Agent Orange likely culprit in man's health saga

Forest Grove veteran blames chemical defoliant used in Vietnam War

War has many casualties, and the Vietnam War was no exception. But many years beyond the fighting in Southeast Asia, a chemical defoliant used by the U.S. military to clear jungles for warfare is killing veterans from the inside out.

And as a 63-year-old Forest Grove man will tell you, the government has few answers for the questions of those allegedly exposed to Agent Orange.

In 1997, Louis Lines was a relatively fit, happily married father in his 16th year working for Southern Pacific Railroad. Five years later, he was 100 pounds heavier and suffering from Crohn’s disease and an enlarged heart. Lines was also preparing for a bout of chemotherapy to combat hairy cell leukemia.

“I’m a firm believer in karma. From high school, to the U.S. Army, through the railroad, I’ve never been in trouble for anything in my life. So I’m lying there in the hospital thinking to myself, ‘what in the heck did I do to deserve this?’”

To understand where he was, it’s important to learn how he got there.

Lines was born in Hillsboro on June 17, 1952. He grew up in Forest Grove and graduated from Forest Grove High School in 1971. At a time when many were either going to or returning from Vietnam, Lines was drafted into the army, sent to Fort Lewis military facility in Washington state and became part of the 3rd Armored Calvary.

From there he went to train at an army base in White Sands, N.M., where — thousands of miles removed from the horrors of the Vietnam War — he was exposed to a chemical he believes has led to a personal war with a variety of health problems five decades later.

Chemical moved through air, water

Agent Orange is one of many herbicides known to have been used in Vietnam. In November 1961, President John F. Kennedy authorized the start of Operation Ranch Hand — the code name for the U.S. Air Force’s herbicide program there — and subsequently kick-started a program whose effects continue to be felt by soldiers who were in the field, troops that remained stateside and even the children of both groups.

Paul Sutton, a Vietnam veteran, past chairman of the Veterans Administration’s National Agent Orange Committee and a nationally recognized expert in the subject, has advocated for veterans and their families since 1977. Based on his research and studies, and contrary to the limited knowledge of exposure by most soldiers in the war itself, “anyone who spent 30 days minimum on the ground in Vietnam was exposed to Agent Orange.”

“As soldiers we didn’t know,” Sutton said. “Guys assumed that if they weren’t around during the application they were fine, but what we’ve learned since is that the chemical moved through the air and water, and also lived well beyond the terrain where it was applied.”

Sutton tells stories of soldiers who spent the entirety of their service in Vietnam at a desk on a military base, but who years later suffered the effects of poisoning traced back to contaminated water dumped from planes during aborted herbicide missions. Some unwitting soldiers used Agent Orange to clean tools. And more recently, tales of woe have involved veterans who never set foot “in country.”

“It’s proving very tough for these reservists, even with a well-rounded [medical] claim, to get it through the system,” Sutton said. “Unfortunately, that’s common for any veteran trying to deal with the VA regarding these types of issues.”

Episodes of blindness

Louis Lines never stepped foot in Vietnam, but in 1997, after building and moving into his dream home in Grants Pass — 23 years after his discharge from the army and two decades into a career with the railroad — he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease affecting the gastrointestinal tract. He spent the next five years coping with pain and discomfort, but in 2002 was forced to have his large intestine removed.

While in the hospital for that operation, doctors informed Lines he had hairy cell leukemia and an enlarged heart. He underwent micro-valve surgery to repair his heart and chemotherapy to address his leukemia. Doctors estimated he likely had no more than six months to live, and told Lines his best course of action was to stay in the hospital and keep as comfortable as possible while awaiting his inevitable demise.

“They wanted me to just sit in bed and push this button until I died, but I was like, ‘no way — if I’m going to die it’s going to be in my house on the mountain.’”

He spent the next three years in a wheelchair due to complications from chemotherapy, packed on weight, suffered occasional episodes of blindness and lost his wife to divorce — a result, he said, of the strain his medical issues put on their relationship. Lines sold his house, moved to LaPine to be near family and began receiving epidural pain medication every 90 days to help him walk.

Eventually the epidurals stopped working and Lines had neuro-stimulators implanted that allowed him to walk. But even as things were looking up, he still dealt with digestive issues. Some doctors couldn’t explain it, Lines said, and others chose not to engage with his situation.

“When you walk into a doctor’s office with an insurance card and cash and they still won’t treat you because they say you’re too high-risk, that really stinks,” he said.

Those issues, along with the price of his medications, led Lines to the VA, where his initial doctor theorized he was a victim of herbicidal poisoning connected to his military training during the Vietnam era.

“He said, ‘this has to be Agent Orange poisoning,’” Lines said, “but VA doctors aren’t the same as VA lawyers, and they sent me a letter that said ‘we don’t owe you anything for anything because you can’t prove it.’”

The truth is, he can’t.

Lines spent the bulk of his time in the Army living and training in tanks in White Sands. There is no documented evidence that Agent Orange was stored or tested there, and while the tanks he worked with were used in Vietnam, he was told they were cleansed of potential Agent Orange contamination prior to their return.

While his physical condition makes a strong case, the burden of proof the government demands when it comes to Operation Ranch Hand simply isn’t there.

‘I wasn’t looking for benefits’

Jennifer Walters, a Texas resident whose husband, John, died in 2000 as a result of apparent Agent Orange poisoning, is an example of one of the many people caught in the wake of the Agent Orange tidal wave.

She spent 10 years trying to get answers from government officials.

Her husband — who in his early 50s was stricken with a kidney disease normally found in small children, a colon issue and a rare form of sarcoma — died less than a year after his initial diagnosis but was never declared a victim of herbicide poisoning in spite of overwhelming evidence.

“I wasn’t looking for benefits. I simply wanted answers and a recognition of his cause of death,” Jennifer Walters said. “It’s very difficult [for veterans and their families] to get help, and when they do, it’s with an understanding that it will only go so far.”

Paul Sutton says that’s commonplace — and suggests answers, if they come, won’t come soon. “It will be long after Vietnam veterans are gone before our government acknowledges this,” he said.

For his part, Lines says he only wants accountability from the government — and maybe a little help for veterans still struggling to cope with something beyond their control.

“I had my large intestine taken out, had a bad heart and got leukemia,” he said. “I went blind and lost the use of my legs. But they said there was no correlation between one and the other.

“I just want them to call it what it is, and maybe give me someone I can talk to about what I’ve gone through.”

Despite his health travails and his stalemate with the VA, things haven’t been all bad for Lines in recent years. Lines moved back to Forest Grove in 2010 and got remarried in 2010 to a woman he’d originally met in 1970 at the now-defunct Hudson House Cannery, which used to operate in Forest Grove.

Louis and Lynette Lines had shared a relationship until she went off to college, and he to the army, in 1971. They reunited at a small church in Gaston nearly 50 years later.

“I look back at my tough times and sometimes wonder why. But I look at meeting my wife, and the 13 years since they told me I’d be dead, and I say ‘that’s my karma,” Lines said.

He insists he’ll face the future with a smile on his face.

“That’s just who I am,” Lines said. “That’s just who I’ve always been.”

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