How a Soldier has had to fight a war he never intended - with his own Veterans Administration Hospital
Sergeant Ron Francis, Member of the 431st
''I just want my country to take care of me as I did for them.''
Note: The Governor's office has been made aware of Sergeant Francis and his wife Loretta and has taken steps to care for both he and his wife. Since this post, Francis has reported that he is finally receiving the care he needs but admits that there is still a long way to go in his recovery. Nonetheless, continuing to bring awareness as to the plight of our veterans is a personal mission of mine and won't stop until every veteran that needs our help is taken care of to the fullest capabilities of our medical profession.
For my continued efforts, I was recognized at the Veterans Day celebration at our capitol and meet Governor Abbott.
I ask each of the Veterans about how their care has been since they returned home. Most of them report that things have gone well. Sadly, this is not the story of E5-Ron Francis, USAF. He has been without proper care for PTSD, Exposure to Agent Orange, Depression and Migraines. These are the stories that shame our country and bring visibility to a dysfunctional system full of incompetance and people who do not care about our Men and Women who have served. It only takes one story such as this to bring the sobering truth to a harsh reality.
This story therefore will be like no other I have written. While I will put this in its usual historical context, and of course let him tell his story, I will ask him to relay what it has been like to deal with PTSD and the effects of Agent Orange. His story
is powerful and moving, and it is one of those things that hopefully spurs us collectvively in action - able to make a difference, one soldier at a time.
Background of the 431st
In the early years of World War II, the biggest question facing the US military was how do we bomb Japanese targets with such few geographic spaces for us to take off from. Discussions between Australia's military heads and ours finally led to the creation of an Air Force Base that would be specifically designed to accomodate very long range bombers. The Lockheed P-38 was among the most popular planes flown at Amberly Air Force base in Queensland. These planes were to provide support for very long-range bombers during daylight raids and often saw combat themselves.
By May of 1943, the 431st was providing escorts for the Mitchell B-25 Bomber and built operations at Port Moresby in New Guinea. In all, they provided support for Naval battleships and Air Force Bombers throughout the Pacific theatre.
Eventually, the Command of the 431st began to extend to other Fighter Wings. One of those was the 479th F-4 Fighter Wing and it would be these pilots that would take the F4 into action for the first time in Vietnam.
Meanwhile, Vietnam began to excalate and in 1964 President Johnson signed the paperwork neccessary to build an AFB that would be designed for B-52 Bombers. The move is a strategic one that allows the United States to bomb Hanoi at will. The AFB was built at Tuy Hoa in Cameron Bay and was heavily used from the onset of its opening.
Tuy Hoa was the first airfield anywhere to be built by the USAF. When the USAF finally convinced the Corps of Engineers, the Army, and the Navy that they could do the job, a final attempt to keep USAF out of site construction was the caveat that no transport aircraft either in theater or stateside could be used for the job.
The background of Vietnam is well known to historians. It was the most covered, most photographed and most comprehensive war covered in as close to real time as one could have hoped for given it was the late sixties. Sgt. Francis was in the middle of the Tet Offensive and thus he is in a unique place to share his vivid memories of how he saw it first-hand.
To many, Tet was an unquestionable American and Allied victory. But to the people watching this at home, it will be the graphic images of death and destructive that will speak the loudest. It represented a grim moment in American history. Eight days after LBJ's stunning announcement that he would not seek the nomination for the Presidency, more and more riots would burst into violence in the streets in opposition to the war. It signaled a feeling of failure here in the states.
The siege at Khe Sanh - the final remaining battle of the Tet offensive, ended the 77 day battle. It was the longest battle of the entire war. The Air Force's relentless bombing opened the way for soldiers from the 1st Air Calvary to move in. 274 Americans died at Khe Sanh but an astounding 12,000 North Vietnamese Army are dead on the battlefield.
When it was over, there was a muted feeling of elation at the embassy and in the capitol city in general. 69% of the NVA and Khe Sanh troops that fought in Tet were killed. Their command structure was all but wiped out. But voluntary enlistment fell to an all-time low, forcing a greater number of draftees. It just escalated the conflict at home as it would abroad.
To the surprise of North Vietnam and China, the victory at Tet was seen as such a vile loss that they continued with guerrilla attacks to further weaken morale.
But to give this its proper context, we will examine what some of the other Cold-War Powers thought about the war and about Tet in-particular. And later we will look at how the Americans and French viewed the war and its aftermath. In this manner, we will see an archway through history, being able to examine one event from a 360-degree world view. In the end, you the reader deciphers fact from fiction.
