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Agent Orange town hall Jan. 25 in Bardstown

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By Randy Patrick

As a soldier who served in the 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam, Gary Downs of Bardstown knows the anguish of war. He lost three of his best friends in one firefight.

As a cancer survivor, he also knows that for those who were exposed to Agent Orange, the torment of that war can last a lifetime, even generations.

Agent Orange was an herbicide used to kill the dense vegetation in the jungles and rice paddies so enemy fighters couldn’t use it for cover. It has been linked to a multitude of health problems, including many cancers and birth defects in the children or grandchildren of veterans.

On Jan. 25, Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1051, based in Elizabethtown, will host its first town hall meeting on Agent Orange in Bardstown for Vietnam veterans and their families.

It is scheduled for 6 p.m. at the Civic Center, 321 S. Third St. There is no charge.

David Cowherd, president of the local chapter, said the group has held similar meetings in Elizabethtown, Bowling Green, Glasgow and Frankfort, and is planning others for this year.

The purpose, he said, is to make Vietnam veterans and their relatives aware of what Agent Orange is, how it affects those who were exposed to it and their progeny and how veterans can get help.

If a veteran is having health issues related to the toxin, he said, VA will cover them medically and provide a monthly stipend.

“I think the biggest thing for us right now is to try to get the word out there that their children are at risk, and their children as well..."

David Cowherd, Vietnam Veterans of America chapter president

Downs is among those receiving help from the VA, for his prostate cancer, which he believes was caused by exposure to Agent Orange.

Fifty years after having lost friends in the fighting, Downs believes a more insidious threat from the war is still claiming casualties.

“It’s affected everybody who was over there,” he said.

Just before Christmas, one of Downs’ friends died of melanoma. He’s sure it was caused by Agent Orange.

Although he served in the regular Army, Downs knew some of the National Guard artillerymen from Nelson County. They were especially at risk because of where they were located, at fire bases around the country, he said.

“The fire bases were out in the middle of nowhere, and they soaked the vegetation with Agent Orange” so the enemy “couldn’t sneak up” on the Americans, he said.

Downs is a member of the Vietnam Veterans of America, which worked for passage of the Agent Orange Act of 1991. The law empowered the secretary of Veterans Affairs to declare certain maladies “presumptive” to Agent Orange exposure and enable veterans to receive treatment and compensation for their conditions.

“I think the biggest thing for us right now is to try to get the word out there that their children are at risk, and their children as well,” said Cowherd, who was recently diagnosed with cancer related to Agent Orange.

Cowherd said Heather French Henry, Kentucky’s former first lady and former Miss Kentucky, spoke at the first town hall, in Elizabethtown, and the VVA is trying to get her to attend the one in Bardstown. But if she can’t, they can show a video from her first talk.

On its website, vva.org, the national organization has a free 24-page book viewers can download, “The VVA Self-Help Guide to Service-Connected Disability Compensation for Exposure to Agent Orange for Veterans and Their Families.”

Information about the Elizabethtown chapter is available at www.vietnamveterans1051.org, or by emailing etownvva@yahoo.com, or by phoning Cowherd at (270) 312-0463 or Denzil Lile at (270) 234-6678.