Daily Montanan: Commentary: Rewriting veterans’ stories with a happier ending

by Darrell Ehrlick

I want to thank Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, and Jon Tester.

Not on behalf of me, but on behalf of Bruce Darley and others like him.

You see, I would let Bruce tell the Senators himself, but he can’t speak now, and even when I met him, he words were slurred as he tried to keep the saliva from running uncontrollably down his lips.

On Tuesday, Moran and Tester, in a strange fit of bipartisanship, got conservatives to take off tin foil hats and liberals to stop being arrested without handcuffs, and agree to pass legislation that would cover veterans who were exposed to toxic chemicals, including Agent Orange and burning garbage. The legislation, the “PACT Act” is no small or ceremonial feat. In fact, it’s going to cost us billions to treat the cancer and other diseases that went along with the longstanding practice of burning the military’s trash in open pits with the help of a bit of diesel or jet fuel.

For years, breathing the thick, black acrid smoke was seen as part of doing your job in the military, and while the toxic risks of inhaling smoke from burning garbage without protection is well understood, the military hid behind the excuse that you couldn’t necessarily prove it was the smoke that caused the illness. And even when the Veterans Administration had to concede that cancer and other neurological diseases was more than just correlation, it used its most powerful political weapon: The fear that it might cost the taxpayers millions, maybe even billions.

But Tester and Moran forced the bill through.

And somewhere, deep in the boxes of materials I’ve accumulated during decades of journalism, there’s a green folder with the words, “Bruce Darley,” written on it.

Darley was a UH-1 (“Huey”) pilot in Vietnam. When he returned to the states, he became a vice-president of Utah State University, and well loved by many. Darley flew missions including many which involved dumping large barrels of “exfoiliant” on the jungles of southeastern Asia. He recalled his fellow soldiers being covered with the chemicals that they were assured were harmless and only posed a danger to plants. Sometimes, in the heat of the jungle, they’d splash a little on each other as a joke. Other times, it was not impossible to get covered with the stuff as they maneuvered the bins in a vibrating, jerking aircraft.

They called it “Agent Orange.”

 Bruce Darley (Photo via Legacy.com)

Decades later, Darley was battling Parkinson’s Disease and a host of other less common medical issues. He was worried about his wife: Who would take care of her? And time and time again, his claims were rejected by the VA because he couldn’t necessarily prove his disease and maladies were directly linked to Agent Orange.

I had gotten Darley to agree to let me track him and chronicle his deterioration and death.

But my life had other plans as I got a different job opportunity and left Logan, Utah in the middle of the project. We kept in touch for a bit, but it was hard because he couldn’t write, or type or really hold a telephone.

And so those notes sat through 2020 when my career with newspapers ended the first time, and I boxed up those notes and files. However, I always kept the file marked “Bruce Darley” partially as a reminder of the importance of finishing projects and doing the hard work of long-term projects. But the file remained there more because I never lost the notion of someday, some way, I might be able to tell Darley’s story. I just didn’t know when that moment would come.

I wanted to tell about the injustice of serving your country only to be denied the most basic of care. I wanted to tell about a soldier who knew he was going to die, but only cared about what would happen to his wife and family. I wish I could describe in precise words the unmistakable glint in his eyes as we talked, both of us knowing that his diseases were a death sentence, and that the long tentacles of the Vietnam War had let him survive the jungle but not the war. His name won’t be written in granite on some memorial wall, but his death was no less poignant.

And so I want thank Moran and Tester for not giving up, and not losing sight of those veterans, many of whom have died horrible deaths just like Darley.

Since Darley’s passing, the government has also expanded its care of Vietnam veterans who handled Agent Orange. His illness, service and death would have been treated much differently. And that’s because senators like Tester and Moran haven’t quit pushing for the benefits that are due to our soldiers for their service. They haven’t let us renege on the bargain.

I know if Bruce Darley was here, he’d thank you.

And I want to thank the senators for helping me to finish Bruce’s story with a happier ending.