Her latest diagnosis, just days ago, of lymphoma, is a third cancer which she attributes to her exposure to Agent Orange (AO) in Vietnam.
During the Vietnam War, between 1962 and 1971, the United States and its allies’ military sprayed 21,000,000 US gallons of chemical herbicides, manufactured by Monsanto and Dow Chemical, in Vietnam, eastern Laos and parts of Cambodia, as part of Operation Ranch Hand.
While in Vietnam, veterans and non-veterans were told not to worry, and were persuaded the chemicals was harmless. But in fact dioxin is one of the most poisonous substances known to humans. Vietnam estimates 800,000 deaths and more than 500,000 children born with birth defects due to AO’s toxicity.
The VA estimates that there may be as many as 250,000 US veterans who are suffering from Agent Orange-related illnesses.
Increased rates of cancer, nerve, digestive, skin and respiratory disorders, throat cancer, acute/chronic leukemia, Hodgkin's lymphoma and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, prostate cancer, lung cancer, soft tissue sarcoma and liver cancer among veterans are attributed to exposure from AO.
The Agent Orange Act of 1991 established that veterans with any of the diseases linked to Agent Orange were presumed exposed during their service, and therefore could claim disability. The law saved veterans from the often impossible task of proving they were exposed to Agent Orange during their service.
But Dahlke is not a veteran and is ineligible for veteran’s care. Dahlke never knew she was exposed to AO even though numerous remote locations she visited with Grant’s USO troupe were heavily sprayed with AO.
Dahlke elaborated on the terms of the departure after two weeks of preparation. She said, “The Department of the Army provided me with Invitational Travel Orders issued and dated 7 December 1970. These orders were my official authorization to enter Vietnam under military sponsorship. The orders stated we needed to keep those written orders with us at all times while in the country.
“Through these Invitational Orders, I was issued a GS-15 Equivalent — a military ranking. This official high-ranking status protected us from the enemy if we were captured.”
“We visited surgical hospitals, evacuation hospitals (the MASH type) units for the very severely injured, field hospitals, fire bases on the tops of mountains where we would be signaled for landing with a smoke bomb to locate the safe place to land the helicopter,” she recalled. With Grant, she traveled from Saigon to Quang Tri- just three miles from the DMZ.
After they returned to the States, Dahlke resumed her education earning a Bachelors Degree in Television, Radio and Film with a secondary emphasis on journalism.
Over the years, she worked television production, built a professional name for herself and married.
Then in June 1990, Dahlke was diagnosed with a soft tissue sarcoma — a large abdominal retroperitoneal liposarcoma. Surgeons removed a tumor, nearly 8 lbs in size, along with 80% of her stomach, spleen, left adrenal gland and a partial pancreatectomy. Surgery was followed with three 5-day 24/7 continuous chemo drugs in the hospital.
In 1992, a CAT scan revealed what doctors thought was a recurrence of a cancerous tumor. During surgery, adhesion tissue was found and removed along with four feet of her jejunum (the middle portion of the small intestine).
In May 2010, Dahlke’s cancer returned. This time it was T- Cell Large Granular Lymphocytic Leukemia- her second bout of cancer.
Quite by accident, Dahlke stumbled onto the VA website where she was stunned to find the words, “Liposarcoma is a presumptive disease the VA recognizes as being associated with Agent Orange and those presumed exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam between 1962 and 1975 (including those who visited Vietnam even briefly).”
So, Dahlke filed a claim with the Department of Labor under the Defense Base Act on July 8, 2010.
Several months passed before she was advised that she was not eligible to file under the DBA.
When she learned she was allowed to file with the Department of Labor under FECA Workers' Compensation claim, she did so in June 2010.
That claim was denied on September 13, 2010 for compensation or medical benefits. The reason given was “insurance carrier makes objection to your right to compensation and/or medical benefits under the Workers’ Compensation Act.”
Memo 53, added to the Federal Employment Compensation Act (FECA) on December 13, 1967 says, “Gratuitous Entertainers With The Armed Forces Professional Entertainment Program Overseas would be "employees" for the purposes of the FECA and, while on tour with the Armed Forces Professional Entertainment Program Overseas, would be entitled to benefits under the Act in the event of death or disability.”
FECA 5 U.S.C 5.81 (22) (COMPENSATION FOR WORK INJURIES) states, “For permanent loss or loss of use of any other important external or internal organ of the body as determined by the Secretary, proper and equitable compensation not to exceed 312 weeks' compensation for each organ so determined shall be paid in addition to any other compensation payable under this schedule.”
Dahlke had lost several internal organs to cancer in 1990- because of surgery done to remove a life threatening cancer.
Dahlke filed an appeal of denial and received a final denial on July 1, 2011
Her frustrations were evident when she tearfully told me, “We had to sell our home in 2008 because of the high cost of my health care. In 2009, we had to file for bankruptcy. I continue to develop new stressful and challenging health ills all the time. Each day I take eleven prescribed medicines. Even with our insurance coverage, the monthly out-of-pocket cost to us is horrendous and I live in fear that Blue Cross could cancel my insurance at any time.” Dahlke said her medical bills have exceeded a $1 million.
For Dahlke, the future remains uncertain, except for one thing: “I plan on fighting all the way, on my own behalf- for what is right and just.” Lesli Dahlke is a lifetime Los Angeles resident.
A fund has been set up on Lesli’s behalf at Community West Bank:
A Loss of Innocence
C/O Kimberly Tharpe, Assistant Branch Manager
951 S. Westlake Blvd Westlake Village, CA 91362
(Katharine Russ is an investigative reporter. She is a regular contributor to CityWatch and to the North Valley Reporter. Katharine Russ can be reached at: [email protected] ) –cw
Tags: USO, Johnnie Grant, Vietnam War, Agent Orange, cancer, veteran, DMZ, Saigon, television, leukemia
Vol 9 Issue 65
Pub: Aug 16, 2011