When Bob Blower was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2001, he underwent successful surgery and moved on.
A year later, when his friend Vince Kilmartin was diagnosed with prostate cancer, Blower helped guide him through the treatment. Kilmartin also underwent successful surgery to treat the disease.
Six years later, in 2008, Kilmartin happened to see in a newspaper article that a Veterans Administration study found a link between exposure to Agent Orange, the anti-defoliant used in Vietnam, and prostate cancer.
When he spoke to someone in the Oakland VA office, Kilmartin learned that not only was he eligible for benefits related to his treatment for prostate cancer, but also for the two heart procedures he'd had to put stents in because of blocked arteries.
Prostate cancer and blocked arteries are just two medical conditions the Veterans Administration links to exposure to Agent Orange. Although the VA doesn’t contact veterans about potential benefits they may be due, it does have a wealth of information on its website ( va.gov, under benefits, special groups, Vietnam veterans). Veterans have to take the initiative, though.
Kilmartin received his benefits in 2008, but the veteran with 20 years of active duty — five in the U.S. Navy and 15 more in the U.S. Coast guard after a career in education — didn't give it much thought afterward.
But last fall when he and Blower were playing a round of golf, their having had prostate cancer came up in conversation.
“I said, ‘Bob, did you ever apply for VA benefits?’” Kilmartin remembered. “He said, ‘No, how would I know that?’”
Blower spent five years in the Navy, including a year aboard the USS Magoffin, a TAC Transport, which was docked in Danang in 1966. He left the military after five years in the naval reserves, and moved onto his civilian life, becoming a Realtor and raising a family.
When he was diagnosed with cancer, his past military service never entered his mind, but Kilmartin knew better.
“He mentored me,” Blower said. “He told me you have to get all your medical records, your military records and where your ship was.”
The two met with Jerry Jolly at the San Joaquin County Veterans Services office and provided Blower’s discharge papers, the name of his ship and the medical records that proved he'd had prostate cancer. Blower is now awaiting his benefits.
“We started thinking there are probably a lot of guys like me who didn’t know they were eligible,” Blower said.
Exposure to Agent Orange has been linked to a 52 percent overall increased risk of prostate cancer in Vietnam vets, according to an analysis published in the American Cancer Society journal Cancer. Spreading the word about the connection, and the benefits available, has become the mission of Kilmartin and Blower.
It’s been one of Tino Adame’s jobs for a long time as the American Legion’s state chairman of veteran affairs and rehabilitation.
“My job is to get the word out to veterans through the American Legion or any other veterans organization, any way I can,” Adame said. “I need to get veterans informed about Agent Orange, what’s covered. “
It’s important work for Adame, a U.S. Marine who served in Vietnam in 1966. He’s devoted to veterans and was long involved with Stockton’s Karl Ross American Legion post before working at the state level.
Adame was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2010 and received VA benefits.
He is now undergoing chemotherapy for tumors on his kidneys, but that cancer is not linked to Agent Orange at this time.
The U.S. military sprayed nearly 20 million gallons of herbicides on South Vietnam and parts of Laos and Cambodia from 1962 to 1971 to defoliate the jungle cover of enemy soldiers and to destroy their food source. Veterans exposed to the chemicals, in particular dioxin, began experiencing illnesses as early as the 1970s. The U.S. government initially resisted an admission that Agent Orange had caused health problems, but has since expanded its list of illnesses “associated” with exposure. That list now includes numerous cancers (prostate, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Hodgkin’s Disease among them), Parkinson’s disease and certain heart conditions. More studies are ongoing, Adame said.
“It stirs a lot of memories,” Adame said. “Talking to other vets, we could all see it (when it was sprayed). I was a squad leader and I’d radio the helicopter and tell them we were under them and they’d say, ‘sorry, we’re ordered to spray here. Get under a poncho.’”
Kilmartin, too, remembers the spraying.
“When we flew into Danang, you got off the plane and you could see the stuff,” Kilmartin said. “They’d be spraying in areas where the fighting was going on, where the Marines were out in the field. They’d start flying and the Agent Orange would be sprayed everywhere, and the wind would blow it back.”
Most veterans who served time in country during the Vietnam War were exposed to the toxic chemical.
If little consideration was given to troops at the time of the spraying, the U.S. government is now making amends. Veterans, though, need to ask for help.