After the Vietnam War ended, America’s soldiers were still feeling its effects in multiple ways. In Toxic War: the Story of Agent Orange, attorney and author Peter Sills examines and explains the way veterans of Vietnam struggled against more than Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and war injuries—some of these veterans battled and continue to battle the effects of Agent Orange. This excerpt, which details Navy veteran Dave Maier’s exposure to the chemical while on the Mekong River, is from the introduction.
Going to the Vietnam War
Dave and Laurel Maier spent the first night of their married life in downtown Cleveland, in a hotel that later became the local YWCA. They waited two months and journeyed several thousand miles for their second night together. They had no idea what they’d gotten themselves into—a strange, terrible war, and two glaringly different, barely comprehensible societies. But their adventure didn’t really begin until they got back to Cleveland.
Twenty-seven years later, Dave and Laurel told me they were, in some ways, grateful for the suffering they’ve endured. Their lives are undoubtedly richer, and they’ve had a powerful impact on others. But when asked if they would choose to go through it all again, Dave could only laugh. Laurel cried out, “No! Nobody would ever choose that! That’s why those choices aren’t left to us.”
They met placidly enough, in 1965, at a Methodist young adult group in the Cleveland suburbs. Dave was twenty-one and in college. Laurel was just under eighteen and about to graduate high school. Both were devout Christians, descended from a long line of German settlers. They had always kept close to home.
They started dating almost immediately and were engaged a year later. Dave dropped out of college to work as a bank teller. He joined the Navy Reserves in 1964, partly to avoid being drafted and sent to Vietnam. He hoped the war would be over by the time he finished his two years of training. But he was wrong.
Dave was due to ship out sometime in 1967. They wanted to get married as soon as possible, but their parents were against it. Laurel’s mother and father liked Dave, but their daughter was only twenty, and her new husband would be leaving for two years, maybe to die in combat. It made more sense to wait.
But Dave and Laurel were determined to get married. They were in love, and in the 1960s, caution somehow seemed inappropriate. Laurel remembered, “There was an intensity about that time that you don’t always have in your life.”
But they didn’t want to sneak off or rush things. They scheduled a large, traditional wedding for March 4, 1967. In the middle of February, Dave finally received his orders to ship out—on March 5. Everything had already been arranged; the invitations had gone out. They couldn’t change the date.
It was a joyful wedding. Reality didn’t set in until Laurel drove Dave to the airport early the next morning. They had no idea when, or even if, they’d see each other again.
After several unexpected transfers, Dave was assigned to the Westchester County, an LST (Landing Ship, Tank) that traveled all over Southeast Asia, including Vietnam. Its home was a huge naval base in Yokosuka, Japan. Laurel would be able to come out and live with him. Dave met her in Tokyo, and after they spent that second night together, they drove to Yokosuka, about fifty miles away. They moved into a tiny house a few miles from the base.
The Westchester County usually left for three to four months at a time, carrying troops and materiel to the Philippines, Okinawa, and Vietnam. When it reached Vietnam, it traveled up and down the coast, on alert to either pick up or drop off troops and supplies.
Agent Orange on the Mekong River
Twice during Dave’s tour, the Westchester County served as a station ship on the Mekong River. It sailed about thirty-five miles inland and dropped anchor for three months. Soldiers doing combat duty in the jungle came aboard for two to three days’ leave. They would get hot meals, showers, movies, laundry, and a good night’s sleep, along with necessary supplies. This was really a job for what was known as the “brown water navy,” whose ships were designed to serve on the river, protected by appropriate camouflage. The Westchester County belonged to the “blue water navy.” It was battleship gray, and its sailors wore either blues or whites.
Dave didn’t know that the riverbanks had been defoliated with Agent Orange to protect against Viet Cong attack, or that the herbicide had washed off the banks and into the river. But he did notice that the shoreline somehow looked wrong. There was too much sand, and the vegetation “just drooped.” Most trees looked like sticks, with nothing growing on them. “The river itself looked absolutely terrible. It looked like the color of coffee.” Some of his shipmates tried to fish in it, but they never caught anything.
