Agent Orange Claim, Never Give Up

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Never give up on Agent Orange claim even after death!

by Jeff Ackerman

Nearly 41 years after leaving the chemically infested and war-torn jungles of Vietnam behind and more than four years after his death from cancer, Grass Valley native Paul Orlandi found justice, thanks to his wife and a doctor who waged a war of their own.

Justice came in the form of a thick manila envelope from the Department of Veterans Affairs, addressed to Paul’s wife, Julia Orlandi. It arrived this past New Year’s Eve and the documents inside that envelope finally acknowledged that Paul Orlandi’s fatal cancer was directly linked to the Agent Orange he was exposed to as an Army Infantry soldier in Vietnam between 1968 and 1970.

Paul Orlandi, who served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1969, died in 2007 from cancer of the tongue. Four years after his death, his wife received word from the military that Agent Orange directly linked to his death

According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 3 million Americans served in the armed forces in Vietnam during the 1960s and early 1970s, when the military was using large amounts of mixtures known as defoliants, or chemicals that caused the leaves to fall off plants. The military plan was to flush the North Vietnamese Army out into the open by destroying the jungle.

One of those defoliants became known as Agent Orange (derived from the containers that were marked with orange stripes) and the military sprayed millions of gallons of it over Vietnam and Laos between 1962 and 1971 during a campaign it dubbed “Operation Ranch Hand.”

More than a million American soldiers, including Nevada Union High School graduate Paul Orlandi, served in Vietnam during the heaviest herbicide spraying from 1967 to 1969. A class-action suit was filed in 1979 against the herbicide manufacturers and was settled out of court in 1984. It resulted in the Agent Orange Settlement Fund, which distributed nearly $200 million to veterans between 1988 and 1996.

Paul Orlandi — who would go on to become an acclaimed motorcycle racer and local cement contractor — entered the Army a couple of months after graduating from NU in September 1968. He soon found himself in the middle of Vietnam and, according to the Veterans Affairs documents, was “presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange” during that period. Not long after returning to Nevada County, he noticed a spot on his tongue, according to his wife.

“When you looked at it you really couldn’t see anything,” recalled Julia Orlandi, who is a registered nurse by profession. The first two biopsies were negative, but the third showed “moderate dysplacia,” something Julia did not learn until after her husband’s death. “Had I known that the third biopsy showed moderate dysplacia I would have recommended to Paul to have it removed, since four of five of those turn into cancer,” she said.

That was April 2004, eight months later Paul was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue and Julia immediately suspected it was related to her husband’s service in Vietnam.

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“You would normally find that kind of cancer in people who are heavy tobacco users (smokers or chewers), or drinkers,” she said. “Anything that is toxic and creates a constant irritation to the area, such as alcohol or tobacco.”

Knowing the aggressive nature of tongue cancer, Paul and Julia sprang into action.

“It was supposed to be a quick process,” Julia recalled. “Surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and on our way to recovery.”

But radiation and chemo would fail and a tumor appeared on Paul Orlandi’s neck. “We realized that was not a good thing,” said Julia. “Then the (skin) grafts to the neck didn’t take because the radiation was too much on the tissue. At that point we were dressing the open skin.”

For the next six months, Julia would play nurse to her sick husband. “He (Paul) would wait for me to come home from work, looking at the clock … waiting for me to change the dressings on the cancerous lesions that were growing by the day. I was not going to have him walking around with an open ulcer on his face and I was the only one he trusted to care for him.”

Right in the middle of caring for her husband, Julia’s father (John Lucas) was diagnosed with cancer. “In the span of one year the two of them had a combined eight surgeries,” she remembered. “I think I was living on three or four hours of sleep per night.”

That’s when Julia Orlandi met with Dr. Richard Evans, a radiation oncologist with the Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital Cancer Center. Evans had performed the radiation treatments on both Paul and on Julia’s father. He sat Julia down and told her that her husband probably had six months to live and her father maybe two years.

“He (Evans) cared,” Julia recalled. “He had the look of compassion in his eyes. When he saw what was happening to our family I could tell he was devastated. I will never forget that about him.”

Paul Orlandi passed away six months later, on July 21, 2006. Julia’s father would die the next year, on Oct. 26, 2007.

Less than a week after Paul’s death, Dr. Evans wrote a letter to the Veterans Affairs suggesting that his former patient had died as a result of exposure to Agent Orange. Paul had already tried to convince the VA that his cancer was related to Agent Orange, but his claim was denied. Dr. Evans used his significant medical background to convince the VA to change its mind.

“This was based on the fact that Mr. Orlandi developed this cancer at a relatively young age and with no significant risk factors for developing an oral cancer,” Evans wrote in that July 27, 2006, letter. “The peak incidence of cancer of the oral tongue is between 65 and 69 years of age, and he was well under this age (Paul was 56 when he died).”

At the time, the VA didn’t recognize oral cancers as being related to Agent Orange exposure, a point that Julia disputed almost from the start. “I thought right away that it was related to Vietnam because he developed that spot on his tongue just two years after he got out,” she said.

They were at a stalemate, with the government contending that Paul’s death was not related to Agent Orange, while his wife and Dr. Evans argued that it was. In April 2007, Dr. Evans wrote another letter, this time to Ray Holcomb, then serving as Nevada County’s Veteran Service Officer.

The government had left the door open for an appeal and Dr. Evans and Julia Orlandi kicked it open, with the help of Holcomb, Congressman Tom McClintock and veteran advocate groups such as the Disabled American Veterans and the American Legion.

“Ray (Holcomb) was very instrumental,” said Julia. “When there wasn’t anyone who could help with my appeal, he did. He was also the one who recommended that Dr. Evans help write a medical opinion and the second letter.”

When the New Year’s Eve letter finally arrived, vindicating her husband’s death, Julia Orlandi finally let go of her emotions.

“Tears were streaming down my face,” she said. “This was an unbelievable thing. I started crying and crying. Everything we had done for the previous several years was vindicated. This made the struggle all worthwhile.”

The VA’s ruling came as a surprise to Dr. Evans. “I felt kind of amazement that Paul’s case had been working its way through the system for all these years,” he said. “I felt Paul had lost his life in the service of our country. There is also a reminder that you shouldn’t avoid trying to do the right thing just because you think the chances of an action being successful are small or nonexistent.”

Julia Orlandi’s advice to other veterans who may be fighting similar benefit battles?

“Never give up,” she said. “Even if you get a first denial. It’s just one opinion and everyone is entitled to one. Just do what you know is right.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Jeff Ackerman is editor and publisher of The Union. Contact him via e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 477-4299.

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