Agent Orange leaves its mark on the life of Heather Bowser, p. 2

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At the end of April, 1975, Sharon watched her husband’s face harden as he stared at the television’s flickering images of American helicopters taking off from rooftops in Saigon. Panicked Vietnamese citizens left behind raised their arms and wailed into the choppers’ wind.

The Vietnam War was officially over. For America, anyway.

“It was all for nothing,” Bill said. He turned off the TV, and walked out of the room.

Sharon was growing worried about her husband. Bill was acting erratic, sullen and unable to sleep. By summer, paranoia had taken hold of him. Night after night, he sat in the backyard with a loaded gun, assuring Sharon he had to be there to protect his family.

“It was a discouraging time,” she says. “A scary time.”

Some of Heather’s earliest memories of her father revolved around her mother’s warnings:

No loud noises around Dad.

Don’t shake Dad awake.

Don’t startle Dad.

Sharon can’t name a particular moment when it was clear that Bill was getting better. She just remembers that one day he stopped guarding the house, and slowly he found reasons to smile. There was plenty of work, and good union wages at the steel mill. Heather seemed to be thriving, and their son, John, was born in 1978 with no signs of disability.

Bill finally appeared ready to breathe again.

“He just seemed to get better for a while,” she said. “I think he felt good about us, about his family.”

For a while, he even seemed able to put Vietnam behind him.

Then news stories started trickling out about possible long-term dangers to U.S. veterans exposed to an herbicide called Agent Orange. Journalists started describing dioxin, one of the components of Agent Orange, as one of the most dangerous chemicals known to man.

For a brief period, during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, the Veterans Administration conceded the possibility that Agent Orange exposure was causing a wide range of disorders, including headaches, acne, cancer, liver damage and even birth defects. After Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, however, the established position soon changed, with officials insisting that the link between Agent Orange and “delayed health effects” was an unproven theory.

Over time, more and more veterans were convinced that exposure to Agent Orange was making them ill and causing birth defects in some of their children who were conceived after the war.

For the first time, Bill started telling Sharon about how he and his fellow soldiers used to grill dinners in sawed-off barrels painted with orange stripes. He also realized that he had served in areas of Vietnam that were sprayed by Agent Orange, probably while he was there.

For Sharon, the jarring moment came in the spring of 1978, when a 28-year-old former helicopter crew chief went on NBC’s “Today Show” and declared, “I died in Vietnam, but I didn’t even know it.”

Paul Reutershan had flown nearly daily through clouds of herbicides dropped from C-123 cargo planes. He saw firsthand how the poison left wide swaths of brown, barren land where forests and jungles once thrived. He told a horrified television audience that he never worried about his own health because the Army told him the herbicide known as Agent Orange was “relatively nontoxic to humans and animals.”

By the time Reutershan was able to tell his story on national television, he was dying. He had already founded an organization for veteran activists and their families called Agent Orange Victims International (AOVI) for what he was certain were hundreds of thousands of Vietnam veterans just like him, whose lives — and possibly their children’s lives — would be irreparably damaged because of their exposure to Agent Orange.

A few months later, Reutershan died from the cancer that had ravaged his colon, liver and abdomen.

By then, two Agent Orange activists — Bill and Sharon Morris — had been born.

In 1979, Bill and Sharon formed AOVI’s first Ohio chapter. By then, they were convinced that Heather’s birth defects were directly tied to Bill’s exposure to Agent Orange.

Sharon says that news of dioxin’s potential long-term harm churned up feelings of anger, but also relief.

“It was the first time we could say with certainty: Maybe it wasn’t something I did.”

In retrospect, she felt she’d missed a red flare. When she was pregnant with John in 1977, she changed obstetricians. He took one look at Heather and sent Sharon for genetic testing.

“It was the closest anyone came to saying Heather’s problems looked to be caused chemically,” Sharon recalls. “They said they only saw her kind of disabilities when the fetus was exposed to a parent’s heavy drug use or exposure to chemicals.”

At the time, neither she nor Bill made any connection to Agent Orange.

Then, through AOVI, they started meeting children of other Vietnam veterans, many of whom had disabilities, too.

“They were not as physically damaged as Heather was,” Sharon said, “but a lot of kids had mental retardation or learning problems.”

As a child, Heather often joined her parents at meetings and rallies, and sometimes wore a T-shirt that read, “Agent Orange makes me sick,” punctuated with a frowning face.

“I was an Agent Orange kid, and we were all about letting people know that,” Heather says, smiling. “Sometimes I’d wear shorts or a skirt to show off my leg.

“I wasn’t raised to hide who I was. I was raised to force everyone to deal with the reality of me.”

One of Bill’s biggest fears was that no man worth marrying his daughter would ever discover the remarkable woman behind her physical disabilities.

“I could tell my father was really worried about my future. I knew he was always wondering: Will she fall in love? Will a guy ever marry her? He worried about that a lot.”

But Bill hadn’t counted on the likes of Aaron Bowser.

Aaron and Heather met as freshmen at Youngstown State.

Both recall that she was the flirt.

“She was always outgoing,” Aaron said. “She probably initiated the interest.”

Aaron says that from the beginning he never thought of Heather as the girl with one leg.

“She was more normal than most people. Most people have their hang-ups, but Heather wasn’t like that. . . . I’m the guy who has to map out vacations. She’s more spontaneous, a real free spirit. We brought each other to the middle.”

They started dating in their sophomore year. Aaron graduated early and in the fall of 1994 was offered a job in Michigan.

Commencement — and uncertainty — loomed.

“I was going to go off for a career, and Heather had another year to go in college,” Aaron said. “I thought I’d better snatch her up before somebody else did.”

He did it the old-fashioned way: Before asking Heather to marry him, he got Bill Morris’ permission.

Aaron’s memory of the backyard encounter reveals a father who was in no mood to make a nervous young man comfortable:

After idle chit-chat, Aaron got to the point. Sort of.

“Bill, Heather and I have been dating awhile, and we care a lot about each other.”

Silence.

“Bill, I would like to ask your permission to marry Heather.”

Agent Orange leaves its mark on the life of Heather Bowser, Page 3

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About Connie Schultz

Connie Schultz is a nationally syndicated columnist for The Plain Dealer and Creators Syndicate, and is a regular essayist for Parade magazine. She won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for columns that judges praised for providing “a voice for the underdog and the underprivileged.” Also in 2005, Connie won the Scripps Howard National Journalism Award for Commentary and the National Headliner Award for Commentary.

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