‘Agent Orange’ plaque dedicated at veterans park

A ceremony took place March 5 to honor and remember veterans who were exposed to tactical herbicides during the Vietnam War.

Members of Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1085 of Ocala pose behind the Agent Orange plaque after a dedication ceremony on March 5 at the Ocala-Marion County Veterans Memorial Park. Photo by Andy Fillmore.

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Posted March 7, 2023 | By Andy Fillmore, Correspondent

Rudy Lyons wanted to be a bush pilot in Alaska after he served with the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War in 1966 and 1967, but he said his dream was derailed by Agent Orange.

Lyons, now 75, said he suffered three heart attacks and other health issues in the 1980s—traced to Agent Orange exposure—and eventually lost his pilot’s license. He had a career in the trucking industry and owned his own rig, which could be driven by others.

“I was a truck driver in the war. We would wash the spray off our windshields with our (bare) hands. The chemical was used to remove foliage alongside the roads where enemy soldiers would hide and ambush (U.S.) troops. They told us (the chemical) wouldn’t hurt us. We welcomed it at the time,” Lyons said.

“Wives lost a spouse, children grew up without a father and families struggled economically due to the effects of Agent Orange,” Lyons said.

Lyons, pastor of Little Dove Baptist Church in Ocklawaha and vice president of Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) Chapter 1085 of Ocala, was one of several Vietnam War veterans on hand March 5 for the dedication of a newly installed memorial at the Ocala-Marion County Veterans Memorial Park, which was dubbed the “Agent Orange plaque.”

The 32-inch square plaque, sponsored by VVA Chapter 1085, is set in a brick pedestal and reads: “Agent Orange: In memory of all those who died because of this chemical and pray for those who are still suffering.”

The plaque features an image of an airplane trailing an orange plume and the outlines of two soldiers kneeling in prayer. It is the first monument in the park to have a QR code on the face, which can provide visitors in-depth information. The QR code is part of a program underway by the Friends of Marion County Veterans Park Foundation (FMCVPF), which hosted Sunday’s event.

According to Facts About Herbicides at the Department of Veterans Affairs website at publichealth.va.gov/exposures/agentorange/basics.asp, “Agent Orange is a blend of tactical herbicides the U.S. military sprayed from 1962 to 1971 during Operation Ranch Hand in the Vietnam War to remove trees and dense tropical foliage that provided enemy cover.”

“More than 19 million gallons of various ‘rainbow’ herbicide combinations were sprayed, but Agent Orange was the combination the U.S. military used most often. The name ‘Agent Orange’ came from the orange identifying stripe used on the 55-gallon drums in which it was stored,” the website states.

“The dioxin TCDD was an unwanted byproduct of herbicide production. Dioxins are pollutants that are released into the environment by burning waste, diesel exhaust, chemical manufacturing, and other processes. TCDD is the most toxic of the dioxins, and is classified as a human carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency,” the site states.

The VA lists a host of cancers and illnesses caused by Agent Orange exposure, including bladder cancer, high blood pressure, Hodgkin’s disease, lung cancer and prostate cancer.

According to benefits.VA.Gov, the requirements for Agent Orange disability compensation include service in the Republic of Vietnam between 1962 and 1975, on a U.S. vessel in Vietnam or within 12 nautical miles. An article on that site indicates that a class action suit (not involving the VA) against chemical manufacturers by veterans and families was settled out of court for $180 million in 1984.

Paul Turner, president of the local VVA chapter, served in the Vietnam War in 1969 and 1970. He suffers from diabetes and had triple heart bypass surgery in 1987. Brenda Turner, his wife, accompanied him to the plaque dedication. She said she was six months pregnant when her husband left for service in Vietnam.

“We had to live with (the effects of Agent Orange), too,” Brenda Turner said.

Lyons and Turner both receive VA disability benefits for Agent Orange exposure, but those didn’t start until 2016 or later.

Lyons said it took “many years” for the effects of Agent Orange on veterans to be recognized and Turner added that he hopes the plaque will help “raise awareness.”

Both Lyons and Turner praised the work of the VA medical staff and departments in treating their Agent Orange related illness over the last several years.

Ron Oppliger, a Vietnam War veteran and chairman of the FMVCPF, said that during the war he was “happy to see (spraying of Agent Orange because) it took away enemy cover.”

Steve Gallant of Ocala, on hand for the dedication, served in the Vietnam War in 1970. He said he suffers from Type II diabetes and foot and leg nerve damage.

Vietnam War and veterans of that era who attended the dedication included Kenneth Barrett, 72, who served in the “brown water Navy”; Navy veteran Ron Carignan, 88; Air Force veteran Jimmy Carter, 77; Larry Backensto, 75, who said he lost his best friend to a tumor; Ray Orlosky, treasurer of FMCVPF; Jim Mullins; and Army veteran William Ehrhart.

Ed and Diana Hancock were there and she signed a guest book for her brother, Vietnam War veteran Don Kincheloe, who has passed away.

The guests also included George Halstead, a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War, and Kimberly Erick, whose son, Giancarlos Mendieta, recently completed boot camp at the Parris Island Marine Corps Recruit Depot in South Carolina.

Lyons offered a benediction prayer and Hannah Stucky sang a touching rendition of “God Bless America.”

Todd Belknap, spokesman for FMCVPF, said the park support group has an initiative underway to bring monuments to the park to honor those who served after 1975. The interactive QR feature is meant to educate visitors.

Belknap said foundation plans include a landmark monument at the corner of Southeast 25th Avenue and East Silver Springs Boulevard that would rise at least 25 feet high and be bathed in red, white and blue lighting.

“The monument is also planned to play ‘taps’ every evening at sunset,” Belknap said.

To learn more about the park, including upcoming events, go to marionvetpark.com



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