By Dana Delgado
After having served in the US Air Force, first as an enlisted serviceman and then as an officer, Len Swanson began suffering from the effects of what he suspected to be “Agent Orange” exposure during his deployment to Vietnam.
Agent Orange is a blend of tactical herbicides the U.S. military sprayed in the jungles of Vietnam and around the Korean demilitarized zone to remove trees and dense tropical foliage that provided enemy cover. Herbicides were also used by the U.S. military to defoliate military facilities in the U.S. and in other countries as far back as the 1950s.
The effects of the herbicides have been a controversial topic between Vietnam veterans and the Department of Veterans Affairs as to whether the health effects are service related and connected to the chemicals used.
“It nearly killed me,” said a dismayed Swanson. “Four years ago, I almost died from aorta damage from Agent Orange. I live with it each and every day and each and every day wake up and thank God.”
Presently, the Department of Veterans Affairs and federal law presumes that certain diseases including Chronic B-cell Leukemias, Diabetes Mellitus Type 2, Hodgkin’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, Peripheral Neuropathy, Prostate Cancer and Repiratory Cancers among others can be related to a veteran’s exposure to Agent Orange or other herbicides during qualifying military service.
That qualifying military service has been specifically delineated. The VA presumes that veterans were exposed to Agent Orange or other herbicides if they served in Vietnam anytime between January 9, 1962 and May 7, 1975 including brief visits ashore or service aboard a ship that operated on the inland waterways of Vietnam.
It is also presumed that veterans in or near the Korean demilitarized zone anytime between April 1, 1968 and August 31, 1971 were exposed to Agent Orange. Other veterans who may have been exposed are those who served on or near the perimeters of military bases in Thailand, those who served where herbicides were tested and stored outside of Vietnam, those who were crew members on C-123 flown after the Vietnam War, and those associated with Department of Defense projects to test, dispose of, or store herbicides in the United States.
Qualification for disability benefits has often been a laborious task for many servicemen that were exposed to Agent Orange. Besides meeting the qualifying service, veterans have had to produce “competent medical evidence” that in some cases must verify that the effects of the herbicide were evident within a year of exposure.
“They hope we die off,” said Swanson. “They put me and others in danger while we were serving our country. Our voices are not going to be silenced.”
With each passing year for the last five years, the collective voices of many but primarily Vietnam era veterans led by Swanson have become a roar, resonating from Texas to Washington, D.C. Although, it’s not just about Agent Orange anymore.
Swanson has given a voice to all veterans, present or past. The plight of veterans leaving the military by choice or by reduction has become an emphatic focus for the Vietnam veteran.
Having gone through his own ordeal, Swanson says he has heard it all and seen it all through his contact with other veterans.
“I want to stop the bleeding,” said Swanson, who founded GETI Alliance to help veterans re-entering the civilian world. “We want to move on with solutions and resolutions. It’s how you choose to cope whether you are successful in your life.”
By organizing a broad base of stakeholders in his Alliance, Swanson says he is seeking “real commitments.” A major rallying point is the call for a new military workforce development center at Fort Hood. It is planned to originally focus on energy and technology jobs and training and then expand to healthcare.
“This is a special Alliance that is a unique combination of industry, academia and veteran organizations who have come together to provide better pathways for those active duty men and women and of course all veterans who seek guidance as to how to best attain one of over a million jobs nationwide and begin that next chapter in their lives,” GETI’s Chief Operating Officer said.
It is a plan that Swanson hopes to duplicate from Fort Bliss in El Paso, to the large military community in San Antonio and all across the country.
Liberty Hill resident and Iraqi veteran Roy Pereira was among the first veterans to be helped by the GETI Alliance, but Swanson expects many more will follow. Increasingly, he asserts, the path will be clearer and smoother to a promising civilian life. Over the next four years, just over one million service members are expected to return to civilian life.
Due in great part to the relentless efforts of Swanson and his Alliance, the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation (TDLR) announced March 25 that it had updated its licensing procedures to help military service members and veterans become licensed to work in Texas using their military service, training and education.
“TDLR values the contributions of all who serve or have served in our nation’s armed forces and of the spouses of military service members,” said TDLR Executive Director Bill Kuntz. “These new licensing changes allow us to help service members, veterans, and spouses get licensed and get to work in Texas.”
For more information about TDLR military service, training, education credit and military spouse licensing, visit the TDLR Military Information website at www.tdlr.texas.gov/military, or call TDLR’s Customer Service at 800-803-9202.
Swanson believes he has many of the top leaders listening to the plight of countless servicemen and women, and hopes that the wheels that are beginning to turn continue to gain traction.
“I’m leveraging and bringing it to the attention of the world,” said Swanson. “There are still many signatures to be gotten and commitments to be completed, but I just want veterans to know that they will never be forgotten.”