The Vietnam War ended more than 40 years ago, but it continues to claim soldiers’ lives. Nearly every spring, new names are etched into the black granite walls of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which pays tribute to the more than 58,000 U.S. service members who lost their lives in the conflict.
Jim McGough is one of them. As a 19-year-old infantryman, McGough was with his unit near the Laotian border in 1971 when they came under fire. A grenade exploded nearby, tearing up his feet and lower legs.
McGough was evacuated to Okinawa, where he underwent surgery, including a blood transfusion. He was discharged because of his injuries and shipped back to the States, where he married his high school sweetheart, Sheryl Isaacson, and they settled down near their home town of Fort Dodge, Iowa.
Twenty years passed before McGough, who worked in magazine advertising sales, learned that he had hepatitis C, a blood-borne viral infection that attacks the liver. The virus was discovered only in 1989, and routine testing of the blood supply began shortly afterward. It was at about that time that McGough, a regular Red Cross blood donor, learned he had been infected. He had never been an intravenous drug user or gotten tattoos, two common routes of infection, so the McGoughs figured he must have contracted the virus when he had the blood transfusion in Japan.
Veterans are more than twice as likely to have hepatitis C as members of the general population, studies have found. The virus is significantly more common among Vietnam-era veterans than among other service members.
McGough went to a liver specialist, who found no damage. The standard treatment at the time, a combination of the drugs interferon and ribavirin, had debilitating side effects, so the McGoughs, who had two daughters, decided not to do anything.
“We were having a great time,” said Sheryl, now 62. “We’re going, ‘No big deal.’ When you’re young, you’re invincible.”
In his late 40s, Jim started to show signs of liver damage. About that time, he and Sheryl took a trip to Washington and visited the veterans memorial. He thought it was magnificent, Sheryl remembers, and told her, “If this thing kills me, I want to get my name added.”
In January 2014, shortly before his 63rd birthday, the virus did kill him. Jim had gone through the interferon treatment but couldn’t shake the disease and finally succumbed to liver cancer.
To have their names added to the Wall, Vietnam veterans must meet criteria established by the Department of Defense. Many of the 376 names that have been added since the memorial was completed in 1982 are people who died during the war or shortly afterward but whose records were misplaced or who were overlooked for other reasons. Their deaths generally must be the result of injuries sustained during the war in Vietnam or a related combat zone. A number of causes of death don’t qualify, including exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange or similar chemicals, illness or suicide related to post-traumatic stress disorder, diabetes, cancer and heart attack.
“They reject far more than they accept,” said Tim Tetz, director of outreach for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, which created the memorial and is responsible for adding names to it.
But in McGough’s case, he and Sheryl had found a handwritten note from a nurse in Okinawa ordering a blood transfusion for him on the day after he was wounded. That documentation proved that his disease was service-related and qualified him for veteran’s disability benefits. After his death, the note – found at the bottom of a box in the couple’s basement – helped realize his goal of having his name added to the memorial.
In addition to McGough’s, seven names were inscribed in 2016. There’s not much room left to add more, Tetz said. There’s space for one more long name, he said, fewer than 20 medium-length names and a basically unlimited number of short ones. It’s an issue that the National Park Service is wrestling with, he said.
In 2013, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first of a number of new drugs that cure hepatitis C quickly and with few side effects.
It was too late for McGough, though, who died just weeks before the drug came on the market.
“I can hardly bear to watch those commercials,” Sheryl said. “It’s just heartbreaking.”
This column is produced through a collaboration between The Post and Kaiser Health News.