During the Vietnam conflict, the U.S. military began an herbicidal warfare program called Operation “Ranch Hand”. Between the years of 1961 and 1971 they sprayed a toxic compound known as Agent Orange on roughly 10% of South Vietnam. It was meant to defoliate the forests and mangroves used by the Vietcong as cover to move supplies and men up the Ho Chi Minh Trail. What they didn’t account for (or didn’t give a damn about) was the devastating impact it had on the land, the crops, the Vietnamese people, and our own American soldiers on the ground, one of whom, was my father.
Born and raised on Oahu, before Hawaii became a state, my dad grew up in a place of abundance. A place where he and his friends would grab fruit off the trees on their way home from school, a place of warm sea air, bright feathered birds, and sands soft as powder. He never wore shoes till he was maybe nine years old, and ever afterward, only with reluctance.
He was a young man when he joined the Marines, and like many, had no idea what was in store for him when he was deployed. I often wonder what his thoughts were during his battles in Vietnam, this young Hawaiian boy born from peaceful islands. Did he try to recall the sound of the Pacific waves rolling in? Did he try to hold on to the chime of the morning birds, and memory of swaying palms while he struggled there in the mud and the violence? He never spoke of it much to me. Only a mention of watching friends die and a soft admission that, “Dad had to kill people.”
When it was all over he suffered nightmares and depression. He went to the VA for help, and was told it would subside on its own and he would be fine. Later, when he started to notice he couldn’t mow the lawn without getting dizzy and short of breath, he went back and was told he had to lower his cholesterol. Did the government realize that the Dioxin these men had been exposed to was already destroying their bodies?
My dad suffered his first heart attack in his thirties. His first of many. He was sick my whole life. I can’t think of a time when he wasn’t on heart medication. By 2013, near the end, only 16% of his heart was functioning. It killed some part of me to watch him wasting away, the round, full face and dark stare I’d always known thinned down to hollow skeletal cheeks and sunken eyes. I’d sit for hours while he told me every story of his life growing up, trying to give those memories to me as quickly as he could because he had run out of time.
After he died, the autopsy showed his death, and lifetime of illness, was from Ischemic Heart Disease, a condition directly connected to his exposure to Agent Orange. My dad suffered all of his life with a heart condition and had been told, repeatedly by the VA, that it was from high cholesterol. They’d only ever given him 10% disability for his back from when he was blown off of a truck. He’d deserved so much more, but the rage that eats at me isn’t just about how he struggled financially because of medical bills and physically because of his ailing health. It’s the callous disregard for his service to his country, the blatant deception when he’d sought help from Veterans Affairs time after time, only to be told his condition was his own fault. And we know now that the toxin seeped into the DNA of the soldiers as well. I, too, carry the potential for the illnesses Agent Orange can cause. As do my children. As will their children.
It was with a kind of desperation that I turned to my writing again to deal with his death and all its implications. This led to starting a blog. To signing on as a submission reader at Fantasy Scroll Magazine. To becoming an advocate for the self-published. And finally, to finishing a book called A Ransom of Flames that I plan to self-publish in March. It’s not a silver lining. It could never be. But I believe in God and His way of leading us to paths we belong on, even when life’s cruelty makes it hard to take a single step.
Although my book is of a Fantasy world I created, my main characters are from a place much like Hawaii trying to cure a world afflicted by a Blight. The protagonists are not based on my family, but they struggle with anger and pain for a past that cannot be changed, just as we do.
There are many, many people I’m grateful to who encouraged and helped me along the way, my husband, mother, and betas to name a few. But at its heart, it was inspired by my dad.
This one is for you, Makua kane. I miss you and pray that you have returned to the islands of your youth, a place without pain, with clear, blue seas and shores that know nothing of war.