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

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Heather’s father stared at Aaron for 10 long seconds. Finally, he spoke.

“I can tell you care a lot about each other,” he said .”But I’m a traditional man. From the moment Heather was born, I tried to look out for her and give her everything she needed. When you marry my daughter, I’ll want you to do the same thing.”

Aaron nodded.

Bill continued.

“In the old days, you had to give the family something for their daughter.”

Aaron, increasingly puzzled, nodded again.

A few more seconds passed.

“A horse,” Bill said, his face grim. “I think I’d like a horse.”

Aaron’s mind raced: A horse? How do I buy a horse? How do I get it here?

It took a few minutes, and Bill’s giant grin, before Aaron got the joke.

One of Heather’s favorite photos of her father was taken at her wedding reception on Feb. 3, 1996. In it, he is clasping his right hand around her neck as he squishes face with a mustached, fatherly kiss.

“He was so happy for me,” Heather said. “He knew Aaron loved me and would take care of me.”

Ten months later, in March 1997, Bill woke up in bed and said to Sharon, “I think I’m having a stroke.”

Medics rushed him to the hospital in time for Bill to get lifesaving treatment with tPA, a drug that dissolves clots interrupting blood flow to the brain. Within 24 hours, he had all of his movement back, but his life was on a downward slope.

Plagued with complications from diabetes, and having survived a stroke, Bill’s body was wearing down to the point where he could no longer log full-time work at the mill.

Bill filed for Social Security disability benefits.

Claim denied.

Bill appealed.

Claim denied again.

On March 11, 1998, Bill Morris got up in the middle of the night, then collapsed on the bathroom floor. Sharon heard him fall and raced to his side.

She called 9-1-1 and performed CPR until the medics arrived. But this time, Bill’s heart had stopped for good.

He was 50 years old.

A few months later, Sharon opened a response to Bill’s third appeal for Social Security disability payments. She stood in the kitchen as she read the letter, then folded it up, tucked it in her purse and walked out to her car.

Fifteen minutes later, she stood at the foot of her husband’s grave at Union Cemetery in Steubenville and gave him the news.

“Well, it’s official, Bill,” she said. “You’re disabled.”

For the first few years of their marriage, Heather and Aaron tried not to think too much about having children.

They were living in Columbia, Tenn., for Aaron’s job as a customer service rep at Saturn. Heather was teaching art at a local high school.

For a while, they talked about adopting. But five years into their marriage, they decided to stop worrying about the “what ifs.”

“We asked ourselves, ‘What’s the worst thing that can happen?'” Heather said. “We’ll have a child like me? Well, what’s wrong with that?”

Absolutely nothing, Aaron said.

“To me, it didn’t matter,” he said. “I knew there were things out there to help if our baby was born misformed. And I was married to Heather, remember. I was so attracted to her because she had attributes I don’t have. I rely on her more than she relies on me.”

Heather remembers well her first ultrasound. The technician snapped a picture of the image on the screen and said, “It’s a boy!” Then she rattled off how she saw two hands, two legs.

That wasn’t enough information for Heather.

“I said, ‘OK, OK, does he have all his fingers? Does he have all his toes? Does he have everything?”

“Everything!” the tech said.

Heather let out a long breath and turned to Aaron.

“We’re going to be OK.”

As the years progressed, things in fact did seem OK. In many ways, Heather had her dream life: A loving husband, two healthy boys and a master’s degree in mental health counseling. She and Aaron now owned an antiques store in Portage County, too, and were having fun running it on weekends.

Still, a yearning would sometimes sneak up on her, and ambush her mood.

Heather was certain there were other grown kids of American veterans, struggling like her.

“I kept telling myself, if we could just find each other, if we could join together, then we’d have a voice that no one could ignore.”

In winter 2009, Heather was surfing Facebook and decided to enter three words into its search engine: agent orange kids.

One site popped up, and her fingers froze at the keyboard: Agent Orange Legacy.

Sharon L. Perry founded the group in 2007 for U.S. Vietnam War veterans’ children whose lives have been affected by their parents’ exposure to Agent Orange.

Heather immediately joined the website’s Facebook page. Weeks later, Perry reached out on behalf of Japanese filmmaker Masako Sakata.

Sakata’s 2006 film, “Agent Orange: A Personal Requiem,” documented the long-term impact of Agent Orange in Vietnam after her American husband of 30 years, war photographer Greg Davis, died of liver cancer at age 54. The couple believed his illness was directly related to his exposure to dioxin during his time covering the Vietnam War.

In 2007, Sakata traveled to the U.S., where she was a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Journalism.

She decided to do another documentary on Agent Orange, this time including American children. Through Sharon Perry, she met five daughters of U.S. veterans. One of them was Heather Bowser.

During Sakata’s visit, Heather shared her own private hope.

“One day, I’m going to meet those kids,” she told Sakata, referring to children exposed to Agent Orange. “One day, I’m going to go to Vietnam.”

A couple of months later, Sakata showed footage of her interview with Heather to Japanese television station NHK, and producers agreed to run a 90-minute program about Sakata’s efforts to make a follow-up film. One caveat: Heather had to go to Vietnam to shoot additional footage.

“We talked about it, off and on, for weeks,” Heather said. “I was excited, but I was also scared. And I had no idea how I was going to be able to afford it.”

Sakata paid for the couple’s flight. The Vietnamese Association of Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA), agreed to pay for Heather’s and Aaron’s food and lodging and a translator.

On Oct. 15, Aaron and Heather drove to Pittsburgh to catch a pre-dawn flight to Chicago. From there, they flew to Seoul, and then on to Hanoi.

For the first time in her life, she would be with children who needed no explanation for why Heather Morris Bowser was missing limbs.

For once, she wouldn’t have to explain anything at all.

Part 5: Heather Bowser, children touched by Agent Orange find a common bond in Friendship Village

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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