Art Chadwell had been back from Vietnam for 18 months when he and his wife-to-be Kathryn first met. Even then, in 1967, she noticed he had problems with peeling skin, hard lumps and a lot of joint pain. He trembled all the time, she recalled.
"He knew something was going on," Kathryn said. "But he didn't know what it was."
Chadwell, who moved from Tacoma, Washington, to Dover in 1956, was a loadmaster on a variety of airplanes, including the C-123. The prop-driven cargo plane was a major player in the Vietnam War's Operation Ranch Hand, an 11-year program of chemical defoliation aimed at denying the enemy cover and food. One of the chemical defoliants sprayed across the jungle came to be known as Agent Orange, named for the orange stripe painted on the 55-gallon containers.
As a loadmaster, Chadwell had a lot of contact with the military-grade herbicide, which contained the highly toxic compound dioxin, an unintentional byproduct of the manufacturing process that causes skin lesions in the short term and is classified by the World Health Organization as a "known human carcinogen."
"He was heavily exposed to the Agent Orange in the aircraft and on the ground," Kathryn said in her soft Tennessee drawl. "But they told him it was safe. He told me that the men even took rags and used the Agent Orange to clean their tools, with their bare hands. That's how heavily exposed he was to it."
For much of the next two decades, Kathryn tried and failed to get the government to acknowledge that Agent Orange had caused his cancer, despite the efforts of the Vietnam Veterans of America and, beginning in 2012, a Bethesda, Maryland, national law firm that specializes in compensation cases before VA.
Then, in April, she opened a letter from the VA containing a copy of a decision by the Board of Veterans' Appeals, or BVA. She could hardly believe what she read: "The Board finds that service connection for the cause of this Veteran's death due to herbicide exposure in service is warranted."
"After 181/2 years, I was so stunned that I had to read it, like, six times before I believed it," Kathryn said during a recent interview. "I just knew there was something in the verbiage that I was missing."
For Kathryn, who'd never worked outside their home and suffered financial hardship following Art's death, the decision should mean the ability to live out her life more comfortably, said Joe Moore, an attorney with Bergmann & Moore, the firm that took up her case. The decision is also important news for others who have been similarly afflicted, or who lost a spouse to the disease, he said.
"This case isn't precedential," Moore said. "This case doesn't, unfortunately, add this cancer to the presumptive list. But if veterans and their families hear about the fact that pancreatic cancer can be service-connected due to Agent Orange exposure, they won't give up."