|After the war, Vietnam veteran Steve Dudich joined the Salvation Army as a lieutenant where he served impoverished neighborhoods in the Bay Area.|
"Were you in Vietnam?"
That’s a haunting question Steve Dudich, of Arroyo Grande, has heard more times than he cares to remember.
Doctors asked when they detected his daughter had a rare cancer of the forehead, when his wife miscarried a child and when he developed ischemic heart disease, forcing his heart to beat 250 beats per minute, more than twice as fast as it should be beating.
A Serbian whose family fled to America, Dudich joined the Marines at 16 years old (his father, he said, forged his mother’s signature on the recruitment paperwork). As soon as he caught wind that the Russians were transporting missiles to Cuba, he vowed he would do whatever he could to fight communism.
He never imagined it would lead him into battle against his own government.
“I’ve been an Agent Orange warrior ever since I was first in (the) country. I was burned bad by that stuff,” Dudich said. “Agent Orange has destroyed my life. It has harmed my children, it has harmed my first wife … what they have done to us and put us through when we came home, there’s no excuse for what this government did.”
U.S. forces sprayed more than 19 million gallons of the herbicide throughout Vietnam between 1961 and 1972, using the powerful acid to cut down dense foliage enemies used for cover.
Dudich sprinted through a barrage of bamboo doused in Agent Orange. The splinters penetrated his skin, injecting the herbicide into his body hundreds of times. The pain became overwhelming. He stripped down to his skivvies.
“People thought I’d gone crazy. I looked like I’d been dipped in a vat of acid,” Dudich said. “That’s where I think I got my worst contamination.”
The effects are lasting.
He developed outbreaks of rashes and blisters throughout his body, repulsing his young daughters.
“They were scared of me," Dudich said. "My eyes would have blisters, my face would have blisters. I’d stay in my room and not come out.”
His daughters harbor resentment, Dudich said. Although not physically visible, they sustain secondary exposure to Agent Orange.
One of his daughters said she considers herself “tweaked.”
Dudich has spent his life advocating for veterans rights.
Before his exposure to the herbicide, Dudich was a brash soldier. He carried a Ruger Blackhawk 357 revolver and quick drew it like a cowboy. He would wear a white T-shirt instead of Army camouflage and a soft cover instead of hard helmet.
The bright target would flush out snipers, and as soon as Dudich found out where they were firing from, he’d call in an airstrike.
“I had every attitude at my young age that I could have. I’m ghetto born and bred, man.”
Years after the war, Dudich’s commanding officers offered to promote him to captain with retroactive pay, and award him the Navy Cross. He turned them down.
“What’s that do for me?” Dudich asked.
Eventually, Dudich would be commissioned as an officer, however. He joined the Salvation Army as a lieutenant where he served impoverished neighborhoods in the Bay Area.
“Never have I regretted going into the service,” Dudich said. “I learned so much through the war. Going forward, I can see the things other people just can’t see.”