Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Circumstantial Evidence

In 1998, my late husband, Rick, a Vietnam vet, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He was 52, which I thought was young to have prostate cancer.
In Vietnam there were troops who were on the ground. There were also “brown water sailors,” who manned the river boats. Then there were the blue water sailors, on ships. The blue water sailors were Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine personnel.
In 1991, Congress mandated pensions for everyone exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam. Vets were getting sick and having children with birth defects, among other things. Because of the lack of historical data, no one could prove or disprove exposure to Agent Orange, but it was assumed that if you were in Vietnam, you were exposed. Prostate cancer is one of the diseases associated with Agent Orange (dioxin) exposure.
In 2002, the Agent Orange pension was taken away from the blue water sailors, because they did not serve on land and therefore were not exposed to Agent Orange. So the reasoning went. This despite their having the same illnesses and problems as vets who served ashore.
When Rick went to the VA around 2010 and spoke with a woman there about getting a pension, he was told that a pension was not coming to him because he had never set foot on the soil of Vietnam.
Last week I received an email from a Navy vet who also served on the King, Rick’s ship. He said he was sorry if he was bringing up bad feelings, but thought I might be interested in a paper called “A Re-Analysis of Blue Water Navy Veterans and Agent Orange Exposure.”
You can read this paper at a site called bluewaternavy.org.
So how about it? Were blue water sailors exposed to Agent Orange?
Well, yeah.
Agent Orange was sprayed in the jungle of Vietnam by airplanes, and the mist blew out to sea, where it could travel for miles, so it was in the air that those on shipboard breathed.
A second mode of exposure was the dioxin-contaminated dust that clung to every item and person that was transported from Vietnam, especially Da Nang, out to ships.
But here’s the one that really gets me: Agent Orange, which was distributed by airplanes, the river boats, and guys with backpack sprayers, flowed from the jungle into creeks and rivers, and from there into the ocean. The ships out along the coast were floating in Agent Orange (dioxin) contaminated water.
Ships need fresh water, for drinking, cooking, and washing for the crew, and to produce the steam that powers the generators that run the ship. How do you get fresh water at sea? You desalinize sea water.
Australia had Navy in Vietnam, and they studied the effects of Agent Orange on their vets. I will quote from the bluewaternavy.org paper here: “In 2002, an Australian Study found that the water distillation process, which used a high heat flash to evaporate the saltwater and to collect the condensation which would then be salt-free, would actually enhance the toxicity of any dioxin present in the original saltwater.”
As I read this paper I felt more and more angry. What? My husband, a guy who devoted thirty years of his life to providing safe drinking water for people on our little islands, was drinking dioxin in his coffee, eating it in his food, and taking showers in it, in Vietnam? Him and all the other souls on that ship, and on all the other ships out there?
I wished he was here so we could rant and rave together.
I want blue water sailors to be awarded pensions for their Agent Orange exposure, period. It would make a difference to those who still live, and their families. It sure would have made a difference for us. Will it happen? How many people have sickened and died since 2002? How many are sick and dying right now? How likely is it that the current administration will want to cough up money for sick Vietnam vets, who, let’s face it, are dying off every day?
A word on prostate cancer: it is the second most common cancer in men (the most common is non-melanoma skin cancer). Most prostate cancer is highly treatable, and many men have it and never know, and die of something else. The prostate cancer seen in people exposed to Agent Orange is a more aggressive and deadly variety, and that’s what Rick had.
But of course, this is all circumstantial evidence. I thought Rick died of smoking and his own stubbornness – refusing to go to the doctor. Now I think he was killed by cigarettes, stubbornness, and Vietnam.
It sounds like a country and western song, doesn’t it?