His first time in Vietnam, Dave stood on the deck of his ship and studied the river. He remembered reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring back in high school. He kept bees then and wanted to find out whether pesticides could hurt them. “I’m up there on the deck, and I’m looking at that river, and all this crap floating through it, it’s like a dead river, and not much vegetation along the sides. And I thought, if there ever was a silent spring, this is it."
The Westchester County had no facilities for storing fresh water. Ships from the “blue water navy” were designed to desalinate ocean water for drinking and general use. Unable to do this in Vietnam, the ship simply pumped river water into its holding tank. This water, which looked so much like coffee from a distance, was the color of tea when it came out of the ship’s pipes and faucets. The men brushed their teeth with it, showered and shaved with it, did their laundry in it.
The water smelled bad. “It just reeked.” The men were told not to drink it, but the only clean water was up in “officer’s country,” on the bridge. The enlisted men compensated by drinking coffee, condensed milk, sodas, and juice. Dave’s stool was so dry he developed hemorrhoids. They didn’t know there was poison in the water. “We thought it was just dirty.” The men often swallowed it inadvertently. It would get on their shaving gear. They would brush their teeth with it, spit, and then swallow.
The Westchester County’s crew regularly received inoculations while in Vietnam. These were given with shot “guns” instead of needles; they could cut a slice out of your arm if you moved even slightly. Dave, who always received shots in the left arm (the same one that would be affected later), remembered showering immediately after being inoculated.
Dave and Laurel both hated military life. Laurel explained, “We were civilians at heart, playing the game and doing what you feel you have to do, but not what you would choose to do.” They thought the Navy’s hierarchical system was just silly. The war didn’t make sense to either of them. They believed the United States was putting their friends at risk by not doing all it could to win.
Dave finished his tour of duty with one last trip to Vietnam; the Westchester County again served as a station ship on the Mekong River. On November 11, 1968, at 3:22 a.m., Dave was blasted out of bed. There was smoke everywhere and loud moaning from the deck below. Someone, probably a Viet Cong diver, had set off a bomb beneath the ship’s waterline. The Westchester County was the only United States vessel to be sunk in Vietnam. Twenty-nine men died and fifteen more were injured. Dave was unhurt, but he felt enormous grief. He couldn’t sleep the next night and asked the medic for a tranquilizer. Without thinking, he popped it into his mouth and washed it down with the ship’s tap water, drawn straight from the Mekong River.
Laurel found out about the explosion that evening, from a friend who’d been listening to the radio. She immediately contacted the base’s information office, but they couldn’t or wouldn’t say anything. She went to the captain’s house, hoping for some real information. The officers’ wives were all there and seemed to know what was going on. They told Laurel not to worry—all the officers were safe. “That did it,” she remembers. “I was willing to live with their hierarchy, but that was the last straw."
Over the next several days, various incomplete lists of killed and wounded were sent back to the base. None of them mentioned Dave, but a bunkmate of his was listed as dead. Laurel’s mind couldn’t stop repeating the same absurd mantra: “I’m only twenty-one. I can’t be a widow.” Five days after the explosion, Dave called to tell her he was fine. He hadn’t even gotten a scratch.
By the time the Westchester County finally struggled home several weeks later, Laurel had completely given up on Navy protocol. Whenever a ship landed, the captain’s wife was supposed to come aboard first, followed by the rest of the officers’ wives in descending rank order, and finally the wives of the enlisted men. Laurel told one of her friends, “They better get out of my way” and nearly bowled them all over to get to Dave.
Effects of the Vietnam War and Agent Orange
They both were eager to get back home. They assumed they would “be returning back to our lives and everything would be fine and it would be behind you.” But they had been profoundly changed by the past two years. They’d been children when they’d gotten married, then quickly tossed into Japanese culture, the Navy, and the war. They were different now. Their old lives didn’t fit them anymore.
Their friends and family didn’t understand any of this. “Nobody really wanted to hear much about it. It was like, ‘Oh, did you have a nice trip?’ We had experienced a lot of things in life that a lot of our friends hadn’t and never would. There was no one else to really share it with.” Their parents were just happy to have them home. Dave remembers his folks telling him, “You’re back, it’s over. Now get on with your life. But I felt like a zombie when I first came back here. They were talking about me going back to school, but I just couldn’t focus."
