Vietnam War Fighters Suspect Illnesses May Be Linked to Agent Orange
by Scarlet Sims
Lloyd Patrick Elnicki never asked what the Circle of Life Hospice nurse wrote in her evaluations every day. Secretly, he knew.
"I'm dying, aren't I?" he asked his wife, Sharon.
"Well, Pat, you're not getting any better," she said.
Three years before, the Vietnam veteran was a robust man with pale skin, dark red hair and a goatee. He had a clover tattooed on his back — for luck.
Pat loved to go. He wore a St. Christopher's medallion, the patron saint of traveling, on a silver chain around his neck. He traveled to Colorado, South Dakota, Idaho, Wyoming, Minnesota, Texas and New Mexico. He stuffed picture albums with photos of mountains and rocks, always urging his wife to take another snapshot from a new angle…
"But it looks just like the last rock," she would protest, taking the picture.
The Elnickis filled their Bella Vista home with country decorations, the plush, blue-gray carpet smelling of smoke from the couple's cigarettes. Outside, beyond the sliding glass door, was a flagpole Pat installed, flying the U.S. flag.
In 2004, doctors diagnosed Pat with lymph cancer of the neck. He went through surgery and radiation treatment and thought his cancer was in remission. But, at the end of last year, Pat got stomach cramps. Exploratory surgery revealed stomach cancer too widespread for surgery, and in March, he opted out of further treatment.
The two cancers left Pat unable to sleep in his own bed. Getting up and down was difficult, and he began falling when he tried to walk. Once, he'd had energy to be disdainful about the cancers and had fire in his blood, he said. Not anymore.
He hunched over on the couch, catching his breath. He said he felt best in the mornings, but he'd still be spent in about a half-hour.
Pat lost so much weight that he wore his wedding ring loosely on his middle finger. He held a morphine wand in the same hand and occasionally squeezed, releasing a slight hiss.
The pain wore on him. He looked like an old man, but he was just 53.
Both Pat and Sharon Elnicki said they believe Pat's cancers may be linked to Agent Orange, an herbicide the U.S. armed forces sprayed on vegetation and crops in Vietnam to destroy enemy cover.
The U.S. sprayed more than 20 million gallons of Agent Orange in Vietnam from 1962 to 1971, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The herbicide contained dioxin, known to cause birth defects, rashes, multiple cancers and secondary diseases. It was meant to save lives, but it sickened thousands of veterans.
Pat Elnicki applied for medical benefits related to Agent Orange exposure. His claim has never been processed because he's among a group of soldiers known as "Blue Water" veterans, who were stationed on Navy ships off the Vietnam coast. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs won't compensate Blue Water veterans, saying they weren't exposed to the herbicide. A 2001 federal court case protesting the policy continues.
Meanwhile, Vietnam veterans waiting for an answer are dying.
"The bottom line is they are hoping some of these guys will die," said Don Olson, Benton County veterans service officer. "The facts just sort of speak for themselves. It's just a big stalling game."
Pat Elnicki joined the Navy when he was 17. His father, who adopted him out of foster care, didn't want him to go.
"He flashed the cash for college right in front of me," Pat said.
It didn't work. In 1971, Pat sailed off to war in Vietnam.
"Everybody ought to do some kind of civil service," Pat said.
Pat handled small-arms weaponry in the U.S. Navy as a gunner's mate for three and a half years. His carrier, stationed off the coast of Vietnam, also supplied task force ships with bombs. Agent Orange was classified as a bomb, Pat said.
"I don't know that I was exposed," Pat said. "We know it was there, and it was used."
Veterans have said for years that Agent Orange sickened them. The department set up a registry in 1978 for veterans concerned about long-term health problems associated with Agent Orange exposure, but the government didn't acknowledge a link between the herbicide and illnesses until Congress passed the Agent Orange Act of 1991. For the first time, the government took responsibility for veterans who handled or were exposed to Agent Orange.
Congress ordered the veterans department to use the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine to create a list of diseases associated with exposure. The list of 11 diseases includes lymph cancer and Type 2 diabetes.
Afflicted veterans may file claims for the government to pay medical expenses and monthly disability compensation. A veteran declared 10 percent disabled receives $115 per month. As of 2006, full disability is $2,393 per month, according to the local veterans service office.
More than 99,000 veterans filed claims related to Agent Orange exposure, but only 7,500 have received benefits, according to the department's Agent Orange update released in 2000. The department did not respond to requests for more recent numbers, saying it does not track claims by cause.
