It’s been 41 years since the last American helicopter filled with weary marines took off from the roof of the U.S. Embassy during the chaotic evacuation of Saigon, officially ending the war in Vietnam.
But the war has never really ended for veterans who are still dealing with the ravages of Agent Orange, the toxic herbicide sprayed by the U.S. military over large swaths of Vietnam from 1961 to 1971 to flush out enemy forces. Exposure to the defoliant is now recognized by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) as a cause of multiple diseases, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, Parkinson’s disease, and diabetes. Many disabled Vietnam veterans are still fighting, four decades later, to get their benefits.
When Victor Ramos arrived in Vietnam in March 1971, he was told that the Navy ship he was assigned to, the USS Truxtun, had already deployed. So he spent 24 hours in the Vietnamese city of Da Nang until a helicopter transported him to the ship.
Ramos has since been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. The now-66-year-old filed a disability claim in March 2015, providing military records that showed he served in a hostile fire area the day he landed in Da Nang.
But Patrick C. Prieb, director of the San Diego VA Regional Office, said the evidence Ramos provided did not show the Truxtun docking in Vietnam, so there was no proof he was exposed to Agent Orange.
“I spent a day in Da Nang—that’s a fact,” says Ramos. He was about to give up on his claim when he met Katrina Eagle, an attorney who specializes in helping vets appeal their denied disability claims at the VA.
Now she’s helping Ramos with his appeal. She hired an archive researcher who found the Truxtun’s logs and personnel diary, confirming the ship’s location on the dates in question.
“Mr. Ramos couldn’t have swum to the ship,” Eagle says. “The deck logs do not document any personnel coming aboard from another ship, but do document helicopters coming aboard.” And the only U.S. air base in helicopter range at the time was at Da Nang.
Eagle says the VA is denying his claim because “the document they allege is required never existed in the first place. But the military documents that do exist today confirm that Mr. Ramos is telling the truth.”