She Toured Vietnam With USO, Now She Shares Vets’ Cancer Battle


She toured Vietnam with USO, now she shares vets’ cancer battle


By Susan Abram

Lesli Dahike of Westlake Village is trying to get the government to admit that her cancers were caused by her trip to Vietnam 40 years ago. She believes the herbicide known as Agent Orange is responsible for her medical problems. (David Crane/Daily News Staff Photographer)

She began her journey alone, armed only with mountains of documents, photographs, maps and letters that she thought proved the rare cancers she suffered from were linked to chemical exposure during the Vietnam War.

But for much of the two years Lesli Moore Dahlke has battled the federal government for help, medical coverage, even a little sympathy, she got nowhere – limited in part by her status as a nonveteran.

Dahlke, then a fresh-faced 18-year-old, was exposed to Agent Orange during an 18-day tour of Vietnam with the USO in 1970.

Her civilian status has made it far more difficult for her to get help from the government. She was rejected time and time again in her efforts for recognition and support.

But now, finally, she has begun to feel just a little less alone.

Since Dahlke’s story was first told in the Daily News in August 2010 and in columns she writes for the Salem News in Oregon, she has caught the attention of top Pentagon brass, as well as vets from around the country who also struggled with Agent Orange exposure.

Then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen earlier this year heard her story and decided to assign his special assistant, Army Col. David W. Sutherland, to help Dahlke.

But even for him, it has been a struggle.

Sutherland calls Dahlke one of the most courageous women he has ever met and said she has become a voice for the veterans.

He said he is working

to find physical, emotional and psychological support for her through programs in the community. But as for monetary compensation, Sutherland said the military has little sway in changing federal government policies.”There are those who fight the bureaucracy, but it’s a challenge,” Sutherland said. “Lesli’s challenge is because she hasn’t served in uniform; although she made a commitment, and she knew the risks, she doesn’t fit neatly in one organization.”

She has also started to draw attention and sympathy from former soldiers, who sent Dahlke letters of support and encouragement.

“My prayers are with you.” wrote one man. “I was exposed in 1966-67 … Army. I get medical care at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and they are still loath to admit that my lingering and ongoing symptoms are from AO exposure after so many years.”

She just received another on Thursday, from a retired Marine who now lives in Vietnam.

“For all of us who spent time here during the war days, Vietnam changed our lives forever,” he wrote. “But it was people like you and the USO teams that brought much needed laughter and relief from the pain and sorrow of war.”

Dahlke, now 59, was struck by soft tissue sarcoma that stole parts of her stomach, spleen and pancreas when she was 38. She also blames the chemical for the rare T-cell leukemia that settled into her blood 20 years later, and the lymphoma she was just diagnosed with.

“Here’s a bureaucracy set in place that doesn’t allow for quick decision making and acknowledgment for exposure,” said Dahlke, a tall, slender woman who takes various medications to balance all the side effects from her illnesses.

“I have to rise to a higher level of proof than if I were a veteran.”

She has the documents from the Army, issuing her special permission to enter a combat zone when she was 18-years-old, as part of a USO Handshake Tour with legendary entertainer Johnny Grant.

She has diary entries of helicopter rides over thick jungles, from Saigon to Quang Tri.

She has photographs of herself eating in the mess hall, and posing with soldiers.

She has the maps of where she traveled, and information that shows where and how much the highly toxic Agent Orange and similar herbicides were used to defoliate the dense jungles and hillsides of Vietnam.

She holds two letters from local doctors, who agree that Dahlke’s cancers are so rare that “developing the sarcoma at the time that she did, after the exposure from Agent Orange fits with what is known as a result of Agent Orange exposure.”

And she has a statement from the government itself:

“If you served in Vietnam or another area where Agent Orange was sprayed, you do not have to prove that you were exposed to Agent Orange in order to get VA health care benefits related to Agent Orange exposure.”

Soft-tissue sarcoma and 13 other illnesses are listed by the Department of Veterans Affairs as being caused by dioxin, a highly toxic chemical contained in Agent Orange and similar herbicides used to defoliate the dense jungles and hillsides of Vietnam.

Writer Ed Mattson, a former Marine who went on to become a medical researcher who specializes in cancer, said government workers and many civilians were likely exposed, but their stories are rarely told.

The law left civilians out and those such as Dahlke who participated in USO shows, for example, were not included. Almost 40 years after the end of the Vietnam War, the federal government has yet to establish a system to handle any claims made by the estimated 72,000 to 171,000 civilians who may have worked for or on behalf of the U.S. government in Vietnam.

A program established in 1941 by the Labor Department provides a small window of opportunity for civilians to file a claim if they worked on a military base.

“Unfortunately, she is one of the ones that’s been left out of the loop,” Mattson said of Dahlke. “There’s so much collusion and corruptions it doesn’t surprise me. That’s the way the government looks at it … deny, deny, deny until you die.

“The country is judged on how we treat those who fought for our freedom, and we’re not doing a good job,” Mattson said.

Dahlke has been working for two years to receive acknowledgment, and she is now also focusing on veterans returning home from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And yet, despite her cancers, Dahlke said she has felt blessed with the journey. She may feel like David fighting Goliath, but she has also become part of a band of brothers.

“I have gone farther than I have ever thought,” she said. “I traveled the world from my office. I have met the most amazing people and have made so many friends.

“They always say, keep up there. Don’t give up. We’re not giving up. It’s been amazing to me. It’s been a big journey, and I have never left my room here.”



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