The success of “Dong Khoi” movement and the rapid development of rebel forces against Diem regime in South Vietnam forced the U.S. to change its strategy to the so-called “using Vietnamese to fight against Vietnamese” and conduct the so-called “special war” (1961 – 1965).
American “special war” is defined as a modern American invasion war which used South Vietnamese military forces under American advisors and modern American equipment to fight against Vietnamese people. Despite American intervention, South Vietnamese, had fought hard and achieved success in all three major stands:
– On the pacification stand, half of “protected hamlets” and 70% of farmers were still under the control of Viet Cong in 1962 while there were only 2,200 protected hamlets left in 1965. Strategic Hamlet Program – the core American special war was basically destroyed.
– On the politic stand, the Buddhist crisis in big cities such as Hue, Da Nang and Saigon in 1963 attracted many people especially women, Buddhists and students, which contributed to the collapse of Diem regime in a coup that witnessed the assassination of both Diem and his brother Nhu in November 1963.
– On the military stand, the success of battle of Ap Bac & Binh Gia (Ba Ria) in 1963 and 1964-1965 respectively helped to destroyed American “Special War” plan.
North Vietnamese column urging South Vietnam to quit their fight against the North
Russian High School and College Prep History Book, 1989
IN THE early morning hours of January 30, 1968, the first day of Tet, the Vietnamese celebration of the lunar New Year, soldiers of the South Vietnamese National Liberation Front (NLF) breached the wall surrounding the American embassy in Saigon. They then raced across the compound where they tried but failed to enter the main building. The NLF soldiers (derisively known as the “Viet Cong” to the Americans and their Saigon allies) sprayed the embassy with rockets and fought a six-hour battle with American military police.
All nineteen NLF soldiers were killed or badly wounded along with five Americans and one South Vietnamese employee of the embassy. One reporter at the scene of the battle described it as “a butcher shop in Eden.” This attack on the very citadel of American power in South Vietnam was brazen in and of itself, but it soon became clear that this was the opening battle of a nationwide military offensive by the NLF and the North Vietnamese that shook the foundations of the American military and political establishment.
The supporters of the American war in Vietnam never recovered from the humiliation from what has gone down in the history books as the Tet Offensive.
In late 1967, General William Westmoreland, the commanding officer of all U.S. forces in Vietnam, returned to the United States at the request of President Lyndon Johnson. The president was planning on running for reelection the following year, and he wanted the General to give an upbeat assessment of the American war in Vietnam.
Westmoreland had repeatedly told the press that ''the end of war is in view.'' He talked about the leadership of the North being thinned and the morale of our men was at an all time high. But as typical with American military leadership, it was falsified information meant to sway the opinions of an American public that was completely against the war.
More than a decade after the U.S. committed itself to creating a non-communist authoritarian government in Saigon, it was no more popular in late 1967 than it was ten years earlier. It was a corrupt, vicious dictatorship that was completely dependent on the U.S. military presence to keep it from collapsing. Throughout 1967, the NLF and other freedom fighters began a systematic plan which was both a massive and well coordinated series of attacks on almost every provincial capitol in the South. The Americans and South Vietnamese puppets thought so little of their righteous enemy that it was relatively easy to organize what would be the 'Tet Offensive.''
Korea and Vietnam: Two Very Similar Wars
Historians draw many comparisons between the war in Korea and the war in Vietnam. Both were ideologically fought for similar reasons. For the United States, it was an effort to stem the aggression of Communism. For the Vietnamese it was a an effort to fight for the freedom of peoples everywhere. The decision to engage in both wars had its ideological roots in the Truman Doctrine which sought to explain the Communist ''Domino'' theory.
It was not lost on the American consciousness that appeasement is not an answer. The atrocities of WWII Germany was very much a subject of debate within society. And yet the appetite for another prolonged war here in this country wasn't strong. In this manner, both of the Cold War Powers fought these battles though proxies. In general, Americans reasoned that if we allowed Korea to become Community that the Red War machine would become richer and richer in resources, thus allowing for expansion.
In both Korea and Vietnam, Americans and many other western nations sought to keep Communism from spreading. It's Marxist economic ideas, atheistic beliefs and sophisticated military technology represented a threat that Americans in the 1950s and 1960s were truly worried about.
As in Europe, divisions were made throughout the world. Both Korea and Vietnam were divided between north and south. For years before the conflict, the United States and Britain provided ammunition and other military supplies to the south which led ultimately to troop involvement. The United States and her allies held a decisive military advantage in that we provided superior air-cover, which gave the west an advantage in open field combat. In Vietnam the advantage of air-cover was not as great. Not until the jungles were cleared through the use of Agent Orange did America uncover a series of underground tunnels that were completely invisible from the air.
