SMITHFIELD — Debra Frondelli stood front and center at the American Legion Post on South Church Street, advising a roomful of Vietnam veterans on seeking help for health problems related to Agent Orange.
Her presentation was long on facts and short on emotion. But the truth is, reaching out to Vietnam veterans has become very personal for her.
Frondelli, a registered nurse at the Hampton VA Medical Center, had two older brothers who fought in Vietnam. Both died at relatively young ages due to complications from exposure to Agent Orange, a toxic defoliant.
The Veterans Administration, she says, is becoming more aggressive in its outreach, citing Wednesday's event as evidence. The visit from a rural health team packed the parking lot at George F. Dashiell Post 49. The team has traveled to the Eastern Shore, Mathews County and small towns in North Carolina to educate veterans who might not otherwise drive to an urban, regional VA hospital.
Agent Orange is often the topic.
"One of the things that has changed within the VA," said Frondelli, "is the ability to be more transparent about combat time and diseases that are now cropping up with Agent Orange."
James Gaudin hopes that is the case.
The 66-year-old Windsor resident has spent years trying to convince the government that Agent Orange made him ill. The retired Marine spent a year on the ground in Vietnam and is quite certain he was exposed.
"We did the mixing with the orange barrels," he said.
He has a type of blood condition that can be a precursor to leukemia, but his case has proceeded in fits and starts over the years. It's not about getting compensation. He is fully disabled due topost-traumatic stress disorder, the result of his harrowing tour in 1966. But this has become something of a mission.
"I don't quit and I don't back up," he said, pausing from filling out a form. "I want to get it recognized and I want to help other vets."
Not everyone in the group of 40 people had an immediate health problem.
Army veteran Samuel Styron, 63, of Hampton, is considered borderline diabetic. Because he served in Vietnam, he simply wanted to know more about the issue. Frank Goodwin, also of Hampton, is a leader in a church with many veterans in the congregation. He was gathering information on their behalf, because they often ask questions.
Some wanted to know more about the Agent Orange Registry, where veterans volunteer for a free screening to see if they have an Agent Orange-related health problem. Others simply wanted VA officials to walk them through the health issues.
The VA assumes that certain diseases are linked to Agent Orange as a result of military service, which are called presumptive diseases. The more common medical conditions seen in Vietnam veterans include type II diabetes, prostate cancer and ischemic heart disease. The list was expanded in 2010 to includeParkinson's disease, more types of leukemia and the aforementioned heart disease.
Veterans who served on the ground in Vietnam should not assume they're getting sick just because of old age or heredity. One of Frondelli's brothers made that mistake. He developed diabetes and assumed it was because his mother was a diabetic. Meanwhile, her other brother died of ischemic heart disease when he was 51 years old.
"If they had been more aware," she said, "they could have started treatment sooner and could possibly still be with us."
The day proved illuminating for Marv Keefer, a retired Army colonel with Agent Orange-related health problems who came to the seminar for an update – and to do a little venting.
Back in the 1990s, he wanted to transfer from Walter Reed Medical Center to the Hampton VA to be treated, and the VA told him it would require another physical at his own expense – even though he had three years' worth of records at Walter Reed.
That sort of bureaucratic roadblock would not happen today.
"So much has changed," said James Coty, a public information officer at the Hampton VA. "That's why we're here."
Want to know more?
Check out the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website on public health at http://www.publichealth.va.gov. Look for the section titled "military exposures," which has a link to Agent Orange.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times