LOUIS HANSEN, THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT, May 28, 2006
Retired Navy Capt. Allen “Wes” Weseleskey, 70, of Virginia Beach spent 14 months in Vietnam flying helicopters along rivers, providing cover for patrols. He was awarded the Navy Cross and other honors. VICKI CRONIS/THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT
VIRGINIA BEACH – Retired Navy Capt. Allen “Wes” Weseleskey and his fellow helicopter pilots picked up odd assignments during their wartime tour in Vietnam.
Some of those duties seemed safer than others – such as flying protection alongside Air Force planes as they doused the triple canopy jungles with the herbicide Agent Orange to deny cover for the enemy.
Four decades later, though, the Navy men share regrets about their role in the mission known as Operation Ranch Hand. Buddies went sterile. They’ve been stricken with diabetes or leukemia. Their children have been born with deformed spines.
For some veterans, as their own ailments swelled, so did guilt. Now they’re doing something about it.
Weseleskey, who lives in Virginia Beach, and a small group of other Vietnam War vets have raised more than $20,000 in the past year to provide medical relief for suffering Vietnamese children.
They hope to bring comfort to a place where they once fought, and perhaps find peace for themselves.
“I’d like to say I don’t feel guilty,” said Weseleskey, who received the Navy Cross for valor during a March 1968 firefight. “But I can’t say that.”
After the war, the men stayed in touch. Some joined the Seawolf Association, a veterans group for certain Vietnam helicopter pilots and crew. They had shared river combat in the Mekong Delta – some flew helicopters while others directed boat operations in the small waterways – which drew them tight.
Peter Shay spent a year in Vietnam as a junior lieutenant, piloting a Seawolf helicopter and providing cover for river boat units.
Shay held on to his combat memories even as he progressed in his civilian career in marketing. He wanted to return to Vietnam, in part to start efforts to recover fellow helicopter crew members missing in action.
Until recently, going back to the Southeast Asian country was difficult. The Communist-backed North Vietnamese seized control of the divided country two years after U.S. troops left their South Vietnamese allies and have remained in power. In 1986, the Vietnamese government began to loosen restrictions on foreign travel and investment.
About six years ago, Shay made his trip back. “It was tough to go back the first time,” said Shay, now retired and living in New York City.
Shay returned several times, met former allies and enemies, and embraced a new culture. “I don’t know how any people could hate them.”
In June 2004, Shay organized a conference in New York with some other vets and officers from the former South and North Vietnamese armies.
The Navy pilots wanted the Vietnamese to help them discover what had happened to two missing airmen. The Vietnamese agreed but asked something in return: help in coping with the effects of Agent Orange contamination .
The request struck a chord with the American vets. It brought them together with their long-held regret over having participated in the Agent Orange program.
The two sides promised to help each other.
The military estimates that nearly 10 percent of Vietnam was sprayed with herbicide between 1961 and 1971. Nineteen million gallons of Agent Orange and other herbicides were dropped on the Vietnamese .
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, exposure to Agent Orange is known to cause such maladies as certain types of acne, diabetes, nerve disorders, leukemia, Hodgkin’s disease and rare forms of prostate and respiratory cancers. Symptoms can take years to emerge.
Researchers also have found a link between the birth defect spina bifida, an abnormality of the spine and brain, among the children of vets exposed to the chemical.
Steven Stellman, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, said the Vietnamese probably have faced health problems similar to those of American vets.
Stellman, who has researched Agent Orange exposure for more than a decade, estimated as many as 4.8 million Vietnamese were directly sprayed with herbicide.
Jerry Wages spent 34 years in the Navy, including 14 months leading a riverine combat group in the Mekong Delta. The 77-year-old retired captain has seen friends suffer and lose battles with cancer.
Wages’ doctors say he has the early stages of a rare leukemia likely caused by his exposure during riverine duty in the jungles. He shrugs it off. “It’s not real bad at this time,” Wages said from his Florida home.
Weseleskey and Shay also were exposed, during ground and aerial missions, although neither has shown symptoms.
“I got lucky,” Weseleskey said.
Other veterans in the Seawolf Association rejected the suggestion of helping Vietnamese children. Despite Vietnam’s improved relations with the United States, many veterans “feel we shouldn’t be helping our former enemy,” Weseleskey said.
“A lot of people won’t do this,” Shay said. “A lot of them still have ghosts in the closet.”
The men broke from the Seawolf Association and started an independent charity.
The organization – known as the Seawolf Agent Orange Relief Effort Foundation – has drummed up support mostly from other vets. Contributions have trickled in. Wages’ daughter requested donations to the charity rather than gifts for her wedding. Guests raised $7,000.
The men want to establish new cardiac operating rooms in major hospitals in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), the former capitals of North and South Vietnam, respectively. Each will cost about $30,000 to install and equip.
“We’ll have a continual need to help the kids in the delta,” Wages said. “Little things – toothbrushes, vitamins.”
Shay also returned to Vietnam with an American heart surgeon and used the donations to pay for heart surgery for an 11-year-old Vietnamese boy.
The men are unsure whether the defects are directly caused by Agent Orange, but they still feel a responsibility. They have no firm plans to travel back to Vietnam, but they expect to return.
For Weseleskey, 70 , it would be his first trip back since the war. “It’s been a difficult thing,” he said. The charity, he added, “is a venting valve.”
Reach Louis Hansen at (757) 446-2322 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
HOW TO HELP
For Agent Orange Relief Foundation information, go to www.saoref.org.