This article was written by George C. Duggins, first African-American president of the Vietnam Veterans of America (1997-2001) on the occasion of Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr.'s passing.
George Duggins passed away on August 1, 2005 of non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, a result of his exposure to the toxic herbicide Agent Orange during two tours of duty in Vietnam.
We honor these two American heroes by answering their Call to Action.
The VVA Veteran
December 1999/January 2000
Admiral Zumwalt’s Legacy
By George C. Duggins
I speak for every member of Vietnam Veterans of America in mourning the death and honoring the memory of U.S. Navy Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr. The commander of U.S. naval forces in Vietnam and later Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Zumwalt died January 2. As an organization and as individuals, VVA must recommit itself to Admiral Zumwalt’s efforts to find justice for the victims of Agent Orange. We can best honor the man and follow his example of leadership by maintaining pressure on government agencies and policy-making bodies.
Admiral Zumwalt’s mission was to force those in power to take responsibility for their actions and admit that Agent Orange killed more than vegetation. For Admiral Zumwalt, it was simple.
It was about the people who selflessly answered their nation’s call to duty and served honorably in a war that divided the country and which left many wounds in the fabric of our national character.
It was about their children and grandchildren who, through no fault of their own, are the unintended victims of a policy that saved lives in Vietnam , only to take them years after the war ended.
It was about the families who suffer quietly as they watch their veterans endure the hardships of sickness and hopelessness and then bury them, knowing all along Agent Orange was the cause of death.
Between 1968 and 1970--the height of the Vietnam War--Admiral Zumwalt had a tough job: commanding the fleet of American naval river boats that patrolled South Vietnam ’s Mekong Delta. He developed the successful strategy of cutting riverine supplies from Cambodia to the Viet Cong guerillas. He also ordered the spraying of Agent Orange over the Delta.
Zumwalt’s son, former U.S. Navy Lt. Elmo R. Zumwalt III, commanded a Brown Water Navy river boat where his father had ordered the spraying of the dioxin-contaminated defoliant to deny cover to the enemy.
Admiral Zumwalt’s crusade began after his son was diagnosed with cancer in 1983.
Mirroring his commitment to troops while in Vietnam , Zumwalt became a bold and forthright spokesman for veterans and their families who have suffered from the transgenerational effects of Agent Orange contamination.
His voice was strong and clear: the government has an obligation to address the issue honestly and to provide services and compensation for those who have been injured.
Just as it was our generation of servicemen and servicewomen who compelled the VA to recognize Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a legitimate diagnosis, we now must redouble our efforts to force them to face their duty in the matter of Agent Orange.
Our obligation to the memory of Admiral Zumwalt demands that we vow never to surrender on this issue. It is much too important to allow it to be trivialized by those who would have us believe that it is "junk science" or the ranting of malcontents.
We know better.