Wife recounts years of struggles for late husband to finally receive benefits
Francesca Cesare sat behind a stack of her husband's medical records at her spotless town house and told how wounds from the Vietnam War ate away at the man she loved for nearly 50 years.
The Malta woman met Robert Cesare on his birthday in a Troy nightclub in 1965, the year he graduated from Colonie's Shaker High School and enlisted in the Army to fight in Vietnam. After 13 months in the war zone, he came home a changed man on St. Patrick's Day in 1967.
Over the following decades, he suffered from cysts and boils on his body and post traumatic-combat stress that nearly tore his family apart. He sought disability benefits for exposure to Agent Orange — a blend of chemicals used by U.S. armed forces in Vietnam to eliminate foliage that provided cover for the enemy — but the Department of Veterans Affairs repeatedly rejected his claims until days before he died, according to records.
"He was denied so many years until he was on his deathbed," Francesca Cesare said from her home in the Luther Forest development. "What good is that? At the end of his life, they finally admit it."
It's a time of recognition for some Vietnam veterans in the Capital Region, but not for all. On Friday, a group gathered in Saratoga Springs to kick off a series of events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the war in which 2.7 million Americans served from 1964 through 1973. In Albany, the Tri-County Council of Vietnam Era Veterans, who have worked to restore the Albany County Vietnam Veterans Memorial near the state Capitol, will rededicate the site at a Sept. 20 ceremony. But the legacy of Agent Orange still haunts many who served in the war, and their families.
The United States sprayed 20 million gallons of herbicides in Vietnam between 1962 and 1971. Many veterans experience health problems that they attribute Agent Orange, and the VA recognizes dozens of diseases linked to the chemical defoliant.
"That's been a struggle for us forever, and we're still battling," said 65-year-old Ned Foote of Queensbury who lost his leg in combat and is president of the New York State Council Vietnam Veterans of America.
Francesca Cesare, who is 67, said she wanted to recount her family's nearly half-century struggle because she feels other veterans aren't receiving compensation from the VA for wounds they suffered like her husband's. "I have to be his voice because it needs to be heard," said the widow, who in 1958 immigrated from southern Italy and settled in Watervliet.
Growing up in Latham, Bob Cesare liked music and "cars were his passion," his wife recalled. He was one of the first Shaker graduates to volunteer for Vietnam. Cesare was an infantryman with the 2nd Battalion, 79th Field Artillery near An Khe and then Pleiku. Francesca Cesare wrote to Bob every day.
"I wanted him to know he had something to come back to," she said. The soldier asked her to marry him in a letter from Vietnam. He mailed her a coffeepot with hundreds of dollars for his father to buy her an engagement ring.
In Vietnam, Cesare and others in his unit complained about neck and skin irritations that worsened when they shaved, Francesca said. "He knew he was sprayed with Agent Orange," she said. When Cesare returned, his family picked him up at the Albany airport where he kissed the asphalt, but Francesca Cesare said they were shocked at his physical condition. He was gaunt and there was a distant look in his eyes.
"His mother said, 'Oh, my God, that's not my son,'" Francesca Cesare recalled.
Veterans exposed to Agent Orange are eligible for disability compensation. Under a "presumptive policy" instituted by Congress in 1991, vets who served in Vietnam between Jan. 9, 1962, and May 7, 1975, need not prove a direct service connection to their illness, as they must with other wounds. The policy was designed to simplify the process of applying for compensation for diseases the VA links to Agent Orange exposure, including Parkinson's disease, respiratory cancer and the skin condition chloracne, which can afflict people who come into contact with chemicals.
Foote said care at the Albany VA has vastly improved in the past 10 years, but the disability claims approval process is separate from care provided at VA hospitals and veterans suffering from ailments need to ask county or state service officers for assistance in submitting claims.
Bob and Francesca Cesare married Oct. 14, 1967. He took a job as a truck driver. The couple had two daughters, Michele Campbell and Angela Cesare. His skin problems intensified in 1970. Doctors at the Albany Stratton VA Medical Center diagnosed him with chloracne.
Cesare came down with foot fungus and his teeth started to break, his wife said. VA staff removed the boils, tested his blood and took body scans. His skin breakouts always returned, his wife said. The couple moved to New Jersey and then Texas. Cesare sank deep into post-combat depression. The couple separated for a time before reuniting and buying a house in Clifton Park in 1991.
Over the years, Cesare complained that his skin problems stemmed from Agent Orange exposure. But the VA turned him down for Agent Orange benefits at least five times, his wife said. She keeps written records going back more than 30 years. "He was always denied for chloracne and post-traumatic stress disorder, yet he was being treated for them at the VA," Francesca Cesare said. She said the VA lost her husband's medical records and occasionally neglected to respond to claims he filed.
Fed up, in October 2012 she wrote a letter about her husband's plight and sent it to the White House. About six months later, the VA granted Cesare 40 percent disability for PTSD and tinnitus, or ringing in the ears. He received nothing for exposure to Agent Orange. A year later, Cesare discovered a mass on his back. This past February, doctors at the Albany VA found terminal cancer in his lungs, kidney and pancreas. That shocked his wife because previous blood tests at the VA did not indicate any problems, she said.
On Feb. 12, an Albany VA doctor acknowledged Cesare was exposed to Agent Orange and deserved to be compensated. On Feb. 27, the VA rated Cesare 100 percent disabled and ruled he was eligible for $3,332 a month in support. Cesare died four days later at the Albany VA. He was 66.
His death certificate states he died from respiratory failure due to cancer in both lungs, "which was also due to a consequence of Agent Orange and cigarette smoking." Cesare smoked cigarettes for about 20 years until 1991, his wife said.
As the widow of a veteran exposed to Agent Orange, Francesca Cesare receives $1,235 a month from the government. She works part time to stay busy and to keep her mind off her husband's plight. She hopes others will learn from her story, and the VA will do better.