SNOW HILL — Decades after leaving the Vietnam War behind, Tommy Rodgers and Ken Lowe, both of Snow Hill, continue to fight its lasting effects.
Today their fight is not on the battlefield but with their health after being affected by Agent Orange.
Agent Orange, a herbicide and defoliant chemical, was widely used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War as part of a herbicidal warfare program known as “Operation Ranch Hand.”
The chemical agent was sprayed from helicopters and aircraft and used to destroy vegetation and crops depriving enemy guerrillas of food and cover.
As a dioxin, Agent Orange moves into human cells and attacks genes causing a number of serious illnesses, that can lay dormant for 40 years.
Today there are 16 conditions associated with the effects of Agent Orange including several types of cancer, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease and diabetes.
Agent Orange also has been found to pass from generation to generation, causing adverse health effects.
Rodgers and Lowe both were 21 when they served in Vietnam as members of the U.S. Air Force.
Rodgers served in the Air Force from 1966 until 1970, gaining the rank of staff sergeant while Lowe served from 1966 until 1991, earning the rank of captain.
Like others who served during the Vietnam War, Lowe and Rodgers were exposed to Agent Orange.
“I was exposed when I was on the ground and when I was in the air. It was everywhere you went,” Lowe said, adding that between 1967 and 1968 102,000 gallons of the chemical was dumped around the base.
“I didn’t really think about Agent Orange when I was there. Every solider, marine, airman, knew our purpose was to do our mission and come back home and to stay alive,” he said.
Now Rodgers and Lowe are educated about the side effects of Agent Orange, and like many Vietnam veterans are suffering from them.
Rodgers, 75, has Stage 5 kidney failure, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and coronary artery disease.
Lowe, 74, suffers from Type 2 diabetes, asthma and Parkinsons.
Robin Spence of Hookerton knows too well the lasting side effects Agent Orange has on veterans. Having watched her husband Joseph die from its effects in 2018, Spence now serves as North Carolina’s only representative for the Orange Heart Medal Foundation.
The foundation was created by Vietnam veteran Ken Gamble, whose health was affected by Agent Orange. Knowing his brothers in arms were experiencing the same health issues and dying from their exposure, Gamble wanted to ensure they were not forgotten and created the nonprofit organization.
Orange Heart is working to award all Vietnam veterans with exposure to Agent Orange with an orange medal. A memorial wall also is located at Springfield Memorial Gardens in Springfield Tenn.
“This raises awareness for today’s generation and reminds the veterans that they matter. We are grateful for their service and they will not be forgotten,” Spence said.
The foundation is on a mission to place as many orange heart medals into the hands of Vietnam veterans and their families as possible, since many veterans are succumbing to Agent Orange-related illnesses, Spence said.
For many veterans, the medal serves as more than a piece of accommodation. It also serves to welcome them home, Spence said.
That welcome home still means the world to Lowe and Rodgers, who faced disdain instead of greetings upon arriving home from Vietnam.
“I was shunned and I didn’t want to talk about it. It was unpopular. I got spit on and cussed at. I pretty much tried to forget about it and tried to put it out of my mind,” Rodgers said, adding he did not wear a Vietnam veteran hat for 35 years to escape from the negative connotations.
“I’m 75 years old. I finally felt like somebody recognized the pain and suffering that people like me are going though. It’s awesome.”
Lowe still clearly remembers his treatment upon returning home and like Rodgers was disrespected on multiple occasions.
“We finally got some recognition,” Lowe said.
While Agent Orange has been recognized as a dioxin, outreach has been lacking, Rodgers and Lowe said.
“I never thought about my exposure or knew about the direct impact on my health from Agent Orange,” Rodgers said, adding that although benefits were available for veterans who were exposed “I had to dig for every one of them.”
Despite the challenges they faced in Vietnam, returning home and now with their health, Rodgers and Lowe remain grateful for their experiences with the Air Force.
“I didn’t got to college and looked at the four years I was in the Air Force as my college. I got to see the world, I learned a lot of things in those four years that a lot of people haven’t learned most their life,” Rodgers said.
“It was not a pleasant experience when I was over there. Far from being pleasant,” he said. “A lot of things I don’t like to think or talk about it. But if I had to do it again I would serve my country in a heartbeat.”