There were differences between the two wars as well. Korea was a quick war, ending in just three years in a an uncomfortable stalemate. In addition, South Korea had the assistance of United Nations troops while both Vietnam and Korea had the assistance of the Cold-War rivals. Korea's involvement in the Vietnam War was in many ways a proxy extension of its own war that became the centerpiece of their history.
Below is an excerpt from a North Korean High School textbook that was published in 2008.
The Vietnam War as seen by North Korea
The American bastards were unparalleled in their ignorance and arrogance. The imperial powers and the puppet government of South Vietnam sought to strip the people of their dignity and plunder their resources for the sheer excess of greed. The garish landscape of American hunger for the worlds resources was completely presumptuous of the will of the everyday person.
After the failure of the French Army at Diem Bien Phu, when they saw that could no longer realize their prolonged conspiracy, they widened and internationalized the Indochina war. Not abiding by the geneva Accords concerning Indochina, America ''filled the vacancy in South Vietnam.
It was clear that it was in American plans to come in and develop the Vietnamese economy using the resources that they could extract from the country. In accordance with the 'Vietnamization'' of the war, the American army and vassal armies extricated themselves from the war to lessen the full advantage of the flow of blood in the war, at the same time increasing and taking full advantage of the flow of blood of the puppet army, to make vietnamese blood flow. In reality, this was a plot to kill Vietnamese people to kill other Vietnamese people, leaving the nation too weak to stand on its own against American Imperialism.
As with our great war for independence, the Americans were evil and gruesome in their method of killing unarmed civilians. The Mai Lai incident- where unarmed and unassuming citizens in a quiet town were murdered with great atrocity. The barbaric nature of the acts committed against women and children of the village of Mai Lai was so great that even the American public was partially shocked. They branded the villagers with hot irons, crushed a child's head under their boots, and set wild dogs on the elderly. After all was over with, they then took the torch to the village, ensuring that not one travel of humanity ever existed.
The War Ends
The Vietnam War came to an end when the American Bastards realized they could not win against the power of the Freedom Fighters. The Paris Peace accords were an act of showmanship because the American people had not wanted the war to continue. In reality, the American Imperialists were left with little choice but to concede the war. Facing the danger of total destruction of its ''Special War' forces, a violent and vicious bombing attack of Hanoi was their last hope of winning the war. For eight straight weeks, American planes dropped poison and flammable bombs that ravaged the city and countryside. The American cowards fled in 1973 and within three years the Freedom Fighters of the North captured the capitol and the American Embassy in 1975.
Even after they left in 1973, they continued to wage the war through minions and mercenaries. An undercover army continued to circumvent the Paris Peace accords but the war of resistance against the Americans to rescue our country ended with the Spring Battle of 1975: The Battle of Ho Chi Minh City. (Saigon)
French Canadian History Text Book
It was not only the configuration of world politics that had altered by the 1960s. So had the policy of the United States, President Kennedy and President Johnson proved to be more war hawkish than either of their two predecessors. Kennedy authorized the use of dirty tricks by the CIA in foreign countries with no compunction or apology when they were exposed. His only regret about the failed Bay of Pigs invasion was that it had failed. Most importantly, both Kennedy and Johnson made a quagmire out of Indochina. Like Korea, Vietnam had been partitioned into Communist and Non-Communist states after the Second World War.
When French provincial governors proved unable to stem the growth of Communism, Canada became involved at an International level. From the outset Canada had decided itself into believing that it had a free hand to carry out its work without either upsetting the Americans or appearing to act merely as an agent of the United States.
In 1965, Prime Minister Lester Pearson was hoping to mediate in 1965 and dared to suggest that America might cease its relentless bombing until negotiations were underway. Pearson was given a good dressing-down by President Johnson in a closed door meeting where he was taken physically by the lapels and dressed him down with Texas profanity. Thereafter, Canada now sought to distant themselves from the policies of the ''Ugly Americans'' although never by open withdrawal from the Americans defence umbrella.*
*Bumstead, J.M. A History of the Canadian Peoples. Quebec, Oxford University Press, 1998
Sergeant Ron Francis, Member of the 431st
In His Own Words
I grew up in Florida in a tiny town that was half-swamp, half-farmland, and a scattered house or two in-between. There were eight of us kids and we were more than a handful I am sure. But as I grew up, I was determined not to have my mother or father pay for my schooling. Both of my parents would get up before the sun rose and returned when the sun went down. They were orange pickers.
