Reporting John Lauritsen
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The scars of the Vietnam War have stayed with many Americans for decades and it’s not just the emotional scars. Many Vietnam vets are learning that their health today could be linked to a chemical sprayed during the war and it’s all thanks to a man from Rogers, Minn.
Back in 1967 in South Vietnam, the United States military found itself smack dab in the middle of the Vietnam War. Among those serving there was Minnesota native Steve Fiscus.
Fiscus was a machinist during the war, and though he never faced the enemy in combat, he was exposed to something else.
“Part of our job was to cut these 55 gallon drums in half for outhouses, made barbecues out of them, stored potatoes in them, filled them with sand for bunkers. It was just every day use of these spent drums,” he said.
The drums once contained Agent Orange. More than 20 million gallons of the herbicide were sprayed in Vietnam from 1961 to 1971 as part of Operation Ranch Hand.
After leaving Vietnam, Fiscus had no idea that a chemical once sprayed in a foreign jungle would end up changing his life. That was until about 10 years ago, when a doctor gave him devastating news.
“I was with the guy for 15 minutes and he came back and he said, ‘I just met you, but I’m afraid that I hate to tell you that you have Parkinson’s,” recalled Fiscus.
It was soon after that when he learned other Vietnam veterans across the country were being diagnosed with Parkinson’s as well. The Department of Veterans Affairs wasn’t recognizing the disease, so there was no medical coverage. That’s when Fiscus and his wife hit the books, hoping to change that.
“We were very determined and we weren’t going to take ‘no’ for an answer. We went ahead and set our goals for the mission and we weren’t going to quit until we got the mission completed,” said Steve.
“That man just said, ‘I’m going to do it’ and he just kept up his research and he did it,” said Pat, Fiscus’ wife. “I have the most respect for him.”
Heartbroken that he could no longer play with his grandkids and that simple things like walking were becoming a chore, he researched up to 18 hours a day.
With the help of other Vietnam veterans, he founded the U.S. Military Veterans with Parkinson’s.
“I felt there’s going to be strength in numbers. Low and behold, they started coming and we’re up to about 500 today,” said Fiscus.
Among those joining his group was Vietnam veteran Ray Tuchnei, who was diagnosed 6 years ago after his hands began to shake uncontrollably.
“Trying to keep physically in good shape, which is really, very difficult because you get up in the morning and sometimes it’s really a struggle just to get out of bed,” said Tuchnei.
In 2009, after years of research, Fiscus won his victory for Tuchnei and other veterans. After looking at his mountain of research, Veterans Affairs and others determined that Agent Orange was connected to Parkinson’s, and put it on the presumptive list.
Ironically though, while many veterans are now receiving benefits for Parkinson’s, Steve is still waiting for his due to various loopholes in the system. A man who put in his time for his country and his fellow veterans, now finds himself on the outside looking in.
“He’s been fighting this for all these years. He’s won it for everybody else, but he can’t win it for himself … that’s the sad part,” said Fiscus’ wife.
Fiscus and his wife will be leaving for Washington D.C. this weekend, in hopes of speeding up the process for many veterans seeking benefits for Parkinson’s.
Of the more than 80,000 veterans with Parkinson’s, nearly half are Vietnam veterans.