|VIETNAM VET'S WIDOW
FIGHTING WAR ON CANCER
Sunday, April 2, 2000
Section: LOCAL NEWS
Column: Tom Hennessy
Illustration: Genevieve Douglass of Long Beach wraps herself in a quilt with the names of Long Beach men who died in Vietnam. In addition to lobbying for a plaque at the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C., that commemorates postwar deaths caused by Agent Orange, Douglass will testify before Congress on funding for lymphoma research.
Brittany M. Solo/ Press-Telegram
Genevieve Douglass poses with her husband Bob in this undated photograph. Bob Douglass died in February 1999 of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer tied to Agent Orange.
It was summer, 1993. A cluster of Wunderkinds, the Long Beach All-Stars, were headed for their second consecutive Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.
Life was good, hopes were high, and people like Bob and Genevieve Douglass were giving way to impulse.
The war goes on ...
In a column last fall, I wrote about Bob's death and the postwar deaths of other Vietnam vets from a variety of factors. The number of such deaths is staggering, and suggests that America is in denial over the war's actual price tag.
Officially, 58,193 Americans died during the Vietnam War. But one estimate holds that 250,000 have died since from war-related causes, ranging from cancer to suicide.
Even that count may be low. ``That's a figure that is 10 years old,'' says Douglass, who, with Karen Olszewski of Long Beach, last year founded the national Agent Orange Widows Awareness Coalition. In part, the organization operates as a clearinghouse of information for veterans and dependents affected by war-related illnesses.
Olszewski's Vietnam veteran husband, also named Bob, died of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1996. He was 47.
Among causes of postwar deaths, the high incidence of lymphoma stands out. Next to breast cancer, ``it is the second highest cancer by rate of incidence,'' says the Lymphoma Research Foundation.
While incidence rates are declining with other cancers, including breast cancer, the incidence of lymphoma is rising. California leads all states. Los Angeles County leads California.
Aside from its physical pain, lymphoma is insidious in other ways. In the case of veterans, it often strikes when life is at its prime, filled with Little League baseball and other such joys, and when the war is receding in memory. Neither of the two Bobs, Douglass or Olszewski, realized until near the end that their illnesses were traceable to Vietnam.
``Recent studies prove that individual exposure to Agent Orange in the Vietnam War causes an increased risk of contracting lymphoid malignancies,'' says Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I.
With Congress about to hold hearings on the question of more government funding for lymphoma research, the Lymphoma Foundation has been invited to select one person to testify. Of the tens of thousands it could have chosen, the foundation has tapped Genevieve Douglass.
Seven months after Bob's death, Genevieve sold her beauty salon to devote more time to her late husband's cause and the cause of others who may yet be in peril without realizing it.
``For 21 years, my heart had been in the community,'' she says. ``But it was time to change.''
Her transformation, in less than a year, from beauty salon operator to congressional witness on a highly complex subject, is a tribute to her tenacity, and a testament to just how effective democracy can sometimes be.
She will appear April 13 before the Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs, HUD and independent agencies.
``This is an opportunity of a lifetime for me,'' says Douglass. ``It is beyond my wildest dreams to be able to share Bob's story in the halls of Congress. I consider it an honor to represent the Lymphoma Research Foundation, Agent Orange Widows Awareness Coalition, and Vietnam veterans and their widows and families.
``I'm working on my presentation now. I will be requesting expanded resources and funding for research on lymphoma in relation to Vietnam veterans and their children.''
The incidence of lymphoma among children of veterans may be another horrifying reality of the war's aftermath. Douglass says her organization, AOWAC, knows of one case in which lymphoma has been found in all four children of a Vietnam vet.
Others take notice...
While it is not nearly enough, there is growing recognition of the proliferation of postwar Vietnam deaths. Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., has introduced a bill calling for the addition of a plaque to the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C. It would memorialize veterans ``whose postwar deaths can be attributed to their Vietnam War service.''
``In Memory Day,'' a program recognizing the postwar dead, will be conducted at the Vietnam Wall on April 17. Douglass and Olszewski will be there and have been invited to read aloud the names of their lost husbands.
``It should prove to be very moving and very healing,'' says Douglass.
(Douglass also is helping the Vietnam Veterans of America in its effort to construct a Vietnam memorial in Houghton Park.
``They want to do this for the 103 guys from Long Beach who were killed and have never been represented adequately,'' she says. Also involved is Councilman Jerry Shultz.)
Just last week, the Air Force issued a report saying there is ``particularly strong evidence'' linking Agent Orange to diabetes. The study was based in part on rates of illness among 1,000 Air Force veterans who participated in aerial spraying.
Its name derived from the color of a band used on drums in which the chemical was shipped, Agent Orange was a herbicide used to destroy jungle vegetation, thus reducing undetected movements and ambushes by the enemy.
The widespread effects of its exposure are underscored by an invitation Douglass has received to speak at the April 9 Cambodian New Year Festival in El Dorado Park. Among Cambodians, there are also widows whose husbands are believed to have died from Agent Orange contact.
Says Douglass, ``It's astronomical -- the cost of that war.''
Tom Hennessy's viewpoint appears Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. He can be reached at (562) 499-1270, or via e-mail at Scribe17@aol.com
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