You just didn't see too many black people in high-paying jobs back then and no one was really giving us the education we needed. Since my grades weren't quite good enough, the only other option for me to get my schooling was to enlist. The year was 1967, and for some reason I chose the Air Force. Don't ask me why - it was a good decision then and one that is a good decision now.
Their recruitment of me happened with great speed. Shortly after a Viet Cong detachment caught an American battalion by surprise and caused the miliatray field leaders to ask for a dramatic increase in the number of men over there. 1967 - for some it was a turning point where our ages met the timing and the opportunity. The military stepped up its efforts all accross the USA but when I got over to Vietnam, it seemed just to me, that there were a lot of boys form Alabama, Flordia, Georgia, Carolinas, you know, its like they picked the deep south.
You couldn't help but be a little scared when you are are just in your youthful years and heading to a place where there was a lot of fighting and killing. Everyone wondered what would happen next. One of the introductions we would get is the
One thing at recruitment they told us was that we were there to liberate an oppressed people. We were told the 'Charlie' was afraid of us, we were invincible, and this resonated with me. After all, my parents were the grandchildren of slaves. Liberating people, it seemed just like the right thing to do.
Basic training was in California, clear on the other side of the country. I didn't have the time to get homesick, although I was. Time flew by in Basic and within seven weeks of me signing up, I was crowded onto a jammed plane and on my way to a place I had only heard of once before and knew even less out about! Vietnam was a world away! The boys on the plane were rowdy throughout the entire flight, until we began to descend. And then it got quiet, it got serious. You could of heard a pin drop.
These super bright lights blazed through the clouds and greeted us upon landing because the runway was barely lit. Most of us were what they called, ''Cherry boys'' we hadn't been with a woman yet. Hopefully that is a reference you understand! Maybe that is what made us so aggressive in battle. I wondered about girls the moment I landed. There sure weren't a lot of available women of color over there, and I was very shy. Meanwhile - we landed, they unloaded us away from the terminal, made us wait all night long until the busses came at dawn. Talk about tired!
The first thing you feel when the doors open and you look outside is the smell. It's the smell of the jungle, the water, humidity and all the things that go with it. The only thing that made that smell go away was Pabst Blue Ribbon and we quickly got into the beer because of the stench.
In the morning it felt just like home. Warm, humid, sticky, and mosquitos. Didn't bother me at all. I was assigned to Logistics but through some mistake I ended up for several weeks at the Medical Center helping soldiers of both South Vietnamese and American military get help. I also saw folks clear from Ireland and Australia. They were all there. Initially, things weren't quite so bad for our guys. I wasn't exactly ready to see some of the wounded. But believe it or not, most were not shot.
Soldiers fell. One guy broke his leg playing volleyball, and they ended up sending him home! Can you see it? His buddies are all getting shot at and (stepping on) mines and all that....and then you get, ''I suffered a broken leg...playing volleyball!'' Not real heroic if you ask me, but after all, they DID wear the flag of our country. Ha, soldiers in arms!
I worked with the guys that were loading missiles and bombs onto the planes. We worked with the munitions ordinance that put timing devices on the bombs, including smoke-bombs and Napalm. You worked in groups - five or six people each day, day in and day out. You learn everyone's moves. It's like a football team, where everyone has a position and you know everything about them. It was one of the positives i took out of the war.
After about a month, I get called in. ''Hey Francis, you have been in the wrong place...report to the air base at Tuy Hoa right now!'' And just like that, I was gone. Now I was in Logistics, handling our inventory, making sure that the weaponry and supplies we got in were in fact what is on the packing slip. I never knew why it was....but a lot of times the packing slip would indicate that there were a certain amount of hand grenades and the box wouldn't have anywhere neat that much. It was common. I spoke to other guys in my position at other bases, they all said the same thing pretty much. They were always short on weapons. Always. One time, it got me in trouble too.
I was asked to fit the Hercules HC-130s that belonged to one of the other fighter wings. A simple box of bolts came in and it was almost empty. I took it to the officer in charge. ''I got this box and it can't be right, there's hardly any bolts in this box!'' Now these may have just been bolts, but these were important bolts. Planes needed spare parts when they fly, all the time...ESPECIALLY the cargo planes. The commanding officer slammed his fist down and told me to go ''find the damn bolts.'' I really didn't know what to do. I knew that these were often sold on the black market to NVA.
All the nails, screws, hammers, nuts and bolts....these were valuable things during Vietnam. So I went out and found a supplier, who sold me back the American bolts that someone along the way sold them. It happened all the time. There was a lot of corruption throughout the Vietnam war and the individual shippers and suppliers of weaponry made out like bandits. And I am sure it was happening here too.
