As told by Ross Simpson for WDVM’s Veterans Voices.
(WDVM) — Former Army Lieutenant Frank Spacek came home from the Vietnam War with a Purple Heart, two Bronze Stars for valor on the battlefield and a Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry; medals he wears proudly on his Blackhorse baseball cap. But Frank also came home with something he didn’t count on.
I bumped into Spacek in the parking lot at the VA Medical Center in Martinsburg where he is being treated for multiple Agent Orange-related cancers.
“Thanks to Agent Orange, I have leukemia, prostate cancer and bone cancer,” said the former platoon leader in the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment.
Spacek has been hospitalized three times in the past year with pneumonia. COPD and COVID-19 are only complicating his health condition.
Agent Orange is a toxic herbicide that was used to defoliate the jungles in Vietnam and deny Viet Cong guerillas and North Vietnamese soldiers a place to hide. The effects are clearly visible in “before and after” photos.
The U.S. chemical warfare program began in 1961 and lasted until 1972, but veterans like Lt. Spacek were told not to worry.
“We were persuaded that the chemical was harmless,” said Spacek as pulled his portable oxygen tank out of the trunk of his car as he prepared to begin the battle of his life.
During the Vietnam War, Spacek commanded 2nd Platoon, E-Troop, 2nd Squadron of the 11th ACR.
“They used my platoon reinforced as a fire brigade basically,” said Spacek who never knew where he would be sent. But he was determined to survive the war.
“When I went there [Vietnam], I made a promise to myself that I would bring every soldier home,” said Spacek who kept his promise. He and 44 men in 2nd Platoon survived the war, but many of them are sick with Agent-Orange related cancers like Spacek.
In addition to being sprayed with Agent Orange by airplanes and helicopters, Spacek’s platoon was also sprayed with cancer-causing chemicals by armored personnel carriers like the APCs they rode into battle more than 50 years ago.
Agent Orange is like a “ticking time bomb.” Vietnam veterans like Spacek, who survived the war in Southeast Asia didn’t expect the so-called “harmless herbicide” to surface decades later and lead to all kinds of deadly cancers in their bodies.
The government of Vietnam claims four million Vietnamese were sickened by exposure to Agent Orange. In addition to cancer, the toxic herbicide also caused birth defects among the Vietnamese people, a sad ending to a war that had only losers, no winners.