War rages on in soldier's body

Vietnam veteran
News-Sentinel photo by Ellie Bogue

Vietnam veteran
Local Vietnam veteran Kyle Herrick holds the medal he brought back from the war. Herrick served for 33 months, 10 of which were in-country.

Afflicted with Parkinson's disease, Vietnam veteran Kyle Herrick endures the effects of Agent Orange every day.

By DOUG LeDUC of The News-Sentinel

Americans are still learning lessons from the war that dominated the news through the 1960s, and many of them continue to deal with its aftermath.

For Kyle Herrick, the Vietnam War allowed him to develop a resourcefulness and command presence, which eventually served him well in leadership roles that came with duties as chief financial officer for an area manufacturer.

But he believes it also cut his career short by exposing him to Agent Orange, an extremely toxic chemical that brought on Parkinson's disease at the unusually early age of 41.

Among U.S. forces in Vietnam, "everybody used it for killing grass and weeds and brush,'' he said. "Everybody was told it was safe, so they didn't worry about it.''

But Agent Orange contains dioxin, one of the most toxic chemicals produced synthetically. Its use in the United States has been banned.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recognizes nine disorders stemming from Agent Orange exposure.

But a number of reports, including congressional and EPA studies, contend Agent Orange exposure likely is responsible for a much wider range of disorders.

And some groups have pointed out that the longer the VA takes to find a connection between theexposure and disorders, the less it may have to pay in benefits.

An exacting disease

For many of the 12 years since Herrick was diagnosed with Parkinson's, the Fort Wayne man has relied on medication to keep his brain in control of his muscles. The VA covers none of the medical costs and affords him no other compensation.

"If I miss a dosage or eat something I shouldn't, I literally freeze,'' Herrick said. "In 30 seconds, you can go from apparently normal to totally frozen.''

Repetitive muscular activity, such as walking, will begin to have the same effect on him after 15 minutes, he said. "I used to scuba dive, snow ski, water ski, camp; now I can't do anything.''

He said he believes the VA response to the Agent Orange issue could add to public mistrust of the federal government that resulted from mishandling of the Vietnam War.

Committing to combat

Herrick enlisted in the Army in December 1966, at a time when the country was a little uneasy about its involvement in the war but was generally intent on working toward a favorable conclusion.

The United States had entered the war with ground troops a year earlier, and its commitment eventually would swell from 60,000 in 1965 to 543,000 in 1969. About 2.7 million U.S. soldiers served in Vietnam, including 16,820 from northeast Indiana.

Herrick spent close to two years in training. He was prepared to serve as a medic after basic training, but then went through officer candidate, jump, jungle and psychological operations schools.

His 10-month tour in Vietnam began in November 1968. Earlier that year, an aggressive but largely ineffective campaign by North Vietnam and the Viet Cong had convinced Americans their country was further from winning the war than they had been led to believe. It was a turning point in U.S. public opinion.

Herrick took command of a small unit that worked with villagers, teaching them basic agricultural and public health concepts, along with self-defense: "Peace Corps with a rifle.''

Villagers weren't the only ones who were superstitious. His men gave him a wide berth his first month, assuming that's when he was mostly likely to be killed or wounded. They were right. His leg still carries the rocket shrapnel.

Herrick had some close calls after that, but was considered safe, because "I'd had my turn.''

He didn't realize until years later that he had put his health at risk as well, when he cleared a path between a barracks and shower area with the Agent Orange defoliant. He estimates he used the path for at least six months.

Taking charge

When Herrick got out of the hospital, he was assigned to lead five civil affairs/psychological operations teams out of Camp Enari, near Pleiku in the Central Highlands.

"For a kid with two years of college, command of 150 men was pretty heady stuff,'' he said. But it came with its share of headaches, not the least of which was dealing with corruption in the South Vietnamese army.

The U.S. ally had many excellent officers, but social and political connections often influenced promotion as much or more than merit, and many officers put personal gain ahead of military objectives, he said.

Rampant theft, scams and bribery within the South Vietnamese Army engendered a general mistrust of it within U.S. forces, Herrick said. And "rumors that high (South Vietnamese)army officials were involved with the drugs that were available . . . were demoralizing.''

To protect his company and its supplies, at one point Herrick found himself in a showdown, placing a service revolver on a table in a manner intended to intimidate a South Vietnamese officer. "I'd watched too many John Wayne movies.'' He was disciplined, but promoted shortly afterward.

Corruption and incompetence within the South Vietnamese Army contributed to the country's defeat by North Vietnam and the Viet Cong in March 1975, two years after a gradual withdrawal of U.S. ground forces was completed.

During its withdrawal, the United States failed to provide the South Vietnamese army with sufficient maintenance and logistics training. A dramatic cut in military aid in 1973 also weakened South Vietnamese defenses.

A quiet return

The outcome wasn't the stuff of victory parades, despite the spin U.S. politicians tried to put on it, and most Vietnam veterans didn't expect much in the way of congratulations back in the states, Herrick said.

Many veterans adopted a low profile. "We didn't show our pride, we didn't broadcast it, we just slipped back into civilian life,'' he said. "I only had one instance where someone accused me of being a baby killer.''

Herrick went from the jungle to U.S. campus classrooms within two weeks, when his tour was up. He earned a bachelor's degree in business and a master's in computer science and accounting.

He did some of his graduate work at Kent State University in Ohio, where four students had been killed in 1970 when National Guard units fired on demonstrators.

The war was very unpopular there for years afterward, and while Herrick attended the university, no one there knew he had served in Vietnam. "I never talked about it,'' he said. "I never had need to.''

Studies show taking human life challenges a sane person's self-esteem, and reassurance that the public accepts it as military duty makes combat memory easier to endure, he said. But Vietnam veterans were largely left to fend for themselves, Herrick said.

Herrick's family helped him deal with the experience, but there are "many maladjusted veterans (who) never felt validated as human beings.''

Revealing study

The VA stance on Agent Orange can be taken as one more form of public neglect for Vietnam veterans.

But some groups interested in seeing the agency help more disabled veterans who were exposed to the toxic chemical hope policy-makers take note of a study published last year by the Australian government.

Australia sent 40,000 troops to Vietnam. A survey of specific health problems among its Vietnam veterans found the rate of motor neurone disease 60 times higher than expected.

Vietnam Veterans of America has led the call for impartial, independent U.S. studies on the issue.

Herrick said he has contacted more than 100 Vietnam veterans through the Internet who have Parkinson's disease or a related neurological disorder. He found the names in just a few months. Many of them now share information with him on Agent Orange research or the ongoing public debate surrounding the banned defoliant.

"We're not saying we want something we don't deserve, but we sure don't think they should reject everything out of hand without being honest in their studying,'' he said.

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