You would get homesick in the beginning. The only news we heard was from Armed Services Network. They didn't really report the demonstrations and protests. The only way we heard about them was in letters from home. A Chaplain would come around and check our morale, laugh with us and pray too. So many soldiers were now arriving that we couldn't really keep a good eye on everything. The news reporters from CBS A Typical Evening of Beer and Brotherhood
and NBC were commonplace arrivals at the AFB. I met them all and was able to get some insight about things from them. It was really surprising to hear that many people were protesting the war. It wasn't that way when we left, or at least if it was, I wasn't aware of it. I wasn't really too keen on the news anyway, but once i was in the middle of it all, that changed.
The base was a launch point for injured soldiers heading to the 71st Evacuation Hospital in the far south of Vietnam. It was about a three hour flight I suppose. Going out and coming in, that was the chaotic nature of where I was. The news people came through in greater and greater numbers.
Then Tet happened. Everything changed with Tet. The war became shaky and unpredictable. Not knowing what would happen next was a lot worse than knowing. Our morale began to fall. You would see wounded guys come and go, some worse than others, and some weren't recognizable either.
We knew there would always be a possibility of attack on us because we were close to the action. Still, in the time I was there, it only happened once. You would have thought it was a legion of men, but it was a small detatchment. On this warm night in July, most of us were just getting into bed and the card games were winding down. ''BAM'' BAM-BAM'' Explosions all along the flight line! Guys yelling, alarms going off, the ground under your feet seemed to jump with each explosion. Right away, a pair of the HC-130s were hit.
Our radios began to go crazy. All of a sudden, almost every unit of Americans, Aussies, Canadians, and British were being lit up. Guys are calling in attacks from all over. And you know it isn't just a one-time thing. It was very well planned and they were saying that 80,000 Viet Cong and NVA were hitting us all at once.
For seven months they prepared for this offensive. By sneaking weapons and mortars inside bags of rice they put together quite a fire fight. We heard that even our embassy in Saigon had been stormed and we were like, looking at one another, ''What did they say?'' When morning broke, you could sense the guys were pissed and angry. I wouldn't even call it anything but 'incensed.'' Now you had boys who were reluctant warriors suddenly notch-it-up and become men.
These particular planes were used in the rescue and recovery of our guys at sea and elsewhere. The cracks of gunfire had been heard once in a great while off in the distance. But on this night, it was right in your head, ringing your ears. They wanted to destroy aircraft and the landing strip - whcih is a pretty important thing. Once we detected them, it was all over for them. In the end, they knocked out two C-130s and several more were damaged. One of our C-47s took a direct hit and an escort fighter was destroyed too.
Once they were shot and killed - their arsenal was evaluated. It was my team's job to inventory them, Twelve guys - just twelve - had two M-67 recoils, (anti-tank weapons) a M-29 Mortar and tool, (Firing mechanism), Rocket-Launchers, a 35-40 Rocket, about a dozen satchel chargers and lots of hand-held weapons. These were mostly OUR weapons! I thought, ''well damn, that's why my inventory is never right...someone is taking these right out from under our noses.'' And that's what I mean when I tell you that the war was just thrown together and disorganized. I'd like to think you wouldn't see that today, but I guess with us, you'll never know, right?
Through it all, we made out alright. But I want to tell you, the training of the 31st SPS and their response was critical to us not seeing more wounded. We had just one significantly wounded soldier and three others slightly wounded. Those boys were excellent at protecting us, making us get over the 'hump' that Tet had done to us.
You learn how people react in stressful situations. The guys that were with me were a real cross-section of Americans. You had bikers and poetry majors and city dwellers and farm types. You had blacks and whites and Mexicans and just about anyone else. We were all thrown together. And now I was watching something I hadn't been taught to ever expect, and that was a white man respecting a black man as his equal. To tell you the truth, I hadn't expected that.
The South Vietnamese Air Force was quickly on the spot to provide air cover. The members of the 834th were on the flight line managed to save a couple of our C-130s under heavy gunfire. Although the battle was short compared to what other guys went through, it was enough to vaporize my peace of mind. Every time I heard that dinstinctive ''pop pop pop'' it upset my stomach. I would get nauseous and I would get headaches. I noticed that when I was writing letters home that my hands were jittery and yet I wasn't infantry....I was feeling all of this from a biit of a distance! How do the guys who were in the middle of it hold themselves together?
Speaking of air cover, the Americans and Brits really had the guys backs. Day two and three of Tet actually went our way. It was the precision bombing of Agent Orange that made the difference. Guys would tell me that unlike regular ordinances and bombs, Agent Orange would flutter to the ground and just spread like a fine dust. It had a sinister smell and when it hits there is a ball of fire and it keeps traveling - burning everything in its path.
