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Friday, January 8, 2010

The 355th, And Our Agent Orange Legacy in Thailand

In December 1991 Dr. Bob Kilgallon was informed at the VA center in Erie, Pa. that he had cancerous tumors on his left lung. Thus began a series of ailments that leaves Dr. Kilgallon totally debilitated and barely able to function today.

In January 1992, he went under the knife for six hours to remove these tumors. He spent a month recovering in the VA hospital. The Oncologist at the hospital sent sections of the tumors to two civilian labs and the VA lab in Washington, DC. The civilian labs stated that they were Hodgkin’s non lymphoma cancer. The VA stated that they were Thymoma cancer tumors.

In May of 1997 during his six month physical he was notified that he had several tumors growing on his left lung again, and that the VA would be able to remove them around September or October that year.

In June 1997, he was having chest pains and went to see the local lung specialist. That specialist informed Dr. Kilgallon that the tumors had grown twenty time larger and surgery was required. The specialist removed the five tumors and the thymus gland. He spent five hours in surgery and another two weeks recovering in the hospital. He got out of the hospital just in time to attend his mother's funeral. Soon after he lost his job.

In July 1997, he started developing double vision and was unable to keep his head up. He began wearing eye glasses for the first time in his life. He went to an optometrist and was informed that he had developed Myasthenia Gravis, an auto immune disease. Because of this disease, his body started to produce anti-bodies continually, and the antibodies no longer recognized the body as the host and starts attacking all his muscles. Now, basic bodily functions like swallowing, speaking, and even keeping his eyes up became a constant challenge.

Dr. Kilgallon began walking around with his head hanging down, a patch over his right eye, sounding like Elmer Fudd and Donald Duck, with the arms hanging down to one side. His wife had to dress him because he no longer had the strength to do it himself. He's currently on no less than 12 different medications all at once. These medications, however, only treat the symptoms and not the cause. The best that Dr. Kilgallon can hope for is a life where the pain and lack of function is managed and maintained.

Alan Cote first felt sick in1967. For the next nearly ten years, he went through bouts of shortness of breath. He often had no appetite. He began to lose his eye sight and had to begin to wear glasses. The military doctors initially diagnosed him with malaria but in 1976 he was diagnosed by a civilian doctor with type 1 diabetes. He's spent the last three plus decades carefully monitoring his diet, his blood sugar, and his weight. He's had a triple by pass surgery on his heart and he's developed prostate cancer. He continues to deal with multiple ailments all at once to this day.

Jim Richards didn't get sick until the mid 1990's.That's when he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. He's spent the last decade and a half monitoring his diet, taking insulin on a regular basis, and maintaining an optimum level of weight.

All three of these men have several things in common. First, they each served in support roles in the Vietnam War. They were part of the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing in the Air Force. That's one of the most decorated units in the military. Their contemporaries are now stationed in Afghanistan helping to fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda in that region. All spent all or most of their time outside of Vietnam itself. Mostly, they were stationed in parts of Thailand. All believe that their series of ailments are the direct result of exposure to Agent Orange. In fact, Dr. Kilgallon believes that he was exposed to Agent Blue, White, and Orange. In fact, he remembers seeing canisters with Blue, Orange, and White stripes on the base and believes these canisters had each of these agents stored in them. Furthermore, the government refuses, publicly at least, to acknowledge that their current series of ailments is the direct result of their time in the military.

Many people know about the deadly and debilitating effects of Agent Orange. Many also probably know that Vietnam War Vets were exposed to Agent Orange. What many people don't know is that the U.S. government will only acknowledge that they sprayed Agent Orange in Vietnam itself. So, if you were stationed outside of Vietnam, like in Thailand, your current set of ailments: diabetes, heart and lung problems, and even Myasthenia Gravis will not be covered financially by the VA. In fact, the Supreme Court will no longer even look at claims filed on behalf of those that served in Thailand to recover for compensation due to Agent Orange exposure, as Dr. Kilgallon found out the hard way.

Each of these three men also share another common characteristic: they've been fortunate financially. Dr. Kilgallon is a respected PH D and has published several books. As such, while he spends tens of thousands of dollars yearly on treatment, it hasn't bankrupted him YET. Alan Cote spent much of his time retired from the military at IBM. He was part of the team that produced the first PC in the late 1970's. His multiple ailments were always covered by the insurance at IBM. Jim Richards has also spent the last three plus decades in the corporate world and has been fortunate to receive enough insurance to cover his ailments.

Bob Kilgallon remembers nights when the outside of the base was sprayed with heavy doses of mosquito spray. He often worked on airplanes which had as their mission to spray Agent Orange on crops on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Alan Cote even remembers a specific incident when the exhaust on a plane he was working sprayed into his face. He first got sick the very next day. Jim Richards can't remember one specific incident. Instead, he remembers constantly working on planes that sprayed all sorts of things out of their exhausts, their engine and all sorts of other places.

