Act, which instituted a process for establishing these presumptive conditions, was passed in 1991. In 1994, the National Academy of Science published the first report on the diseases that qualify as presumptive conditions. Since then, the government has been adding new conditions to the list.
In the jungle
Upon enlisting, Brown spent eight weeks in boot camp in San Diego, then five weeks in infantry training. He spent 20 days at home in Toledo before being deployed to Vietnam in 1969.
Brown went through the rigorous boot camp with a broken foot.
“I fractured a small bone in the back of my leg, but I didn’t want to mess with karma and get set back another two weeks, so I sucked it up,” Brown said.
He spent seven months in the Vietnam jungle, north of the demilitarized zone, arriving a few months after the Tet Offensive when the war was “starting to die down.”
“The trees were so thick that it would be sunny outside but seem dark on the jungle [floor],” Brown said.
Brown said he encountered pythons, panthers, rats as big as dogs and “bugs you never figured would be on the planet” while overseas, but enjoyed the experience overall.
“I seized the moment because I knew it would never happen again,” Brown said.
While Brown and his fellow servicemen were stationed in the dense jungle, they were exposed to Agent Orange almost daily. Brown recalls one 18-day period of monsoon rain during which the gas was not sprayed, but when the weather was clear, five or six C-130s would fly across the jungle and spray the chemical that Brown said looked like snow.
“We would smell the gas fumes, but we didn’t realize it was harming us,” Brown said. “Nobody knew it was dioxin. None of us knew anything about it.”
Brown was especially close to the herbicide, as he worked the radio on the tarmac where helicopters landed, he said.
“They would spray the perimeter and just like that, it would kill [the plants],” Brown said. “The chopper blades were spinning and would send [the Agent Orange] back down to the ground. We were constantly breathing it. When you’re 19, 20, you’ve pumped gas and smelled those fumes. You don’t figure it will hurt you.”
When Brown returned to the U.S. in 1970, he was offered $6,000 to go to California as a sergeant, but he declined.
“I had a pretty good record so they wanted to make me a sergeant, but I said, ‘Are you kidding me? It’s party time,’” Brown said, grinning.
Urbanski-Brown said Americans were not as supportive of returning troops as they are now.
“We didn’t get the ‘welcome homes’ like they do now,” Brown said. “They called us baby-killers. We had to keep it all inside.”
Brown resumed a job at Doehler-Jarvis Corporation before becoming a semitruck driver, but had to stop working 11 years ago when getting in and out of the truck and loading heavy items got to be too painful and difficult, Urbanski-Brown said.
Quality of life ruined
Brown said he was not happy to give up working at age 52. It was the end to a lifetime of work that began when he was 12, working a paper route and setting pins at a bowling alley.
“I was never a guy who liked being on the dole; I like working,” Brown said. “That’s why this just kills me.”
Now, Brown spends most of his days at home, watching old programs on TV. He doesn’t leave the house regularly except for trips to the doctor every three to six months.
Urbanski-Brown said it’s a struggle for her husband to walk, and he uses a wheelchair to go any farther than the bathroom. She said the VA is supposed to install a ramp and handicap bars in the bathroom, but hasn’t yet.
“It totally ruined his quality of life,” Urbanski-Brown said. “He used to have a boat, a motorcycle and a big old truck. He used to go camping and fishing in Canada.”
Brown takes a dozen different types of medicine every day, along with insulin twice a day and steroid injections every three months.
In addition to physical ailments, Brown has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and sees a psychiatrist every six months. Some days he experiences depression.
“I have my bad days and my good days. All of us do. Mine are just a little bit more extreme,” Brown said. “But I’m not complaining. The guys that come back from Afghanistan and Iraq are a lot worse off than I am. … I think about [them] every day, which I think we all do, hopefully.”
Urbanski-Brown has created a Facebook page to help raise awareness of those affected by Agent Orange, which she describes as “widespread but just not talked about.” Learn more at facebook.com/VictimsOfAgentOrange.
Tags: Agent Orange