For the black soldier who was winning respect on the battlefield, we were still not quite there yet. I knew we were having troubles with race back home. But then Dr. King was shot. You have ti understand what the man was to us. He was equal to Jesus in some of the eyes of black Americans. He was like Gandhi. They called everyone together and the radio officer stood on a table and said that Dr. King had been shot. Some of the black soldiers looked at the white soldiers with disdain right then. But then a white officer asks for quiet while we prayed. Such a thing just made me feel so united with my brothers. Oh yes, there were a lot of followers of Malcolm-X and Elijah Muhammad, but they were so outnumbered and so dependent on the white guys and vice-versa that it so faded away.
Mike Wallace of CBS came through often. I liked him because he'd have his cameraman take a quick video of me telling my mom and dad how things were and then when he'd get to the states he'd mail it to them. We saw each other a lot. It got to be so much that he would see me and call me 'Snap' because I always seemed to be right there to assist whenever he needed me. ''Snap'' he'd say, ''...Can you help me with my ---'' And I'd already have his bags and cameraman bags off the plane for him. ''You are faster than I can snap, he'd say, and that's how I got my name - ''Snap.''
He was gracious but I soon learned that you have to be very careful what you say, even in small talk, to a guy like Wallace. He had a way of asking you questions in the most unassuming manner. He talked to everybody and we weren't exactly trained in what to say, and what 'not' to say. One of the drivers there to greet him got in a lot of hot water for revealing subtle things about our inventory problems.
In the summer of 1968, CBS ran a story about the carelessness of our inventory management. A village in Laos was discovered to be a transport point for American hand grenades and rocket launchers. In 1970, it was discovered that a village just inside Cambodia was where the NVA and Communist military operations were. Our soldiers found a lot of our own weapons there. But the NVA themselves had vanished.
Meanwhile, empty boxes kept coming into the airport. It highlighted the total lack of organization we had over there. People think the military is about precision and perfection, and what I discovered is that we were fighting that war by the seat of our pants with absolutely no guide to go by and whenever possible people skirted the rules - even out top brass. ESPECIALLY our top brass.
In May of 1968, the war was getting really bad. It's not that it wasn't bad before....But there was a seriousness amongst the command that wasn't there when I arrived. They were no longer brainwashing us about our American invincibility. More and more cargo planes took off with the caskets of our men inside them. I began to feel what is called 'War Guilt'' because I wasn't exactly on the front lines and didn't know why these brothers should die while I was walking around with a clipboard. This is one manner in which PTSD begins to take hold. It begins with guilt and then trepidation.
There would be lulls in the fighting. The Vietnamese seemed to come and go on base at will. I was sure that we had some bad apples among us. I looked at all these brave men fighting alongside us. I made friends with guys from Australia and India. These are friends you meet and you never forget them. Wonderful men, all of them.
In late 1968, things got real bad. I was assigned to load our C-123s with cannisters of Agent Orange. These were more like orange-barrels that were often rusted and re-used over and over again. It would be sprayed from the air at low altitudes. But I was handling this stuff in its most concentrated forms, It didn't have an obvious smell or fragrance until it was dropped from a plane, but I got burned by it once because I wasn't careful. Then again, not one person told me how bad it was. I don't think anyone really knew.
The Horrible Effects of Agent Orange on the Environment
When the planes and choppers would land, there would be orange dust misted all around the inside of the cargo area. We had to go in and spray them down. Then the same crew would reload, and get right back on, making another trip. The letters from home would pick us up. I would say it had the effect of grounding us and making us think of family back home.
One time I asked if I could go alongside the bay to some of the little towns, just to get away from it all. So one of the guys said he was going to pick up supplies and I could help him, I just needed to clear it with my Soop. (Higher Officer) No one ever sweat such things so I was cleared to go. As soon as we got out on the open road, we see caravans of trucks carrying supplies to soldIers. All along the roadside are ropes with signs to let us know if there are mines or if they are cleared. ''It's a much different world away from the safety of my base.'' I remember thinking.
The stench in some places would make you want to wretch. It was a visually beautiful place, oh, very pretty. And then you'd see burned out villages along the way, skeletons in Viet Cong uniforms and parts of bodies would be littered along the countryside. You'd look up and see birds circling overhead and you'd just know the dead were just over the hillside. But the smell would, well it would get in your eyes, on your skin, on your clothes. There was no getting around it.
