Ron Hilbert was glad to be alive to receive the Silver Rose Medal last week.
The medal honors Vietnam veterans suffering the effects of Agent Orange, an herbicide sprayed on the jungle during the war. Most recipients die from one of the cancers Agent Orange causes before they receive the medal, said Gary Chenett, director of the nonprofit organization that has been giving out the medals since 1997.
"We're fighting a big battle here to spread the word to get these vets to go in and get full physicals," Chenett said.
Hilbert was lucky twice. First he survived a year in Vietnam, from October 1967 to October 1968. An infantry radioman, his work included driving convoys and firing guns from the door of an assault helicopter.
For most of the year he was at Bong Son base. The defoliated jungle around him looked like the aftermath of a forest fire "where the trees are all standing with all the branches, but there's nothing on them," Hilbert said, "Everything is dead. It kills it all."
Drinking water for the base came from a hose stuck into a rice paddy. Water was sucked out, treated with chlorine, and drunk up.
"It tasted a little like a swimming pool," Hilbert said.
Nothing was done to filter out the Agent Orange sprayed in the area, part of the more than 11 million gallons used during the war. In 1991 the federal government officially recognized that the herbicide is linked to outbreaks of nine cancers, 28 types of tumors called sarcomas, nervous system and skin disorders, liver disease, and diabetes in Vietnam veterans. About 250,000 veterans died since the war of Agent Orange cancers, Chenett said.
In 1996 Hilbert had his second stroke of luck. He was getting ready for ski season in Juneau and discovered his boots wouldn't fit because a thumb-sized lump was growing on his leg. The lump hurt when he touched it.
His doctor wasn't alarmed, but Hilbert asked him to remove it anyway so he could ski. When the lump was biopsied it turned out to be a malignant tumor, one the government recognizes as caused by Agent Orange exposure. Usually the tumors aren't discovered in time. The type of sarcoma Hilbert had often spreads to the heart, liver, lungs and brain, killing about 65 percent of the people who have it.
After the biopsy, Hilbert had a second, more thorough surgery to remove all the muscle and connective tissue in the area of the tumor. He continues to have annual checkups and, more than four years later, hasn't had any reoccurrence.
Now Hilbert urges all the veterans he knows to be vigilant about going to the doctor.
"Anybody that was there, if you have odd lumps, any kind of thing that is suspicious, get it checked out," Hilbert said. "If not it will kill you."
"The only reason I believe I'm alive today was it was discovered early."
Kristan Hutchison can be reached at email@example.com.