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Former Vietnam door gunner still fighting for comrades

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — A Rio Rancho veteran is advocating for other veterans affected by an herbicide used in the Vietnam War, Agent Orange.

Ernest Garcia. Amy Byres photo.

 

Local Vietnam veteran Ernest Garcia was affected by the use of Agent Orange in the Vietnam War, resulting in health issues. In late August, he advocated to the U.S. Congress in a Zoom meeting for more resources for those affected by the herbicide.

In 1984, after a lawsuit against major manufacturers of the herbicide, the Agent Orange Settlement Fund was created. About $197 million would be distributed to Vietnam veterans and their families through the payment program from the settlement fund, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website.

The payment program operated for six years. During its time, the program received 105,000 claims. Approximately 52,000 Vietnam veterans or their families received cash payments averaging out to about $3,800 each, according to the VA website.

Within the settlement fund was also the Class Assistance Program. The program was intended to function as a foundation, according to the VA website. Between 1989 and 1996, it distributed $74 million to 83 social-services organizations throughout the United States, assisting over 239,000 Vietnam veterans and their families.

A court ordered the fund closed Sept. 27, 1997, after distributing its funds, according to the VA website.

Garcia is among the veterans never to receive assistance from the fund. He applied once in December 1984 and then again in July 2011.

“I never saw a nickel of it myself,” he said. “My question was, and my forethought was, it is not just all about me; it was about all the other New Mexico Vietnam veterans that also did not receive compensation.”

Vietnam veteran Ernest Garcia was awarded the Bronze Star after volunteering to be a door gunner. Garcia served in the U.S. Army from 1969-72. He was in Vietnam from 1970-71, originally as an avionics specialist. He said the Bronze Star is his proudest achievement. Amy Byres photo.

Garcia served in the U.S. Army from 1969-72. He was in Vietnam from 1970-71, originally as an avionics specialist. He later volunteered to become a door gunner after heavy losses of men, he said.

“I was getting this rage building up in me from the loss. So due to the shortage of pilots, co-pilots, door gunners and crew chiefs, they solicited volunteer door gunners,” he said. “I jumped into it.”

While serving as a door gunner, Garcia would kick canisters of Agent Orange out of a helicopter, exposing him to the toxic chemical, he said.

The herbicide was used by the U.S. military to kill the forest cover and crops. Over 20 million gallons of various herbicides were sprayed over Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos from 1961 to 1971, according to the History Channel’s website.

Garcia, along with his daughter, would later reap the effects of exposure, he said.

“In due time, when we came back from Vietnam, it took an impact on us medically. My daughter developed epileptic seizures at age 8,” he said.

Agent Orange is known to cause birth defects such as spina bifida and congenital heart disease.

Garcia has had two heart attacks and peripheral artery bypass surgery. He had a blood clot in the back of his knee where he sustained an injury when the helicopter he was serving on was shot down.

Garcia advocates for other veterans who have been affected by the herbicide, he said.

Through Zoom in a Congressional briefing, Garcia addressed the U.S. Congress with Assistant Speaker Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M. He spoke to Congress about the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019.

“It turned out very good. It was very enlightening. That was my first experience in a congressional meeting like that, especially by Zoom, because I had no idea what Zoom was, so I had to learn quick. And it turned out exceptional,” he said.

Garcia said he has to commend Luján’s office for helping veterans like him.

“He fights for us tooth and nail,” he said.

In the Zoom meeting, the congressman discussed the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act implementation since January 2020. Garcia and other Vietnam veterans shared their experience with Agent Orange and why assistance is necessary.

The law states veterans aboard a vessel fewer than 12 nautical miles seaward from the demarcation line of the waters of Vietnam and Cambodia, between Jan. 9, 1962, and May 7, 1975, are presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange.

These veterans could be eligible for “service connection for conditions related to that exposure,” according to the flyer.

To be eligible for those disability compensation benefits, veterans must have one or more of the conditions associated with Agent Orange exposure listed on the flyer. Some of these conditions include Parkinson’s disease, certain cancers and specific heart diseases.

Garcia retired from the Social Security Administration and he now helps veterans receive Social Security benefits or other benefits, he said.

Garcia wants accountability and transparency on why so many veterans never received money from the Agent Orange Settlement Fund.

About half of veterans who applied to the settlement fund received compensation, according to the VA.

Garcia is drafting a letter to Luján to reopen the lawsuit so more veterans may receive compensation.

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