We noticed immediately that there were weaknesses in the defense of our base. Most obvious was the location of the perimeter road directly adjacent to the perimeter fence on the western and southern boundaries of the base. The lights on the fence meant that any kind of surveillence was not going to actually be done in the darkness of night. Our guys would be fully illuminated. Secondly, the primary power was coming from a box well above the ground, so if you knock that out, you knock out all of the power. I had become somewhat of a specialist while in training and I wanted to get out from counting and logistics.
Several guys in the building operations welcomed my advice. But others thought I was being uppity. ''Know your G-d Damned Role Francis! '' Well, although we weren't attacked after the one in July, we had to send extra resources where they needn't have been. And I was stuck in Logistics. I was growing restless.
At least one good thing happened. Shortly before I was to leave in 1972, I was promoted to E5, Sergeant. I breathed a lot easier and by then I was really good at what I did. My team had been accustomed to managing incoming gear, now we had to manage the reduction. A young enlisted lady showed up one day, having been reassigned to our group. I fell in love with her at first sight and Loretta and I have been inseperable ever since.
Affects of Agent Orange and the Veterans Administration
But not long after I got home, I began having headaches. Bad ones too. I couldn't see, I'd throw up. Loretta, having worked in the same vicinity was worried about me. I felt like I was losing my vision. I was diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy and tuberculosis. I couldn't shake it. Three out of four of my children were born with birth defects too. Two were born with Spina Bifada, a known result of Agent Orange.
I began remembering those barrels. And I remember that distinct smell of Napalm too. I began wondering, 'well just how much of that stuff was I exposed to?'' I talked to some of the guys that served under me and several of them developed Lymph-Node Cancer and have since died. Everyone had some sort of health problems. But the VA wouldn't do much for me.
Meanwhile, I took a job, having to start over in life. There were no jobs for Vietnam Veterans who were black....just none. I started as a bus-boy in McDonalds for $2.31 p/h. That was harder than anything else. I was really broken, but I was providing for Loretta and for the care of my children. By the time my third child was born, we were broke. Medical bills and tension were he norm. I took a second job, and then a third job. One of them was working with emotionally disturbed kids at a school. At first I was merely a janitor, but the principal saw how i interacted with the kids.
''You should teach,'' she said. I hadn't thought of it since I had no training in it. ''Well okay, I'll try it.'' So pretty soon I quit McDonalds and I quit picking up trash for the city and stuck with teaching special needs children. I felt like I had come full circle now. I found something that I enjoyed and was good at. I still do it, and it makes everything much better. Perspective you know. Still --- I kept on getting sicker and sicker.
I would go to the VA hospital and I would wait to see someone. All day long. Finally someone would come up to me and say, ''Mr. Francis, there's no one to see you today, please come back anoher day.'' Time and time again I waited to go and see a Neurologist. Time and time again, I went home without seeing anyone. Finally, I got to see a Psychiatrist. He saw me for all of 90 seconds. Yes, you heard right....90 seconds. I answered a few questions, and they told me that I needed to come back to get a CT Scan. I booked an appointment and got to wait all day, and was sent home.
By now, I was really suffering. I had nightmares. I was missing a lot of work, and the headaches were getting worse. My fourth child was born in 1984 and she didn't last a month. Born premature and with Spina Bifida, she was just helpless. Loretta and I meanwhile, became hopeless. My medical bills were through the roof and I tried to work out payment plans, to do things the right way. I grew more and more depressed as we buried our daughter.
Finally the response of the VA was to over-medicate me. I knew that it wasn't the right thing, but by now, I would do anything. Loretta was also medicating now. As you can imagine, a mother with a nightmare and only one healthy child -- she was broken. We all were. I resisted taking much of the medcation that they gave me because I saw too many of my peers become vegetables. The VA still had never spent more than one meeting with me, and yet I was prescribed ELEVEN different medications. Almost all of them were Opiates. Loretta needed anti-depressants and the same thing was happening to her.
She would be told to arrive at the VA hospital at nine in the morning and at 4pm she still was waiting. If you leave for any reason while they call you, forget getting back in. Loretta left to go to the restroom when they called her. She lost her place, and never got to see a doctor. When she complained, they told her that if she continued to protest they would have her removed from the waiting room.
My tuberculosis was getting worse. I wasn't sleeping well due to nightmares and headaches, but now I was up coughing. I had no choice but to take valium so that I could rest. And then you know what happened, I got hooked. I had a pretty bad attack one night and made yet another appointment to the VA hospital.
I was supposed to be seen at 10:00 AM and six hours later, I was still waiting. I did get to see a doctor for the first time. She was a physician's assistant but at least it was someone. Bless her heart, she was so empathetic to me. For the first time I felt like someone cared. And just like that, she was gone.
