A veteran recalls his buddies and sacrifices
When Agent Orange was sprayed at Bien Hoa airbase, David Olson remembers that “the air smelled like burnt Raid” — the household bug spray.
Serving tours in Vietnam with the Army’s 14th Engineer Battalion, the 101st Airborne and the 1st Cavalry, Olson, now of Eagle, helped clear the jungle around U.S. military compounds, at times spraying the potent defoliant around roads, at times going into areas that had been sprayed from the air.
The idea was, as military leaders said at the time, to denude the jungle and deprive the stealthy enemy of cover so the more traditional U.S. military could exert its technological superiority. Agent Orange was a chemical brew tainted with dioxin, a carcinogen that lingers still in the soil around Vietnam, with Bien Hoa one of the remaining hot spots of contamination.
The cost was incredible. Olson’s buddies — four guys from around Brodhead, Wisconsin, with whom he enlisted and served, one of whom was his brother-in-law — are dead from their exposure to the toxin. Olson himself is recovering from lung cancer brought on from that exposure, having gone through treatment this year at Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs.
Veterans Day today brings mixed feelings. In some ways, he said, “it’s a waste of time.”
“The government lied to us. They said nothing we were using would hurt us.” He battled veterans hospitals for years to gain recognition that his ailments were tied to Agent Orange.
“Everybody wanted to keep it a secret,” he said. “I knew Agent Orange was going to get me.” Two of his buddies “got sick right soon” and later died of cancer.
But the holiday is an opportunity for Americans to more deeply appreciate their freedom and, perhaps, become more unified.
Average people “wouldn’t have any freedom” without service members’ sacrifices.
“In World War II, everybody was together,” he said, and now, few Americans sacrifice for their country.
Still, “everybody’s a hero” if they have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, he said. “It kind of hurts me” that today’s soldiers get wide applause when coming back from Vietnam was as tough as old news clips suggest.
“No one liked us. We had to have police protect us at the airport. People said you lost the war, called us baby killers.”
Olson moved to Colorado after Vietnam while still in the Army, in which he served for 11 and a half years. He returned briefly to the Midwest, then settled in Eagle in 1984, starting a construction company with a friend.
He had two sons — one died a crib death. “It really scared me that Agent Orange could affect your kids,” he said, noting that it’s impossible to know if his infant child’s death was related.
But he continues to fight. Earlier this year, when a scan found him free of cancer, he expressed pride that his squad would have one survivor for a while longer.
And he’s equally proud of his service and that of younger veterans.
“I think for vets that everybody should realize what a soldier goes through to protect our freedom.”
It’s more than the rest of us can ever fully appreciate.
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