I first met Rob and Diane Stevens at a Department of Veterans Affairs listening session in September. Diane fought back tears as she told the Alaska VA’s new director, Timothy Ballard, of her and her husband’s now three-year battle to obtain some sort of compensation for Robert’s exposure to Agent Orange.
The Vietnam War ended in 1975, but the heroism of those who served lives on today. The soldiers wear hats now instead of helmets. Robert does so proudly. At the tender age of 17, he joined the U.S. Navy.
“I got to know the guys, the medic,” Robert recalled. “And I was like, ‘I really want to do that.’ And everybody kept telling me, ‘no, you don’t want to do that.'”
Robert spent two years in Vietnam, days he remembers with nostalgia. But there’s one day he’ll never forget: April 1,1969 — his 21st birthday.
“I got handed four sheets of paper and they said ‘your dad’s been in a car accident,'” Robert remembered.
He was sent home to Minnesota to be with his family, but to get there he had to first pass through Vietnam from Vung Tau to Saigon. That’s where Robert’s life changed forever.
“Two helicopters flew over and they dropped this white powder,” Robert said.
That white powder, he believes, was Agent Orange — an herbicide the U.S. Government used to destroy jungles during the war so it could see the enemy. Now the VA recognizes that Agent Orange destroyed a lot more.
“I had a quadruple bypass,” Robert said. “My heart doctor said it was from Agent Orange.”
Between 1988 and 1994, 52,000 Vietnam veterans or their survivors received a payout of $3,800 from a lawsuit against the companies that produced Agent Orange. Robert wasn’t one of those veterans because his symptoms didn’t show up until much later. Now, they’re taking more than just a physical toll.
“They just turned us in to collections because I’d gotten to a point where there’s so many medical bills,” Diane said. “I just can’t do it anymore.”
Robert said the VA told him he could be eligible for compensation, but he has to prove he stepped foot on Vietnamese soil. Their records of his transfer were likely lost, so the burden is on him. His last hope is that one of the men he served with might still recognize him. Finding them has been exhausting for Diane and Robert.
“I’m sorry — I’m computer illiterate,” Diane said.
I helped do a little online research, and it turns out there’s a reunion group for Robert’s ship, the USS Lynde McCormick. None of the men looked familiar to the couple, but we were able to send a message — an SOS for a proud Navy veteran who’s now drowning in desperation.
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