It got me to thinking about potential. How come there had finally been someone really caring after nearly TEN years of my wife and I getting such a terrible run-around? The medical bills for my children were so great that they began to dock my paycheck. Depression from the war was bad enough, but this was compounding my mental state in the worst way.
Then, after nearly a decade of being on medication and anti-depressants, my prescription rates jumped through the roof and my deductable went updramatcially. We were supposed to be able to get our prescriptions through the VA at a reduced cost. Now that was changing. Certain medicines that I was dependent on were way out of reach for me. And there was often no alternative.
Every time I would sit in the lobby of the VA, I would meet veterans whose stories were like mine. Some of the guys did what they had to do to get the things they needed. I didn't begrudge them for lying or saying what they had to say in order to get the things they needed. It just wasn't the way I was raised to do things. But after suffering the things I did, I couldn't blame them at all. Loretta was desperate to get her mind around what was happening, and she began to pay attention to the affects of Agent Orange.
I had heard all of these things but hadn't paid much attention until now. A court case offered a class-action lawsuit due to the effects of Agent Orange. All of the things I had suffered were right there in public thanks to the congressional hearings on Agent Orange and Dioxin. The truth was out now. Headaches, Depression, PTSD, Blood Pressure, Neuropathy, Tuberculosis - ALL of them were symptoms of Agent Orange. But worst of all is what it did to my genetics and the fact that I passed down birth defects to my unborn children thanks to Agent Orange.
I saw a 60-Minutes special on the effects of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese people. It was sprayed directly on them in an effort to defoliate the forest. When I saw pictures of what was happening to them, it was all the more heartbreaking.
I felt a new emotion now - Guilt. It was me who was responsible for ensuring the orange barrels were accounted for and loaded onto planes and choppers. It deepened my depression. Without the medicine I had become dependent on, and with the realization that something I did had caused such suffering --- I now became suicidal and wihdrawn. Loretta had been that way for years, but we still stuck by one another. Each of us were living in our isolated world but somehow we stuck together.
I saw pictures of horribly deformed Vietnamese children. Their stories were sad and as I said, I felt responsible. But then I heard that the US was paying huge reparations to the Vietnamese for our careless spraying of such a toxic chemcial. We learned that the fresh water rivers were cesspools of chemicals and centuries old habitats were destroyed. We paid tens of millions of dollars to Vietnam. To be honest, I got enraged. It wasn't that they didn't deserve the compensation - it was that our own people, our own soldiers, were getting shoved aside.
I began to keep up with Congress and what was happening in all of the things associated with Herbicide sprays used in Vietnam. It kind of kept things from getting worse for me, and it gave me a sense of purpose. I learned that back in 2007, the United States began to spend several billion dollars to help rebuild and resettle the contamination around Tuy Hoa, Da Nang and Bien Hoa airports. Finally, the logistics officers at those places were recognized as being people who experienced the greatest risk.
Things began to turn around finally. In April of this past year (2015) - Congress finally recognized that soldiers like me, who were in direct contact with Agent Orange, needed increased aid. The good news is that they are said to be providing chronic health care and medical assistance to all of us. If only it were enacted. After Congress approved the bill into law, I remained hopeful that we could now get the help we needed.
We set an appointment in August of 2015 for each of us to see a doctor and get fully diagnosed as suffering the effects of Agent Orange. Over the phone, things seemed really positive. We even had the names of the two doctors that would see us and evaluate us. We showed up for our appointment and the time came and passed. Two hours....Three hours....Four hours....We repeatedly went up to the front desk to ask what the story was, and each time we were told to just ''wait a little longer.'' It grew dark outside and still we hadn't been able to see anyone. Since we needed full check-ups and lab-work it became obvious that we weren't going to see anyone. Another day lost.
At 5:30, they finally told us we needed to reschedule our appointment. And this is where we are at today. Nothing has changed. Nothing. I see where we go out of our way to let it be known that we are helping the Vietnamese people in our on-going effort to apologize to the world about the things we have done. But we are so worried about everyone else that we aren't worrying about our own.
In some ways, I am resigned to the fact that we will not only never get the help we need, but that we will continue to pay wages out of my paycheck and two children with horrible birth-defects. In some ways, I just finally accepted the fact that we weren't going to get the help we need and in a way, it has helped me through everything. I tell you that my faith in God has been strong and it pulls me through.
When it is all said and done, I meet with my brethren and we all have a similar expereince...each of us were someone in Vietnam but we seem to be no one at home. ***