DES MOINES, Iowa -- The military sprayed millions of gallons of Agent Orange across Vietnam to kill trees and vegetation that gave the enemy cover. Now, the herbicide is linked to diseases that are still surfacing in veterans and their offspring.
This week, the Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs will unveil a new memorial for Vietnam veterans who have died premature deaths related to their service from causes like Agent Orange and post-traumatic stress syndrome.
These service men and women are the hidden casualties of Vietnam, and a new plaque will ensure their sacrifices are not forgotten.
There are 867 names are on the wall that honors Iowans who died in combat in the Vietnam War.
“Last year, after 40 years, we put a new name on the Vietnam wall, which is a really special thing for us because it’s always nice when you bring a brother home,” said Dan Gannon, member of the Iowa Commission of Veterans Affairs.
He said the new name led to a new conversation.
“I said I feel we have a void here. We have veterans that have died from their service in Vietnam, and they’ve died prematurely, whether it’s Agent Orange or PTSD or other things, and I think we need to recognize those somehow,” Gannon said.
That conversation led to the Vietnam War memory plaque to honor veterans like Vicki Swarts’ late husband, Tony.
“I remember the first time we heard the news story about Agent Orange. And that’s the first time I ever saw my husband turn just pale. I looked at him, and I said, ‘Could that be a problem for you?’ And he said, ‘There’s no way it can’t be a problem for me,’” Swarts said.
Swarts said her husband was ill off and on for the last 10-15 years.
“He started out diagnosed with Crohn’s, and then just progressively different things: Heart disease, asthma, liver disease,” Swarts said.
It was a similar story for Marcia Dayton’s husband, Art.
“They diagnosed him with diabetes, and they tracked it back to the AO. He had a heart problem. They related it to the diabetes. So, it was secondary to diabetes. He had a triple bypass. The back part of his heart was all dead, basically,” Dayton said.
She said the plaque would mean a lot to Art.
“He would really want this plaque to be done because it would bring this out in the forefront of people’s minds, that there is an issue. And all of these people who are dying so young, really, when you think about it, there’s a lot of people who’ve passed away so young, and they shouldn’t,” Dayton said.
The plaque sits just a few steps away from the wall on the grounds of the Iowa statehouse as a tribute to those who went to war.
“He went into the service right out of high school. He was going to be a Marine no matter what,” Dayton said of her husband.
Most veterans returned home a different person, scarred by what they inhaled and what they witnessed.
“How the enemy used children and strapped bombs on them and sent them into crowds. To see that and live through that, I don’t know how you wouldn’t come back damaged mentally,” Swarts said. “A bullet wound heals, but sometimes the mind never does. So, I think this is going to be a wonderful, wonderful reminder to people. That there were all types of sacrifices.”
Sacrifices that would eventually claim their lives, and sacrifices that should never be forgotten.
“We do not want the American people to forget about the sacrifices that veterans have done. And if you don’t do these kinds of things, it will eventually go away,” Gannon said.
An unveiling ceremony will take place on Friday, which is Vietnam Veterans Recognition Day, at 11 a.m. on the grounds south of the Iowa Capitol.
All Iowans are invited to attend.