Cheers burst forth and seats clattered as a roomful of military men and their wives moved as one in a standing ovation. The cheers were louder than when the name of their adored president, Ronald Reagan, was evoked. Richer, even, than the hosannas for "the man we all know and love -- Richard Milhous Nixon," as their former commander in chief was described when his telegram greeting was read.
For here at the Shoreham last Sunday, in front of them, was H. Ross Perot, the pint-sized, crew-cut Texas billionaire and longtime friend of these men -- 250 former Vietnam POWs.
The world first heard of H. Ross Perot in 1970 when he loaded two jets with Christmas presents for the POWs and zapped around the world in vain, trying first to get Hanoi and then the Russians to let him in. There is a slight flush of anger as Perot -- as tough as he is generous -- recalls the press reaction at the time. "As far as the press was concerned I was just a funny little guy doing odd things. But the facts are that Henry Kissinger asked me to do it and Al Haig was my contact! We got millions of dollars worth of press and it was all carefully planned to embarrass the North Vietnamese into changing their treatment of the POWs. And they did."
The former POWs, in starched white jackets filled with campaign ribbons, and their wives formed a long line as they filed by Perot, paying their respects to the man who barely reached their shoulders. "I just wanted to tell my children I met the greatest American in our time," gushed one wife. One ex-Air Force pilot asked Perot if he knew anyone with a Texas airline. "I'm looking for a flying job." "Use my name," shoots back Perot. "I probably know 'em." A little laugh. "I hope I don't cost you the job." p
There were lots of laughs. The former POWs, and pilots are into "right stuff" talk these days. Jokes, macho, friendly congenial banter, "Hey, you ole sonofabitch, how are you?" One pilot to three women talking together: "Now there aren't enough pretty ladies to go around. This is no time for a hen party.
They were crowned heroes in a war that had few heroes. "Our psychological problems just drifted away," said Allen Stafford, commander, U.S. Navy. "Hell, we were professionals. I fly my plane and do what the boss says to do." He speaks of the men who fought the war on the ground. "I don't relate to their problems but I'm in sympathy with the poor guy that was on the ground. But our life just gets better. I just about had a coronary I was so glad Reagan got in. El Salvador? I'm not up to speed on that. But I have absolute faith the president will do what is right. I'd go again and fight it all the way. If he wants to send me in a cockpit, I'd go.
At American University this Memorial Day weekend, Stafford's gung-ho view was lost on another group of veterans -- the drafted and enlisted men; the grunts and ground-pounders who slogged through the jungles of Vietnam. There were no White House parties for them as they returned from that same war. But the ex-POWs got a liberal discount on their Washington hotel rooms and eight airlines offered free rides to the Washington reunion. The 200 other vets and their families across town at the Agent Orange conference stayed in friends' houses, cheap hotels. They came from California and Boston and Florida. The Wisconsin group had bake sales to pay for their trip. And they had to sell T-shirts and fatigues at $5 and $7 to help meet expenses. They were doing a brisk business in shirts with such slogans as "No Draft, No Way," and a T-shirt with the slogan "Dow Shalt Not Kill" (for Dow Chemical Company, manufacturers of the chemical Agent Orange).
For they were here for a National Vietnam Veterans Conference on Agent Orange. There were professors, scientists and lawyers in three-piece suits and veterans in faded fatigues as well as coats and ties. They tried in vain to get a representative of the government, of the Veterans Administration, to attend.
These are the men who were thankful they made it back whole but now feel they are victims of a sinister legacy -- Agent Orange. The defoliant that rained on Vietnam for years contains dioxin, one of the world's most deadly chemicals. A single drop, if it could be divided equally among 1,000 people, would kill them all. It can topple a 150-foot hardwood tree in two days. The amount of Agent Orange sprayed in Vietnam totaled 96 million pounds. The veterans are asking for testing, treatment and compensation for what they feel are Agent Orange-caused illnesses -- everything from cancer to birth defects in their children.
"This is the first war that reached into our maternity wards," said Tom Vallely, a Boston state representative and Vietnam veteran who received the silver star for bravery. Eighteen months ago, his daughter was born with a serious birth defect. "The Vietnam experience does not belong to the past," Vallely said. The warfare we saw in Vietnam is the warfare of the future. Vietnam was a laboratory, our own men were the guinea pigs. Our men got caught in a crossfire of bullets and chemicals."
Their cause is not popular with the government or chemical companies who could have to pay billions in medical benefits and lawsuits if the list of diseases was ever linked to Agent Orange.
And so Ronald DeBoer, a tall, slim, handsome ex-veteran and director of Agent Orange Victims of New York, was speaking mostly to the converted as the keynote speaker:
Life was fine for DeBoer. He returned from Viewnam, went to college, started his own business. Then, he got cancer. "My wife read about Agent Orange -- a herbicide that causes cancer in laboratory animals. I began to read and I still couldn't believe that my government would send me into an area that would be contaminated with what turns out to be the most toxic substance known to man." Laboriously, DeBoer began trying to find out "what happened to the other men in A Troop, Seventh Squadron, 17th Air Cav." He called Kevin, a New York City cop whose first child was born dead and his second deformed. He got him in touch with another from his troop who told DeBoer, "My first child was born with a deformed leg and my second child was born mentally retarded." Like many of the other veterans and wives with deformed children, the man had no history of genetic problems. Next was Alan, a California mailman. He had developed hypertension, severe headaches, skin problems and "never felt well a day since I returned." DeBoer contends that "five out of six of the troop that I contacted had hard-core Agent Orange problems." He is loaded with statistics: "A new study found 43 percent higher incidence of soft tissue carcinoma among people who have been exposed to dioxin," and was greeted with sustained applause when he shouted, "We don't have to hear about rabbits and mice and monkeys. We have the people -- 2.48 million who served their country. They should be compared in a controlled study with 2.4 million men who did not go to Vietnam but were in the Army."
