“I saw the planes swoop over at treetop level and could see them dumping Agent Orange from a distance,” Dave Crotteau, a Vietnam Navy veteran, said. “There were troops on the ground.”
The now-70-year-old Cloquet resident was an E3 (soldier) on the USS Agerholm DD826, a destroyer escort that was built in Racine, Wis., and held 336 people.
A new law, the bipartisan Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, has been signed and will go into effect Jan. 1, 2020, allowing Blue Water Navy veterans — those who served aboard deep-water vessels — to apply for presumptive Agent Orange health issues.
Agent Orange was an herbicide sprayed by the U.S. military over 4.5 million acres of the thick jungle during the Vietnam War. About 20 million gallons of the cancer-causing chemical were used during that time. Agent Orange was also proven to cause other health issues, including birth defects and severe psychological and neurological problems.
According to publichealth.va.gov, there is a list of health issues that are considered “presumptive diseases” caused by the use of Agent Orange from 1962-75: ischemic heart disease (heart problems caused by narrowed heart arteries), Hodgkin’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and prostate cancer.
In the past, Blue Water Navy troops were considered too far away to be affected by Agent Orange because they were in the ocean. The Brown Water Navy navigated the rivers of Vietnam and stood a better chance of coming in contact with the chemical.
Rich Ekholm, 64, of Cloquet, served at the tail end of the Agent Orange use in Vietnam. He served in the U.S. Navy as a machinist mate 1974-78 on a West Pacific Tour. He spent most of his time in the belly of the giant aircraft carrier working on the engines.
Ekholm said that even though he did not set step in the area where Agent Orange was sprayed, any of the planes on his ship could have come in contact with the chemical and brought it back to the ship where Ekholm could have come in contact.
He said he is in good health at this point.
Ekholm is very active with the Carlton County Disabled American Veterans and encourages younger veterans to join.
“Brothers in arms stand behind brothers and don't leave veterans behind,” Ekholm said.
'They sprayed everything with Agent Orange'
“In 1995 at the age of 45 I had a stroke,” Army veteran Rod Eslinger said.
The doctors ran several tests and discovered Rod also tested positive for diabetes, a brain tumor, heart murmur and congestive heart failure. He was diagnosed with hypothyroidism and prostate cancer. Most recently he has developed stomach issues where extremely thin veins and vessels rupture and bleed. Last time he went in he needed seven units of blood. Now he has an infection in the lining of his lungs and they have been filling with water.
Eslinger is originally from Rochester, Minn., and became commander of the Carlton County DAV for five years. He currently lives with his wife, Sue, in Askov, Minn.
Eslinger, now 70, was deployed to Vietnam in 1970 and served 15 months. He was a door gunner on an H model Huey, (utility military helicopter). His original plan was an aircraft controller, but it didn't work out. After trying several other options including aircraft mechanic, nothing worked out for various reasons. Finally he was placed as a gunner on a helicopter due in part to his training as an aircraft mechanic.
His job was to assist in transporting supplies, food, ammo and troops safely in and out of zones in Vietnam. They could carry six to eight troops at a time.
“We crammed them in,” Eslinger said.
Eslinger's work was primarily in the central highlands where the Hồ Chí Minh trail was located. The trail was important to the Viet Cong as a supply route for weapons and manpower.
“We were involved in quite a few actions,” Eslinger said. “DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), Da Nang, Cam Rahn Bay, the list goes on and on.”
Eslinger explained that the helicopter rarely landed and instead hovered several feet above the ground for a few reasons.
“They would set booby traps,” Eslinger said. “We would fly into an LZ (landing zone) with troops, unload, sometimes go back for another load. If there was wounded we would fly them back to a medic.”
Because they were near the ground they took a lot of ground fire while dropping off and picking up.
“When you went out and you are flying a mission, you’re going to spend a minute and a half in an LZ and they’re going to pour every goddamn thing they have at you,” Eslinger said. “Rockets, mortar, small arms, machine guns. They want to bring you down.”
To bring down a helicopter was a big deal to the enemy. But the men had a mission and kept the routine. Drop off one troop, fly back and bring another one.
