Vietnam veteran exposed to agent orange running out of options, VA won’t budge

A bronze star awarded to Frank Tate of Drums rests next to a map of where the chemical Agent Orange was applied during the Vietnam war. Tate, who saved another Marine's life during the war, and served in areas where Agent Orange was utilized, has cirrhosis of the liver that the Department of Veterans Affairs will not acknowledge as a disease caused by the foliage-destroying chemical.

– What’s frustrating, Vietnam veteran Frank Tate said, is that the Department of Veterans Affairs doesn’t acknowledge cirrhosis as a disease caused by Agent Orange. “They won’t admit to it,” Frank said.

By Jill Whalen in the StandardSpeaker

 Pennsylvania — Frank Tate received the prestigious Bronze Star Medal for dragging two seriously injured Marines across fire-swept terrain in Vietnam as machine gun bullets sailed past him.

More than 30 years later, Tate’s own life needs saving.

The Drums man’s liver has all but completely failed. His body is filling with fluids, and his skin has already turned yellow – a telltale sign of jaundice.

Doctors told him he needs a liver transplant, said his wife, Carol Tate. But none will attempt the procedure, saying the former Marine’s health is too depleted and thus, an operation is too risky.

Frank has seen many doctors, Carol said, and many of them agree: the 59-year-old’s liver cirrhosis was caused by his exposure to Agent Orange, the name given to the herbicide used by the United States during the Vietnam War to destroy foliage that provided cover for the enemy.

What’s frustrating, Frank said, is that the Department of Veterans Affairs doesn’t acknowledge cirrhosis as a disease caused by Agent Orange.

“They won’t admit to it,” Frank said.

It’s a tough pill for the Tates to swallow.

Tate said he lived a healthy life, leaving his Lattimer home in 1968 to serve during the Vietnam War with the Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, First Marine Division. He was attached to a tank division and later dispatched to serve in the field, and eventually achieved the rank of lance corporal.

It was during the height of a 1969 battle in Vietnam’s Que Son Valley that Tate came across two seriously wounded Marines lying in an exposed area, according to the citation accompanying Frank’s military medal. He scooped up the first and carried him to a covered area, then dodged enemy fire again to drag the second Marine to a rice paddy dike. He also faced bullets again as he ran to retrieve additional medical supplies for the wounded.

A year after the heroic rescues, the 1968 Hazleton High School graduate returned home.

“Even when I came back from Vietnam, my liver count was always high. I was close to 21. My family doctor at that time – or anyone who sent me for blood work – always said that I have high liver counts,” Frank recalled. “It was the only test that did not come back good.”

ERIC CONOVER/Staff Photographer Drums resident and Vietnam veteran Frank Tate needs a liver transplant, but medical professionals won't operate on him because his health is poor. Tate, his family and several medical doctors believe his deteriorating health is due to exposure to Agent Orange, a chemical used by the United States during the Vietnam War.

Not a concern

Doctors, however, never seemed to press Frank to go for more tests to determine what was causing high readings of alkaline phosphatase in his liver, he said. With no reason for alarm, Frank and Carol, who have been married 36 years, never pursued the issue, they said.

Frank’s health seemed mostly solid until 2000 when he needed a triple bypass. He had been working at the former Allsteel in Valmont Industrial Park for 33 years, where he served as president of the United Auto Workers union.

Then, another difficult blow came in 2007 when tests following gallbladder surgery revealed he had cirrhosis.

“I had no idea I was sick or that I had cirrhosis,” he said. “It was as if all of a sudden I needed a liver.”

No doctor could pinpoint what caused the disease, Frank explained.

His local doctor, Dr. Eugene Stish, Conyngham, said it’s his “personal opinion” that Frank’s cirrhosis was caused by Agent Orange exposure. “However, I have absolutely no proof that that is what caused it,” he said.

But Stish said Frank did not have any history of alcohol abuse or exposure to other dangerous chemicals – two typical causes of the disease.

Exposure to Agent Orange is “the most logical reason” that Tate developed the disease, Stish said.

Following the diagnosis, Frank recalled each day brought more weakness. He went to Thomas Jefferson University hospitals, Philadelphia, to determine whether he was eligible for a liver transplant.

“I was down there for 11 days,” Frank said of his stay earlier this year. “They did all kinds of tests on me.”

Carol said it appeared her husband would be approved for a transplant until a last-minute evaluation by an anesthesiologist ruined his chances.

“They didn’t think I would survive the operation, or if I did survive the operation, it wouldn’t be for very long,” Frank said. The unchecked liver disease caused other organs in his body – his heart, lungs and kidneys – to deteriorate and weaken.

During subsequent visits to Geisinger Medical Center, Danville, and Veterans Administration hospitals, the Tates said they were told the same bad news.

Since Frank’s diagnosis, the couple have learned others who served in Vietnam have had similar problems.

“A cousin of my wife died of liver disease,” Frank said. “He was in Vietnam.”

As a young serviceman, Frank said he “wasn’t aware” of Agent Orange. But in 1984, he received a letter from the office of Gov. Dick Thornburgh along with a map of where the toxic herbicide was applied. Frank said he served in some of those places.

The letter began with “Dear Pennsylvania Vietnam Veteran” and asked all 200,000 Vietnam-era veterans from the commonwealth to complete a questionnaire with military and health information “related to possible exposure to Agent Orange and other herbicides.”

It’s the only piece of correspondence Frank has received that hints at possible exposure. Carol noted that while her husband does receive disability benefits from the Veterans Administration, he does not receive Agent Orange compensation.

“The government just seems like it doesn’t want to admit anything,” she said.

‘Thing of the past’

Steve and Lisa Krouse, the neighbors the Tates consider family, have taken the Tates to medical appointments and check on the couple daily.

At least one of the out-of-area doctors who has treated Frank gave the impression the government considers Agent Orange “a thing of the past” and as such, is not investing in research or cures for it, Steve Krouse said.

“They might feel that everyone who was exposed to it is weaning away and they’re not putting too much effort into helping the people who were exposed to Agent Orange,” Krouse said.

Calls to the Department of Veterans Affairs regarding Agent Orange were not returned to the Standard-Speaker. But a department-released list does not classify cirrhosis as a disease caused by exposure to the chemical.

At this point, the Tates and Krouses say they’re hoping for a miracle.

“We’re not giving up hope for him,” Krouse said. “Western medicine might say he’s done. But there is eastern medicine, there are stem cell transplants.”

Krouse has been researching possible cures and treatments and said he learned stem cell transplants for those with liver diseases are proving successful in the United Kingdom and Germany.

And, through additional research, he’s learned of an ongoing study by the University of California-San Diego and Veterans Affairs-San Diego that is proving it’s possible to halt and reverse cirrhosis. There’s also a drug being used successfully in a British study that nurses diseased livers back to normal, he said.

Krouse said he would love if Frank could somehow get a stem cell transplant – although it wouldn’t be covered by his insurance – or be involved in one of the studies.

“He fought bravely,” Krouse said, “and he’s still fighting, only this time for his own life, and with only one very strong weapon – hope. And just maybe a little divine intervention too. It is what’s keeping him alive right now.”

Both Carol and Frank are hoping to find an answer soon, and said they wanted to share Frank’s story to see if anyone else can help.

“Right now, you are reaching for time, and the time is going so fast. And I’m scared stiff,” Carol said.

Frank can be contacted at [email protected]

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