DeBoer finished with, "This Memorial Day, thousands of Vietnam vets aren't going to home-town parades because they're in cancer wards, thousands of Vietnam veterans' wives are going to be at cemeteries putting flowers on the graves of those who survived the war. That is our Memorial Day. But who in the VA stands up and speaks for us? As the people in Washington and the war contractors sit around the pools and go to parties and dip their manicured fingers in the caviar, you can be sure they are not thinking of us."
At the Shoreham, H. Ross Perot finally ducks out of the endless stream of praise from the former POWs. Perot was hiring Vietnam veterans for his Electronic Data Systems Corp. back when "you were thought a militaristic lunatic to do that. We've hired'em by the thousands and not had a psychological problem with a one. I feel sory for the ones who have trouble but it's a gross distortion to say they're the average Vietnam vet." He is, however, interested in Agent Orange. "You know that fella that shot up the VA hospital in California? His wife sent me a letter. So I called her and asked if there was something I could do. She said, 'Nothing. He's dead.' She's got a very famous coroner doing a detailed autopsy to see if anything can be linked to Agent Orange."
The former POWs glisten with prosperity, look so healthy that it is hard to imagine that most spent seven years in prison. Seven of them line up and a wife snaps a picture as all grin. There are occasional, brief clouds. asked about his children, one stops smiling. "I lost them when I was over there. They don't know me. But I'm remarried . . . " and the smile is back.
Ron Bliss, now a Texas lawyer, looks at another former POW and says, "He was my first roommate." He was not referring to a military academy. They were together for nearly a year in the prison dubbed The Hanoi Hilton. "He was tortured so badly he could't move his arms for months." As Bliss drifts off, Jack Fellows says, "He saved my life. When I couldn't move my arms he fed me, bathed me, clothed me . . . "
Now, all these years later, Ross Perot has a thought on the way America treated veterans. "We've got ourselves in a strange box in this country. Making heroes out of hostages and prisoners and not the others. Think about it."
At the Agent Orange conference, no one was talking about wanting to be heroes. Many there were forged in the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) movement. There were there, among the several hundreds of war heroes who pelted ribbons and medals at the Capitol terrace in 1971. They are leery of right-wing revisionism on Vietnam and feel the war was wrong.
Their concerns are personal. Margaret and Larry Driscoll wear their bright orange "Agent Orange Victims of New Jersey" T-shirts as their 4-year-old redhead, Erin, plays on the lawn outside the conference. Driscoll was a medic. He began getting severe headaches in Vietnam (one of the symptoms mentioned by alleged Agent Orange victims) and "they continue to this date. Nothing helps. All I can do is lie down and wait." He was in the computer field but took a laborer's job, unloading trucks, "just in case my headaches were caused by the mental stress of the job." In 1969, Margaret had a stillborn baby that was badly deformed. "A very rare defect. She was born with only half a brain. They couldn't give me any reason." Her husband's problems grew. Headaches, severe skin rash, "and now my joints kill me. I was on the swimming team before. Now I can't throw a ball 10 feet."
They held off on children and then, in 1977, Erin was born healthy. The next year, a baby was born with a cleft palate. "You look down at your newborn and you see this. She had only two chambers to her heart, a displaced spleen. She died three days later," says Margaret. Scientists refer to such personal information as "anecdotal data" that contain no hard-core facts. However, veterans and their families feel there are insidious and peculiar patterns to these stories. Margaret Driscoll was the third woman at the conference to mention that she had had amniocentesis; that no birth defects were detected and yet she gave birth to abnormal babies. "We went all through the genetics and the doctors still haven't given us an answer."
Today, they are still paying for the medical bills -- "and the funeral bills."
The wives of former POWs are dressed in flowing chiffon and lace. They, like their husbands, are professionals. Little of those seven years of wondering, of raising children alone, shows on their faces today. "The children were all scarred," says Louis Mulligan, whose oldest of six was 15 and the youngest 3 when her husband was captured. "But most of us have found our children have come out very well." It was hard on teen-agers, whose peers were vociferously anti-draft. "I told my oldest, when he went off to college, not to mention where his father was. He was having enough trouble without that."
Nearby sits a younger wife, Mary Jane McManus. She had been married four days when her husband left for Vietnam. He was captured June 14, 1967. She was in her early 20s. "I was in college in the nonviolent period." She and other POW wives tried to appeal to all political persuasions. "No matter how you felt about the war, they were political prisoners." Her pretty face grows hard when she remembers those in the peace movement "who wanted to try our husbands as political prisoners." They survived because, said McManus, "they followed a chain of command within the POW system."
McManus now has five children -- ages 7,5,4,3,2 -- "and one coming."
There is talk of Agent Orange. "I don't know what we can do about that," she says. "My brother has had it, has had the acne and skin conditions for eight years." She is told of the women at the conference who feel that birth defects were caused by Agent Orange.
"Oh really," she said, sympathetically. "I didn't know about that." There is a moment's sigh.
At the Agents Orange conference, a lawyer says, more sadly than disparagingly, "The POWs are an accident of history -- a bunch of right wing officers turned into heroes."
Meanwhile, in the Shoreham banquet room, where every military man turned in precision as the color guard filed past, there is a heady feeling that their time is now. Approving nods as Reagan's emissary, Lyn Nofziger, assures that "no longer is the United States backing off in places like El Salvador."
And yet, even here, there is still an edge of ambivalence, a remembrance of bad times past.
McManus says softly, "Who would want to send a child or husband to any war?"