The water was a muddy brown and no doubt hid a collection of threatening creatures. Not like everything around wasn’t a threat. The temperature hung around 105 with enough humidity to make sure the scorching sun was felt right into one’s core. Each bank of the ugly river was bordered by jungle, and hidden within it were enemy combatants who’d like nothing better than to kill him. The Navy had brought him to this god forsaken part of the world and put him on a small boat to go out and patrol the twists and turns of the rivers, intertwined like a box of snakes. When he wasn’t stuck in one of these flimsy fiberglass boats, he was stuck with barge duty, dragging cargo from ships to shore. If the work wasn’t busting his back it was busting his ass.
An ugly transistor radio was tied to the canopy frame of the boat, its aerial bent at jaunty angles. Made in Japan, the tinny sound of Armed Forces Radio Service was playing rock and roll in a lame attempt to give soldiers and seamen alike a taste of home. Home? There was nowhere at home that was anything like this place, and thank god for that. Everyone on the boat had shed their shirts. Their sculpted and fit upper bodies were blushing sunburn red atop their natural shades and they each sparkled with the rivulets of sweat that seemingly materialized from nowhere. As they ran down his skin the sensation made him want to scratch and so he did.
You’d think it couldn’t be worse, but there were also the bugs. Mosquitoes and lord only knew what else buzzed around him, sometimes landing to bite. No doubt they drowned in the sweat on his body, he was dotted with their corpses. It was overall so uncomfortable that he would occasionally swear, cursing to no one about nothing in particular and everything in general. But then, he wasn’t doing anything that literally everyone did who was brought there to fight the war.
It started with a couple of muted pops coming from some distance away. Someone was shooting. Gunfire erupted from the riverbank, the muzzle flashes standing out even in daylight. He ducked below the gunwale, pulling an issued 45 caliber automatic from its holster on his web belt. Not looking, he pushed the barrel over the gunwale and snapped off rounds without looking. Then the mounted 50 caliber center mounted on the boat began its stutter. Shards of fiberglass and wood flew about as the boat was struck with rounds, no doubt coming from the AK-47s the Viet Cong used almost exclusively. Others on the boat were returning fire now, shooting with heavy old M-14s and the new AR-15 rifles. A couple more handguns barked as well. It seemed a long time, but lasted only a couple of minutes before the riverbank went quiet again, the shooters never really visible. The men on the boat with him took stock of each other; all was well. At least, no one had been hit. The same couldn’t be said for the boat though, it showed the abuse of the incident. The radio which had been playing Psychotic Reaction was silent. It was now a spew of wire connected chunks. “Shit.” he mumbled. A mosquito bit him on the cheek.
Thirty five years later he limped to the house from his mailbox. Another letter from the Veterans Affairs people mixed among the bills and flyers in his hand. He already knew what it would say. He’d been applying and appealing for disability benefits for a few years. He had cancer in his bones, something they called Multiple Myeloma. It caused him pain almost all the time now. It made his body weak and sickly, catching pretty much every cold and flu that came his way, carried on the wind probably. He didn’t know and didn’t care. It was the cancer killing him that he cared about. The VA apparently didn’t. In spite of the cancer being on the list of presumed illnesses considered disabling and service-connected, they’d told his black ass he wasn’t covered because he was assigned to a ship, unlike his fellow veteran grunts. For some reason, exposure to Agent Orange in the Navy wasn’t the same as exposure in the Army. Oh, sure. They spoke to him with remorse and thanked him for his service, but that was as far as it would go. A member of the VFW, the service officers at his post and even from the regional committees tried to help him with his case, all to no avail. Everyone said it was a crying shame. Too bad he had to wither away in pain, even being billed for portions of the care he received from the VA. Social Security paid him $800 a month in disability to live on, what with him no longer able to work his job as a school janitor. He had Medicare, but even with them paying towards treatments, he couldn’t afford a drug program and that’s where the greatest cost of chemotherapy was. So he was screwed.
It was easy to picture it in my head as I sat at home, reading about this poor guys situation. It made it to the news, a Seattle television station showing a short interview clip along with some printed text on their web page. I felt bad for the guy, knowing there was no difference between his situation and mine –at least as far as Multiple Myeloma was concerned. Except that I was fortunate, if that’s even the right thing to say, to have been in the Army when I was exposed to the Dioxin of Agent Orange. All of my care is covered 100%. Plus that, I get a disability stipend to help me pay the costs of living. I feel this guy’s pain. I feel his helplessness, but at least I was lucky enough to be categorized as exposed. It raises my blood pressure and ruins my day when I hear about guys who followed their orders and got screwed for it the same way I did, but are ignored on the basis of technicality. Thinking about these people makes me embarrassed that there is such inequality; I’m embarrassed for my country because it’s wrong.
The thing is, the elected officials who ooze commisserating statements instead of making the simple changes needed have the power to make those changes. They just don’t. Of course, not a one of them feels the pain of a cancer eating away at their existence, stealing their lives by inches each and every day. They are, as one might say, unmotivated. And so people like the guy I was reading about can only fill out papers, stating and restating their cases to the deaf ears of government agencies and making do with the little they have available. To hear candidates as they stump for votes talking about these people as drags on the American economy makes me sick to my stomach. There’s nothing partisan about someone suffering because of their gift to the country, the issue is one of honor and dedication. Qualities that don’t appear very important on the political landscape.