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Living Derangements

The new property tax assessments for 2018 arrived in the mail. You could hear the howls of pain and rage all over the island. Some of those howls were mine.
The assessed value for my house is going up to what I had speculated would be a reasonable asking price should I decide to sell. I wanted to call the county and ask, “Are you sure you were looking at my house when you set this value?” Which is more polite than screaming, “Are you people out of your #$&!%&@ $&^ @%^$ minds?”
I went online and looked up Vashon Island real estate listings and was boggled to find out what land and houses are going for on Vashon these days. Suddenly my assessment didn’t seem so out of line. Clearly, I have not been paying attention. But really?
The new assessments were the jumping off point for a conversation among some older people, mostly women, the other morning. We talked about how tough it is to keep a roof over our heads with the property taxes skyrocketing and our incomes remaining the same. We asked, if we can’t afford our property taxes this year, how will we be able to pay them next year?
I have heard and read about the poverty of older women for years, but now it has gone from theoretical to personal. Older women and men living in poverty are but one of the populations who feel the walls closing in as the national policy of siphoning all the money to the tiny part of the population that is already obscenely wealthy continues.
I have applied for the senior property tax exemption this year. I called the county assessor’s office to ask how that was going, and was told my application had been received, and there is a four-month backlog of processing of applications. When my application has been processed, I will hear about the decision by mail. Looking forward to that.
Meanwhile, the older women in this group got to talking about options for those of us who live alone and are on fixed incomes. What do we do? Sell our houses? Rent out our houses? Get a reverse mortgage? Take in roomers?
If we rent out or sell our houses, where do we live? Buy an RV and become snowbirds? Do we take up our adult children on their offers to come live with them? What if our adult children have not made those kind offers? What if we outlive the proceeds of house sales or reverse mortgages? What if we can’t afford to rent or buy anywhere else? Do we start looking for that quality cardboard box?
What struck me most about this conversation was that I’ve been agonizing for months over this dilemma – how do I pay the property taxes? How do I keep my house? What do I do if I can’t keep it? How do I live? What about the dog and the cat?
Now I find out that many other women my age are wondering the same things and wrestling with the same questions. Those of you who have already had these conversations and made these decisions are nodding your heads, aren’t you?
My older son and his sweetheart have told me I’d always have a home with them. That was good to know, but leaving my house, leaving the island, leaving my friends, leaving my singing partners, leaving my church, in fact, leaving everything familiar and dear after forty-five years? That is a wrenching thought, but it may come to that.
There were times after my husband Rick died when I felt like there was nothing more for me in this life, no purpose, no direction. Those were hard times. I stuck around, anyway, determined to see what kind of rollicking clusterfricks this new part of life had in store.
So. How to be old and alone and still alive, with declining health and probably losing my mind, too many bills and not enough money, in a country that is doing its best to kill off its most vulnerable citizens.
Well, I’m not bored, and I understand that as poverty goes, I am a rank amateur. I still have a house. I have a car. It is now an old car which I’m patching together with duct tape, but it gets me where I need to go, like the food bank. This is Vashon Island poor, comfortable poor. I haven’t figured it out yet, but I will, poor. I’ve led a privileged, wonderful life, and now it’s getting tight, poor.
Deep breath. Carry it on.

Watching the Fire

About twenty years ago our good friends, the Blakemores, moved to Australia, where they settled in a little beach town.
One year, there was a fire in the forest uphill from their neighborhood. Naturally they were worried. They and their neighbors brought their yard chairs out into the street and sat there watching the progress of the fire.
I imagined them sitting in the street, watching the fire as if it was a soccer match, wondering if they were going to lose everything.
They were fortunate. Their homes were not burned.
I’ve been thinking lately about the surreal notion of watching a fire as if you were watching a sporting event, because I have had a surreal feeling watching the news.
It has been obvious right from the get-go that 45 would most likely shoot himself in the foot (I mean that metaphorically, but with this guy you never know). Recently it has been one damn thing after another. A little obstruction of justice here, the firing of three people who were pursuing the Russian involvement there, a first call for impeachment on the floor of the House of Representatives, the appointment of a special prosecutor.
Oh, I know there are people out there who think he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread and will be remembered as the greatest president we’ve ever had. I heard a man say that on the radio. I have been assured that there are millions of people who believe that. Pssst: you are all wrong.
His antics are keeping us distracted from all the mischief being done in Congress. I think of all the people who gave so much, including their lives, for the freedom, fairness, safety, and equality we have in this country. We were not finished assuring liberty and justice (not to mention health care) for all, not by a long shot, but we were working on it. Now our children and our grandchildren, and their children and grandchildren, are going to have to fight to regain lost liberties, lost justice, lost healthcare. That thought grinds my gears.
Now, mind you, I was raised by Republicans. I put my hand over my heart when I said the pledge of allegiance, still do. I get choked up when I sing the Star-Spangled Banner, and I stand up and put my hand over my heart when the guys in the color guard go by in the Festival Parade and I choke up then, too. I was taught that the Commies were trying to bury us, and that America was the last best hope for the oppressed people of the world. That there was nowhere else to run.
That is how I was raised, folks, and I believed all of it.
The Civil Rights movement changed my views. The Vietnam war changed my views. The way vets are treated changed my views.
Watergate and its aftermath and Ford’s pardon of Nixon changed my views. Carter was a decent guy, a genuine Christian, so we had to get rid of him. The election of Reagan was frightening and turned out to be worse than I could imagine, even though I had watched what had happened to California under the tender mercies of his governorship. Reagan’s election was when I knew we had become an oligarchy, although I didn’t know the word for it at the time.
Bush Sr., was an epilogue to Reagan. I had hope for Clinton, but it turned out his pejorative nickname, “Slick Willy,” had more meanings than one. George W. Bush – wow. He was surrounded by guys who wanted revenge for what happened to Nixon. People are still coming home maimed and in boxes thanks to him. And there was that little economic collapse.
Obama – now we’re talking: health care, and a few other advances in spite of the incredible obstruction and racism he faced. He didn’t get everything right. The drone attacks on civilians. The way the bankers did not go to prison. I do not remember a president in my lifetime who was not vilified for his actions and policies, e.g., Nixon, LBJ. Obama was the only one demonized for his skin color before he ever took an action or made a policy.
And now, ladies and gentlemen and others, we give you the fabulous imploding presidency of 45.
It isn’t only him. It’s the guys at the top who sailed into office with him, and the guys they answer to, and those millions who voted for him and them. This fire has been building and burning for years. I blame myself now for a lack of imagination. I did not believe it could get this bad in America.
Pssst: I was wrong.