Any veteran who served between 1962 and 1975 whose service was not solely fly-over missions may apply for Agent Orange-related benefits. But the department treats military branches differently when awarding them. The department denies that Blue Water veterans could have been exposed to Agent Orange, according to an e-mail response from Jim Benson, spokesman with the department.
The department has consistently held that offshore soldiers can't presume Agent Orange exposure because it was spread overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, over land, Benson said.
The department routinely denied Blue Water veterans Agent Orange compensation but didn't put the policy into writing until 2002, Olson said. The department's so-called "set-foot" policy said veterans must have been ashore in Vietnam to be eligible.
Shortly after the revision, the National Veterans Legal Service Program, a veterans advocacy group, sued on behalf of Jonathan Haas, a former Navy commander who had filed a claim for Type 2 diabetes. Haas said he saw clouds of Agent Orange drift toward his ship.
In August 2006, the Veterans Court overturned the department's "set-foot" policy, ruling that Blue Water veterans were eligible for compensation.
The ruling spurred 167 of Arkansas' Blue Water veterans, including Elnicki, to file claims. There were 28 veterans in Benton County and 20 veterans in Washington County who did so, according to the counties' veteran service offices.
Nationally, 8,394 claims were filed, said Kim Godeaux, state public affairs officer for the Department of Veteran Affairs in North Little Rock.
In October 2006, the department appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, D.C. The department said only veterans who served on the ground, or who were "Brown Water" Navy veterans serving in inland waterways — or could prove they were exposed to herbicides — should qualify.
The authors of Agent Orange legislation didn't intend for claims to be decided by what branch a veteran served in but by the possibility of exposure, said Dave Helfert, communications director for U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii. Abercrombie was one of 71 co-sponsors for the original Agent Orange Act passed 16 years ago.
The spirit of the act was to be all-inclusive, he said.
"If there is even a question that somebody was exposed to Agent Orange, which we now realize is one of the most poisonous substances on earth, is to be inclusive not exclusive," Helfert said.
The act was meant to provide a way for all veterans to get the medical treatment they deserve and to be acknowledged by the government, Helfert said. Blue Water veterans should be treated like all other Vietnam veterans, he said.
"It shouldn't make a damn bit of difference the color of the water you were floating on — you either were or were not exposed," Helfert said. "Let's not presume that there's no way they could be exposed."
The department claims offshore ships weren't exposed to Agent Orange. However, Blue Water veterans like Gareth "Mac" McNatt, who served on a carrier from 1966-68, said air currents carried the herbicide over the water.
"I don't know when Agent Orange was used, but I'd see a lot of clouds that were pretty close to the shore," McNatt said. "You could see clouds of B-52s dropping that stuff."
McNatt, 74, of Rogers has rashes and itching, deteriorating joints, high blood pressure, nerve damage and insomnia. He lives in constant pain, he said.
"Everybody agrees that there's something wrong," McNatt said.
Kenneth Smith, 67, of Bentonville served as a fire control technician starting in 1964. He served a total of six years, his ship coming close to the coast for bombing missions. It makes sense that Blue Water veterans were exposed, he said.
"If you hit the trees, and the trees lose all their foliage, then when they hit the area again with Agent Orange, then anyone in coastal waters was exposed," said Smith, who suffers from Type 2 diabetes. "We couldn't have been way far from a combat zone if we were shelling — just through the air and contact stuff, you'd get it on you."
Agent Orange could have contaminated the sea water, according to a 2002 Australian study.
The report from the Department of Veteran Affairs in Australia found Navy veterans serving in Vietnam had the highest mortality rate among military branches. The risk of cancer was particularly high, the study stated. As ships took on sea water to distill into drinking water, dioxin became concentrated in the potable water, the study said.
The men were bathing in and drinking contaminated water, said Richard Spataro, staff attorney with the National Veterans Legal Service Program.
"If your ship is in the water, it will take in a certain amount of water, including drinking water," he said.
U.S. ships and Australian ships stayed in close proximity, Olson said.
But the U.S. department dismisses the study as having limited use to U.S. policy.
"It is based on the assumption that drinking water was obtained from estuary waters. Most U.S. Navy ships were too large to get close enough to shore to obtain estuary water," Benson said in the e-mail response. "Drinking water was either stored on board or distilled from open sea water."
If veterans had drunk contaminated water, the department would see more gastrointestinal cancers, a cancer not currently linked to Agent Orange exposure, Benson's response stated.
