By Roz Kohls
DASSEL, MN In the early 1970s, Steve Emery of Dassel received a card from the government asking him if he had been exposed to Agent Orange while in Vietnam.
Emery had no clue, he said. He had never heard of Agent Orange before, and thought it must have been a haze of orange that enveloped US soldiers in battle or hovered over their base camps.
Emery sent back the card marked with a “no.”
Little did Emery imagine that someday there would be a connection with the herbicide in Vietnam, and his contracting prostate cancer last year.
Vietnam veterans began experiencing prostate cancer and other cancers, chloracne, peripheral neuropathy, and Type 2 diabetes at more than twice the rate of the general public beginning in the 1980s.
Fortunately, as soon as his cancer was diagnosed, a nurse at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Minneapolis told him to contact the veterans’ representative in Meeker County, because Emery qualified for full disability.
“You don’t have to pay anymore medical bills for anything,” Emery said.
Emery, who lived in Minneapolis, enlisted in the Army in 1967. He served in the headquarters company 520th transportation battalion and was stationed at a base called Phu Loi, he said.
Phu Loi was a support base for helicopter recovery. When helicopters crashed, the Army didn’t want to leave valuable equipment and weapons in them for the enemy to use against US soldiers. The base personnel recovered these valuables, Emery said.
Emery was in the communications unit of the base. He was a radio operator, installed phone lines, and operated public address systems for the base. The first five or six months, Emery lived in a tent on the edge of the 1.5-mile-wide base. The rest of the time he lived in barracks, he said.
Emery didn’t know it then, but the III Corps area of Vietnam, where he was stationed received the heaviest concentration of fixed-wing aircraft spraying of herbicide in the entire country.
What was ironic about the spraying is its connection to various cancers and birth defects later. The military believed it was protecting the soldiers by defoliating the trees and bushes where enemy soldiers could hide.
“That was done so they couldn’t sneak up on you,” Emery said.
About two years ago, when Emery was a custodian in the Litchfield School District, he offered to put on a slide show for the students about what everyday life was like for soldiers in Vietnam. He wanted to show students pictures of the generators soldiers used for electricity, water tanks, volleyball courts they improvised, and what bunkers looked like.
As Emery sorted through the photographs, he noticed something peculiar. Although Phu Loi was in the middle of the jungle, there wasn’t a blade of grass or leaf anywhere in or near the camp, he said.
The absence of greenery wasn’t from wear, either, he said. The soldiers walked on palettes or built wood or gravel walkways, and didn’t walk directly on the ground.
Last year, Emery was tested twice for prostate cancer, but the first test didn’t show anything. Then, in September, a severe pain developed in his right hip. It was so severe, he could barely lift his leg, and he couldn’t work.
Emery said he was out of Vietnam by the time support for the war from the public waned.
“Being there (in Vietnam) was not the worst part,” Emery said, adding at least there were times when he had fun.
The pain in his hip was definitely not fun.
Emery was retested. Not only did he have cancer of the prostate, but it had spread to his bladder, hip bone and lungs.
Radiation got rid of most of the pain in his hip, but he is still forbidden to do heavy work, such as shoveling snow or hauling heavy bags of water softener salt. His wife, Nancy, does the home maintenance at their place next to Spring Lake, in addition to working at her job with skin care doctors in Orono, he said.
Emery also takes hormones to counter the natural testosterone in his system, on which the prostate cancer cells feed. The hormones have annoying side effects, he said.
Outwardly, the treatments Emery has had seem to be working.
Emery was told by a male nurse at the VA hospital, however, that there were 3 million people over the course of the war in Vietnam. Of those, only 960,000, barely a third, are left, he said.
Emery has many stories about his time in Vietnam. One story was especially ironic, considering Emery’s condition.
The men in his unit were expected to wear bright red baseball caps with a shiny brass medallion on the front, Emery said. The caps made the men nervous, especially when they climbed up telephone poles, because the caps made them easy targets for snipers. No one ever got shot, but the Army let them stop wearing the caps, he said.
If only the Army had known about the alleged dangers from Agent Orange, as well.