Dave did go back to college several months later and earned his bachelor’s degree. Laurel worked as a secretary so she could support them both while he was in school, which shocked her parents.
Without consciously realizing it, they had drawn back from the world. “We were just trying to put ourselves together,” Laurel remembers. It seemed as if they were starting their married life all over again, except this time they no longer trusted the institutions they had once taken for granted.
Dave felt abandoned by Laurel’s family church. No one from the congregation had ever contacted them during the war, even though they had both been active members. Dave and Laurel had lost the habit of public worship anyway; military chapels just seemed sterile. They tried going back to their old church, but their resentment was too much alive and their return taken too much for granted. “They wanted us to do all the things we were doing before—teach Sunday school and participate in everything. It was like we hadn’t even been gone. We just decided not to go. Period.” Their decision to stop going to church wasn’t a rejection of religion. They had never left the Christian faith. “We didn’t really think about it. We didn’t need it then, but it must have been there. It just doesn’t come out of the air.”
They never talked about the war and ignored the frequent campus demonstrations against it. “There was nothing we could do about it. It was terrible, and it was going on regardless.” Dave didn’t join the Vietnam Veterans against the War because “I felt like I knew it. We did our share.”
After college, Dave hoped for a job in consumer affairs, helping people who had been manhandled by the system. He wanted to do something more important than just make money. But most of the work in that field was for volunteers, so he became assistant manager at a large bank. It was a particularly bad place to work and he hated it. Laurel kept her job, and in 1972 they moved to Bay Village, a suburb of Cleveland, ready to reclaim a normal, suburban life.
Dave’s left elbow began to hurt in 1974, five years after he left the Navy. He was thirty-one years old. He assumed he’d pulled a muscle and went to an orthopedist. X-rays didn’t show anything wrong. He was told it was probably “tennis elbow”; the worst-case scenario was either arthritis or rheumatism.
Dave didn’t really believe he had tennis elbow. The pain was in his left arm and he was right-handed. Also, the doctor had warned him that overtaxing the muscles in his arm would make things worse, but it actually hurt most when he tried to relax, especially at night. “As soon as I lay down in bed, it would start.” The pain became excruciating. Even cortisone shots didn’t help. Sleep became almost impossible.
At first, Dave wasn’t particularly concerned about his arm; he and Laurel were having too many other problems. His job had become intolerable. Laurel couldn’t seem to get pregnant and had suffered at least one miscarriage.
Dave left the bank in November 1975. He and Laurel started their own photography business. It didn’t earn nearly enough money, so Dave took on an additional job selling janitorial supplies. He had to carry heavy packages, which made his arm hurt even more.
In December, Dave underwent surgery to clean out his elbow. For a while, he actually felt better. Looking back, he now thinks the cast he wore after surgery was so painful that removing it a few weeks later had provided some relief. But after four or five months, Dave realized he was still getting worse. Still, he and Laurel weren’t particularly concerned; the doctor had assured them that the problem wasn’t serious.
Laurel finally became pregnant in January 1976. Mark’s birth the next October was a difficult one, requiring him to spend several days in intensive care. Dave’s elbow was a low priority, even though the pain remained terrible. He was now taking twelve to sixteen aspirins a day, but he still couldn’t sleep at night. He kept up with all his work obligations, but “there were times when I would pull off the road and just be in pain."
He wondered why he was suffering so much if there was nothing really wrong with him. Was he making it all up in his head? Meanwhile, Laurel was focusing on Mark, who remained sick and very miserable.
Dave was under enormous pressure. His two new jobs weren’t panning out, his arm was getting worse, he couldn’t sleep, he was worried about his new son, and his wife couldn’t give him the attention he still wanted. Then the pain moved into other parts of his body, shooting up through his shoulders and neck. He began getting severe headaches. Dave and Laurel kept their fear private. Both realized that the situation was more serious than either was willing to acknowledge out loud.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Toxic War: The Story of Agent Orange, by Peter Sills, published by Vanderbilt University Press, 2014.