In fact, for nearly the last three decades, all of Alan Cote's medical care has been covered by the U.S. government. They have in fact acknowledged that his diabetes was caused by his exposure to Agent Orange but it came with a very important stipulation. Cote spent a few weeks in Vietnam but his ailment occurred prior to his time in country. In fact, that he has diabetes at all is its own scandal. He should have been discharged immediately. No one with diabetes is allowed to serve. He remembers being treated by the military on numerous occasions and never once was he diagnosed with diabetes. Many of those records have since disappeared.

In fact, Cote remembers a meeting he had right around 1980 with several sharp dressed men in suits that represented the U.S. government. At this meeting, Cote attempted to convince them that he had been exposed to Agent Orange while in Thailand and this lead directly to his diabetes. The suits were having none of it until he said that of course they sprayed Agent Orange in Thailand. He knew this because they were in the base's in Udorn, where he was stationed, phonebook under the name Operation Ranch Hand. Upon hearing this, the suits ushered Cote out of the room for five minutes. When he returned, they told him that the government would pay for all his treatments for life as long he agreed to never speak publicly about what had just transpired. Jim Richards also remembers spending time in Vietnam. He would need records proving that to have the government pay for all his treatments. Richards didn't get sick until 1994 and by then the records no longer existed.

If the U.S. were to ever acknowledge that Agent Orange was used and sprayed in Thailand along with Vietnam, the ramifications would be monumental. Richards, Kilgallon, and Cote, are part of a network of about 300 Vets of the 355th that have contacted each other convinced that they're sick because of their exposure to Agent Orange in Thailand. There's tens of thousands of veterans who spent all or the majority of their time in Thailand and all would now be eligible for benefits. Thailand has the highest incidents of cancer in the world, and that may or may not be caused by the country's exposure to Agent Orange. Since it isn't even acknowledged, such cause and effect can't be studied. Tens of thousands of vets would now be eligible for full medical care for a series of debilitating diseases.

In the meantime, hundreds, thousands, and possibly even tens of thousands lie in constant pain and continue to die. What's most important is that each of the three had the financial resources to deal with their diseases. If they hadn't, they would have died years ago. Most Vietnam Vets aren't so lucky. Their stories will likely never be told because they died long ago. All three men told me they believe that if the government fully acknowledged what they'd done in Thailand, the VA system would be bankrupt. In the meantime, tens of thousands of Vietnam War vets, who never actually stepped foot in Vietnam, are left going bankrupt themselves and dying from their exposure to Agent Orange, even if it isn't acknowledged by our government.


Debbie said...

Excellent article. I remember all the lawsuits and media about Agent Orange and the government not wanting to acknowledge, so they would not have to treat the vets. Shameful, but I suppose it was hard to legally prove that all their ailments were a result of Agent Orange and not natural causes or genetics.

You say "No one with diabetes is allowed to serve." I'm not sure if that is a true statement, I would have to check. In the early 1980's I believe that the Navy would not allow anyone with "insulin dependent" diabetes to serve. I'm not sure about the other branches of service. I'm thinking that if you were NON-insulin dependent, could take pills or control the diabetes with diet, that you could continue to serve. But I could be wrong.

Right Truth

Dr. Bob Kilgallon said...

I do not remember reading that anyone with diabietes can not serve.
There are several facts that were not covered.
Fact: Hundreds of our K-9 four legged soldiers will killed and their bodies were burned in Thailand by our government so that proof of the chemicals being used would not come back to the US.
Fact: Agent White will cause auto-immune disorders, (MG, MS, MD)and Thymus problems. (Lets keep that one a secret.)
Fact: M esquito Spray will cause blood disorders. I now have a rare blood disorder that causes blood clots. Other problems are still being discovered or kept secret because the US Banned its use in the US, but allowed it to be used in Thailand.
Fact: Agents orange, white, and blue along with the spray can lay dormant for up to 40 years.
Dr. Bob

tikitravel said...

Very touching article. I was recently in Vietnam and spent a lot of time learing about the history of the Vietnam war. I was literally sick to my stomach when I visited the War Museum in HCMC and saw the devastating affects that all the chemicals had on war veterans as well as the local population. The fact that these people are ignored and uncared for is disgusting.

Billy Eugene Gilbert said...

Billy Eugene Gilbert
Takli-Korat Jan. 1970-Jan., 1971
Utapao-99SRS on deployment from Davis Monthan 1972 to 1975, U-2
presently 100% Disabled, for diabites and ischemia. There was never a case of either of these conditions on either side of my ancestors. I have received some compensation from the VA, but they refuse to go back to 2002 when my health started to go to hell. can any one help me for additional back compensation?

Unknown said...

I was stationed in Thailand 1968-1969 on a very small Army compound just southwest of Udorn AFB. After Sapper attack (7/68) at the air base, I witnessed choppers spraying some type of defoliant all around our compound. Fighting the VA after denial upon denial of service related illnesses I now suffer with Diabetes, Neuropathy, collapsed arteries in both legs, teeth falling out, illnesses not suffered by any of my family medical history of this anywhere in my family. I have spoken to too many vets that have given up trying to get their rightful VA benefits. DON'T EVER GIVE UP! Get a lawyer, get help from the numerous veterans organizations, but don't give up. That's what our government wants us to do.
Don Tucker