“We sent more guys home in straitjackets ... you know what’s waiting for you,” Eslinger said. “It got to the point that some guys, you couldn't pry them in there ... you could have put a 45 to their head and they would not get in a helicopter. They would not fly.”
He told of one close experience.
“We made a run up to a DMZ with 36 helicopters from our battalion and came back with 17,” Eslinger said. “They brought in radar-controlled .51s (anti-aircraft machine guns with long-range ability) and cut us all to hell.”
Eslinger and his crew survived five helicopter crashes, three from being shot down and two mechanical issues.
“I’m lucky. When you come back and your helicopter has so many holes that they scrap it right then and there ...” Eslinger said. “I lost one ship because we caught 256 holes in it. I came in another time without a tail rudder, that gets really exciting.”
He explained the tail rudder keeps helicopters from spinning in circles like a top. When they kept a certain speed the helicopter would fly straight. As they slowed for a landing, the helicopter began to spin.
In that instance, the helicopter still spun but did not tip over.
What does it feel like to crash-land in a helicopter?
“Everything goes into slow motion. You can see everything going on but there's no sound,” Eslinger explained. “You turn this way and you see another couple of holes in through the side ... everything slows way down. Then, boom, and you’re sitting there and all of a sudden the sound comes back on.”
When Rod was on his own base he was required to spray Agent Orange around the perimeter in his down time.
“They sprayed everything with Agent Orange. It was in the foliage; it was in the water; it was on the aircraft.” Eslinger said. “We used it on stuff around base. We would put it down in a fire zone. We went out 300 yards from the wire and got rid of all foliage down to the ground. It’s a concentrate and you mix it with water, so you’re handling it.
"The thing is, we didn't have rubber gloves, no protective equipment whatsoever. No boots, no mask. Basically, you add water, then spray it.”
Eslinger was deployed 15 months. When he came back home, his high school sweetheart noticed a difference in his personality.
Eslinger was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 1993, but his wife noticed it as soon as he came home from deployment.
“I would say I was pretty free-spirited individual before I was deployed,” Eslinger said.
“I still have nightmares. They don't just go away.”
According to a survey by the Veterans Administration, about 500,000 of the 3 million who served in Vietnam suffered from PTSD. High rates of divorce, suicide, alcoholism and drug addiction were markedly higher among veterans.
“The big thing was the anger and quick temper,” Sue Eslinger said. “His personality is a lot the same as now when he’s not thinking or talking about Vietnam. It's very logical and objective.”
She said when they first got back together after he came back from Vietnam, he would get very angry if things did not go the way he wanted them to go. His anger was explosive and he had anxiety issues.
“He would come to me and say, “Go away, I’m not any good for you,” Sue said with a shaky voice and tears shimmering in her blue eyes. “I would look at him and say, 'I’m not going anywhere; you’re stuck with me.' I still feel that way.”
Eslinger first filed a claim with the VA for Agent Orange presumptive health issues in 1993 and was denied.
“1995, I had a brain tumor and a stroke and I lost speech,” he said. He had to fight the VA for all of his health issues, even though many were on the presumptive list for Agent Orange. The veterans are required to file their own paperwork to the VA. If they forget anything or misunderstand a question, the claim is denied. They can continue to appeal the claims. Rod did exactly that for 11 years.
“It’s aggravating because it (Agent Orange) was already banned in the U.S. for the same reasons that is showing up in vets now,” Eslinger said. “The VA fights you tooth and nail. If you look at these guys and talk to them, they are dealing with frustration, anxiety anger and PTSD. I’ve been going to group every week since 2004 for PTSD and they talk about the anger in Vietnam vets.”
Eslinger notes there is no cure for PTSD.
“The nightmares, the night sweats — it's 50 years later and I still struggle with with startle reaction. I still have nightmares. They don't just go away,” Eslinger said.
Vietnam veterans by numbers
- 125,832 in Minnesota
- 2,220 on file in Carlton County
- Over 2,800 roughly in the county
- Average age of those deployed to Vietnam was 21
- 11,000 women served
- 2.5 million served
- One-third of those were drafted
- 1 in 10 were killed or missing
- 58,214 died in Vietnam from 1956-1975
Source: history.com and Duane Brownie, Carlton County Veterans Service