By Amanda Dolasinski
Agent Orange-related ailments can manifest in a number of ways and decades down the road, and some veterans don't even make the service connection. One dangerous condition is ischemic heart disease, and a MOAA member is making it a personal mission to help raise awareness and secure disability compensation for veterans.
Ischemic heart disease, also called coronary heart disease, is caused by narrowed heart arteries. The disease makes it difficult for blood and oxygen to reach the heart and potentially lead to a heart attack, according to the American Heart Association.
The disease was officially connected to Agent Orange by Veterans Affairs in 2010 - 35 years after the war's end.
Retired Army Lt. Col. Steve Wallace, a member of the Military Officers Association of America, has made it his personal mission to help people secure the compensation.
In his Army retirement, he said he has found purpose in helping other veterans. He has previously volunteered at a Cardiac Rehab Unit in an Atlanta hospital, but had to stop due to his own pulmonary medical conditions from his Army duty at Ground Zero in New York City after 9/11.
He's humble as he downplays his volunteer role to help veterans apply for the VA compensation.
"I like to help people, especially in the military," Wallace said.
Agent Orange, an herbicide chemical sprayed by aerial troops to destroy vegetation used for enemy cover in Vietnam, has caused illness to more than 3 million veterans, according to government data.
The VA added ischemic heart disease to its regulations in October 2010 after a report by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine connected the disease to the chemical.
According to the report, there is “suggestive but limited evidence that exposure to Agent Orange and other herbicides used during the Vietnam War is associated with an increased chance of developing ischemic heart disease.”
The VA ruled that veterans with ischemic heart disease who were exposed to herbicides during service may be eligible for disability compensation and healthcare. Veterans who served in Vietnam, the Korean demilitarized zone or other areas where Agent Orange was sprayed may be eligible for a free Agent Orange registry exam. The VA has reportedly tracked about 180,000 veterans with Ischemic heart disease.
Surviving spouses, dependent children and dependent parents of exposed veterans may be eligible for survivor's benefits, according to the VA.
It wasn't until after former 1st Lt. Wayne Lessig's death that his wife became aware his heart issues were related to Agent Orange. Gelsie Lessig has since been accepted for compensation through the VA.
“This was a war fought for 60 years,” she said. “It's a wonderful thing available now for people to get this help. For a long time, we weren't sure Agent Orange had anything to do with anything.”
The couple was married for 42 years. Wayne served in Vietnam from 1964 to 1965.
After the war, Lessig graduated from Georgia Tech and the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. He maintained a healthy lifestyle, but was diagnosed with ischemic heart disease at 41 years old.
For the next three decades of his life, Lessig was required to see a cardiologist annually.
He was playing tennis with his son when he felt a sharp pain in his chest. He knew it was a heart event and went to the hospital with Gelsie by his side.
He was cared for and released. But two days later, he was rushed by ambulance from his home back to the hospital where he died.
The family never connected his service to his heart problems - until they met Wallace, who was volunteering at Emory St. Joseph's Hospital in Atlanta.
Wallace helped the Lessig family apply for compensation.
The compensation transcends monetary value, Gelsie Lessig said. For her, it's the country's way of recognizing her husband's valiant service.
“He was a great patriot,” she said. “It was very difficult to be a patriot here in the United States during Vietnam. I think people need that compensation. They need to know about it. The message to them is that this is a way for the country to say we appreciate your service and we're here to help.”
Wallace was also able to assist Stuart Steinmark, who served as an Army captain during Vietnam from 1968 to 1969.
Steinmark, 77, worked out of the U.S. Procurement Agency Vietnam, where he used his accountant skills to oversee laundry operations with civilian contractors. He said he was in a noncombat zone, so he never considered his exposure to Agent Orange.
“I had no clue,” Steinmark said. “The Army dropped a bizzillion tons of Agent Orange to kill off the forest. What they didn't realize at the time was the chemical's harmful effects. The chemical was everywhere.”
Steinmark said he maintained a healthy lifestyle, so he said he was surprised to learn he had he heart complications. He began cardiac rehabilitation in 2014.
That's when he met Wallace, who assisted him to get on the VA's ischemic heart registry.
“All I can say is shame on the federal government for not adequately publicizing this information,” Steinmark said. “I want (veterans) to know that it's there. They don't even know it exists.”