Steve Mason was my next-door neighbor in Alexandria, Va., for several years. We used to take our dogs on long walks in the woods. Steve spoke often about his Vietnam War experience. He said he had been part of the crew that sprayed Agent Orange over the forests of Vietnam.
He knew that the spray was a powerful defoliant, but he did not know of the human harvest of disease and death of Agent Orange. From 1962 to 1971 the US sprayed about 12 million gallons of the chemical warfare agent over some five million acres of Vietnam, injuring countless Vietnamese and American soldiers. But Steve Mason was, like so many soldiers, apolitical, spending all his energy in survival. I mentioned that the veterans of the Vietnam War who came down with Agent Orange-related disease have had enormous problems with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Even after he heard of the raging controversy over Agent Orange, he never complained about the mission of the US in Vietnam.
Steve Mason was from North Carolina. He served with his first cousin in Vietnam, but his cousin never made it back to America. After Steve came back from Vietnam, he married his dead first cousin's widow, Carol.
In the late 1990s Steve Mason started complaining of back pains. His chiropractor sent him to another doctor who diagnosed him with cancer, the same cancer that has been afflicting some of those exposed to Agent Orange. For two years I took his dog, Dakota, for walk with my dog, Eleni. Meanwhile, Steve went through a full gamut of X-ray and chemical treatments, with the result he spent months in the hospital on the verge of death, the remaining time he would be in remission at home.
The first sign the situation was getting bad for Steve was that he lost control of his legs. Now he had to use a wheelchair. He fought hard for his life, however. His emails to his friends were full of jokes, always describing his agony next to his next project of defeating death. He moved away from Alexandria in 1999 to a new home in Fredericksburg that made it easier for him to be on his wheelchair and raise vegetables on raised beds.
Yet on July 9, 2004, Steve Mason died, becoming another soldier in an army that died from poisoning. He was probably 60 years old. He paid the ultimate price for having come in contact with Agent Orange in Vietnam while in his 20s. He had a military funeral with full honors at the Arlington National Cemetery on Aug. 30, 2004. The military pastor said to Steve's wife, Carol, who was burying her second Vietnam War husband, that only those who fight in the war know the pains of war.
The pains of the Vietnam War, like the death of Steve Mason, touch a few people at a time, but they never cease. The war veterans remember. The Arlington cemetery is permanent evidence for that memory. And even after all veterans are dead, the memory of the Vietnam War will divide America for generations to come. This is because the Vietnam War was a war of aggression. There was nothing noble in stepping into the shoes of France and fighting a colonial war in Southeast Asia. Killing the forests of Vietnam with Agent Orange, and indirectly dooming Steve Mason, was also a violation of international law.
That's why politicians and Vietnam veterans are throwing mud against each other -- some praising Sen. John Kerry for his valor in the Vietnam War and others, remembering young Kerry's indignation against US policy in Vietnam in the early 1970s, denying him the honor of having served his country with distinction. The bitter memories from Vietnam are overflowing not merely because Sen. Kerry is battling president George W. Bush for the White House, but also because the country is fighting another unjust war, this time in Iraq, creating more pain for this and future generations.
It's time for the country to learn from its experience in the Vietnam War, ending its self-inflicted war pain. That would be the greatest honor we can bestow on Steve Mason and all the nameless war veterans.
E.G. Vallianatos is a visiting professor at the University of Maryland.