Juneau veteran honored after illness

Man died in 2000 from lasting effects of Agent Orange

Posted: Monday, May 28, 2007

As an infantry sergeant during the Vietnam War, Dennis DeBolt earned two Bronze Stars, two Army Commendation Medals, and a Purple Heart. After the Juneau resident died of pancreatic cancer in 2000, he received another award, the Order of the Silver Rose.

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"It's for those who suffered the effects of Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam," said his wife, Gail DeBolt.

As his family reflects today on the sacrifice of soldiers, they can look back to DeBolt's most recent honor. In April, he and 76 other soldiers were laureled by 1,000 people at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. For a day, he represented the thousands of men and women who died prematurely due to dioxin exposure during the war.

Thirty-nine years after the U.S. Army sprayed Agent Orange on his infantry unit, DeBolt's name appeared below the names of his buddies etched in the stout black granite wall. At the foot of Panel 54-E, his name was posted alongside those of the 58,253 permanently listed as killed in combat.

"In Memory Day," an annual event held at the National War Memorial, pays tribute to soldiers who died because of the war yet are not eligible to be listed on the wall. It recognizes that soldiers die from effects of long gone battlefields. Years after fighting, those soldiers died from cancer or suicide, or after a long, hard life with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

"I think it's great they recognize a real thing that affects a lot of lives," said DeBolt's son, Jonathan DeBolt.

Jonathan DeBolt, a Juneau resident, flew to Washington and joined his siblings and mother for the addition of his father's name during this year's event.

This weekend, he plans to honor his father by doing American things.

"Camping, grilling and fishing," DeBolt said.

After the war, Dennis DeBolt married, started a family and eventually brought them to Juneau in 1987 while he worked for Sealaska Corporation. DeBolt worked a short while as a defense contractor in Saudi Arabia following the 1991 Gulf War, before returning to Juneau in 1998 as the chief financial officer of Klukwan.

"My dad was always traveling," Jonathan DeBolt said.

When Dennis DeBolt died of cancer in 2000, family members said it had to be the Agent Orange, Jonathan DeBolt said.

DeBolt couldn't say where his father was exposed to the defoliant he believes killed him, because Dennis rarely talked with his son about what happened in Vietnam.

Within a decade of the war's end, the use of Agent Orange was linked to many illnesses. By the late 1990s, the Dioxin-based defoliant - which was used for about 10 years - was linked to eight cancers and believed to be connected to more than 20 diseases, studies show.

After Dennis DeBolt became sick, he went on one last road trip to Fairbanks. During that trip, he talked about Vietnam.

"He said the planes flew over like crop dusters and sometimes it would get all over them," Jonathan DeBolt said. "He said they didn't think too much of it at the time."

"History repeats itself, and I'm sure we'll see something like that in this war," DeBolt said. "I only hope we don't kill 58,000."

Jonathan remembers his father once saying that if the draft had returned during the Gulf War he would move his family to Switzerland.

"His war experience must have been pretty bad for him to be willing to uproot his family like that," DeBolt said.

Though Dennis DeBolt was born in Flint, Mich., his ashes were laid to rest in his favorite place - in the waters near Point Retreat. The U.S. Coast Guard helped the family scatter them in May 2001.

This month in Tacoma, Wash., the government will place a permanent marker in Tahoma National Cemetery.

• Greg Skinner can be reached at greg.skinner@juneauempire.com.

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