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Still fighting: Park River veteran devoted to raising awareness of Agent Orange

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Dan Stenvold sits in front of a display case Thursday in the Paul Farup Post 147 American Legion in Park River, N.D. Photo by Tim Albrecht/Grand Forks Herald2 / 4
Dan Stenvold (left) and Vern Houser talk about the Vietnam War Thursday in the Paul Farup Post 147 American Legion in Park River, N.D. Photo by Tim Albrecht/Grand Forks Herald3 / 4
Dan Stenvold (left) points to a military piece from Iwo Jima Thursday in the Paul Farup Post 147 American Legion in Park River, N.D. Photo by Tim Albrecht/Grand Forks Herald4 / 4

PARK RIVER, N.D.—Dan Stenvold is on a mission—to spread the word about Agent Orange, its health effects and the related compensation available to Vietnam veterans and their families.

Stenvold, who is mayor of Park River and president of the Vietnam Veterans of America-North Dakota chapter, is visiting all 53 counties in the state and holding town hall meetings as part of an Agent Orange Education Campaign.

So far, he's been to 36 counties, where he and a panel of representatives of veterans, county and state organizations discuss Agent Orange with veterans and their families. Their efforts have been financed by two $50,000 appropriations from the North Dakota Legislature for the 2013 and 2015 bienniums.

The state chapter also has placed three billboards along major highways in North Dakota in its campaign. The billboards read: "Vietnam Veterans: Agent Orange/Dioxin Kills Children."

For more information, the billboards list the Vietnam Veterans of America website: www.vva.org.

"We want everybody to be aware of Agent Orange—what it's doing, what it will do and what it can do in the future," he said.

In 1991, Congress enacted the Agent Orange Act, after the federal government determined that exposure to Agent Orange—a blend of herbicides the U.S. military sprayed on jungles of Vietnam and the Korean demilitarized zone to remove trees and dense tropical foliage—can cause certain diseases and other health problems for veterans. The law covers about 50 diseases and conditions.

The government also recognized that health effects from exposure to Agent Orange are not limited to those serving in Southeast Asia. Spina bifida is being found in children of male and female veterans, while nearly 20 other conditions, including cleft lip and cleft palate, congenital heart disease and hip dysplasia are affecting female children of veterans.

"There's 58,000 names on the wall," Stenvold said, referring to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which lists the names of those killed in the war. "Our group figures there's at least three to four times more than that who have died because of Agent Orange.

"As Vietnam veterans at our age, we figure we can live with it," he said. "But now, scientists have determined that it can go, four, five, six generations into our families. That's why we're fighting the way we are . I don't want to get even, but I want to get help for our children and grandchildren."

'The jungle just died'

Stenvold, 65, said he "spent 802 days in the jungle," during three tours in Vietnam between 1969 and 1971. "I spent my 19th, 20th and 21st birthdays in the jungle."

Stenvold, an Army veteran, led M109 self-propelled howitzer crews that provided support for the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment.

"The guns we were on had a 24-mile range, 360-degrees around us," he said. "They always stayed under what we called the iron umbrella."

One weapon that penetrated that umbrella was the frequent mist of Agent Orange being sprayed by U.S. aircraft flying overhead.

"We were sprayed all the time. We just didn't know what it was going to do to us," Stenvold said. "Planes weren't more than 250-300 feet over the top of the jungle. Did they save lives then? Yes, they did.

"Overnight, the jungle just died. It was just amazing. Just lush, beautiful, beautiful jungle," he said. "But within 24 or 36 hours, it was all brown and the leaves were falling. I remember we were eyeing the wild bananas. The bunches were about 2 feet long and the bananas, we were eyeing them because they were all green and we figured we had another six or seven days before we would shoot it down and eat the banana.

"They sprayed it, and overnight it all turned black and stuff was oozing out the bottom of it before it fell off the tree."

"A lot of guys had a lot of trouble with their skin," Stenvold said of his time in Vietnam. "We blamed it on the humidity and the heat. I'm thinking there's a lot of diseases now that are skin-related. I'm thinking it was Agent Orange-related all along. Some had respiratory problems.

We were kids. We thought we'd never get hurt."

Health effects

Stenvold, who was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 2002, started receiving an Agent Orange benefit from the VA in 2004, shortly after he retired from Polar Communications at the age of 55. He also suffers from peripheral neuropathy, another Agent Orange-connected health effect, a dysfunction of the nervous system that can cause sensory loss, atrophy and muscle weakness.

While he did not retire on a medical disability, he said the condition began to affect his ability to work.

Vern Houser, commander of the Paul Farup Post 147 American Legion in Park River, was diagnosed with diabetes in 1985. The U.S. Navy veteran served on the USS Chara, off the coast of Vietnam, and later in a boat division, on a small landing craft that led convoys up rivers in Vietnam. Their job was to clear the river of mines placed by the enemy.

Stenvold and Houser say their families had no history of diabetes.

Houser said his daughter also has a condition that is recognized as related to Agent Orange.

Stenvold, who has three adult children, said his daughter suffers from hip dysplasia and cannot have children. One of his son's sons was diagnosed with diabetes at 15.

Reaching out

Stenvold estimates about 65 percent of North Dakota's 15,000 Vietnam veterans are receiving some type of VA compensation related to Agent Orange. Still, educating Vietnam veterans and their families can be a tough sell, he said, noting that crowds have ranged from three or four people to more than 150.

Stenvold and his group held its first town hall meeting in Hillsboro in 2013. The then-little-known program drew just 11 people.

The crowds have grown since then, now averaging 40 to 50 per session. The best turnouts have been 131 in Fargo and 129 in Grand Forks.

But there's more work to be done.

While some 20 birth defects are recognized by the VA among children of female veterans, only spina bifida is recognized for compensation among children of male veterans.

In addition, there's still a tendency, even 40 years after the U.S. left Vietnam, among some veterans to shun government programs designed to help them.

"We still have got Vietnam veterans who won't go to the VA, because of the way we were treated when we came out," Stenvold said. "They want nothing to do with the government. It's a 'leave us alone,' type of deal. There's a lot of those kind in North Dakota."

But Stenvold said he sees his campaign getting its message through.

"The wives, the kids and the grandkids are pulling these Vietnam vets who wouldn't have anything to do with the government, and they're sick," he said. "I'm just amazed that they don't know anything about Agent Orange. We've helped a lot of them that have gone in and filed and finally have gotten compensation."

Kevin Bonham

Kevin Bonham covers regional news, mostly from northeast North Dakota, for the Grand Forks Herald. A North Dakota native who grew up in Mandan and Dickinson, he has been a reporter or an editor with the Herald and Forum Communications for more than 30 years. Find his articles at: www.grandforksherald.com. He welcomes story ideas via email, kbonham@gfherald.com, or by phone, (701) 780-1110.  

(701) 780-1110
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