However, a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that looked at specific cancers among Vietnam veterans confirmed a higher risk of cancer among Navy veterans. The risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma was higher for Blue Water veterans than other veterans, the 1990 study found. The report did not directly link the findings to Agent Orange exposure or any other cause.
Veterans say the water could have been a source of exposure.
John Kay Kiser, 67, of Bella Vista said his ship carried potable water, but it also took in salt water to make fresh water.
"There were times you could almost taste fuel in the water fountains," he said.
Kiser suffers from Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, neuropathy and eye disease.
Soldiers rarely knew whether or not Agent Orange was on board, but Kiser suspects it was on his ship.
"I'm living around aircraft that are flying over that country — it's in the air," Kiser said. "For all I know some of our aircraft could have been spraying some of that stuff."
Shortly after the veterans department appealed, the U.S. Court of Appeals allowed it to impose a moratorium on processing Blue Water veterans' claims.
"We're not doing anything with those claims right now," Godeaux said.
Pat Elnicki said he wanted to tell people about his claim for Agent Orange benefits because it might help his wife or some other family. Maybe someone in the government would take action. Maybe some other Blue Water veteran would get lucky and get a claim approved, he said.
Unfortunately, Congress can't help right now, said Ryan James, spokesman for Third District U.S. Rep. John Boozman, R-Rogers. The court has to decide veterans' fates, he said.
The legal battle could take years, James said, because the department could take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court if it loses its appeal.
"There's nothing that Congress can do to speed it along," James said. "That's just the system we're in."
Spouses of deceased veterans can apply for benefits, but the process is cumbersome and can take even longer than claims for a veteran personally, Olson said.
When a veteran dies without a claim being approved, the department usually doesn't pay anything to family members, said Bernard Edelman, deputy director for policy and government affairs at the Vietnam Veterans of America.
"If the VA can save money, then they want to save money," Edelman said. "We believe a lot of guys are dying a lot quicker than they ought to, but a lot of us are still kicking. We're not going to fade away. This could mean millions of dollars for the VA. They're fighting it on that basis."
The department is taking good care of many veterans, but Blue Water veterans are falling through the cracks, Edelman said.
The department should want to take care of all veterans and give Blue Water veterans the same benefits as others who served in Vietnam, Kiser said.
"I hope that somebody does get their claim approved," Kiser said. "They served their country. They deserve it. If you send people to war, you at least should take care of them when they come back. I think in Vietnam, the country was not in a good state and many in Vietnam were left behind."
Pat Elnicki didn't feel left behind. It wasn't like he was a hero, he said. He didn't get shot in the back while raising the American flag, he said.
He filed his claim before he knew he was terminally ill. If he'd known, he might not have bothered. Still, he'd hoped his government would at least respond with more than a canned letter saying the issue was deferred.
Pat Elnicki applied for help in August. By March, the doctors and nurses wanted to talk to him about dying. He refused.
He was hungry, but he couldn't eat. The nurse checked the box on her worksheet marked "anorexia."
Sharon and Pat Elnicki had been together since 1997 and wed in Eureka Springs in 2001. It was love at first sight, she said. She told her friend, "I'm going to marry him."
So, Sharon Elnicki knew when it was his last day. Just a feeling in their Bella Vista home.
Pat Elnicki died at 2:57 p.m. on May 31 in his hospice bed. He raised a hand in the air above him, smiled, said "I love you" and was gone.
By The Numbers
* The U.S. armed forces dumped at least 20 million gallons of Agent Orange in Vietnam between 1962 and 1971.
* About 323,000 veterans joined the Agent Orange Registry to be evaluated for long-term health effects.
* 99,226 filed claims alleging Agent Orange affected their health.
* 7,520 received disability compensation for Agent Orange-related causes.
* 8,394 Navy veterans filed exposure claims after August 2006 when the Veteran's Court stated Blue Water veterans — those who served in coastal waterways — were eligible for benefits.
Source: Department Of Veterans Affairs, 2001
Diseases Linked To Agent Orange Exposure
Medical conditions the Department of Veterans Affairs says are likely caused by exposure to Agent Orange are birth defects such as spina bifida in veterans' children, skin conditions such as chloracne and porphyria cutanea tarda, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, soft tissue sarcoma, acute and subacute peripheral neuropathy, Hodgkin's disease, multiple myeloma, respiratory cancers that include lung, bronchus, larynx and trachea, prostate cancer, diabetes and chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
Many veterans with adult-onset Type 2 diabetes suffer multiple secondary conditions including eye disease, high blood pressure, depression and sexual dysfunction.
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