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A Loss of Innocence: My StoryBy Lesli Moore Dahlke Special to Salem-News.com
From USO Tour girl in Vietnam to cancer patient; Agent Orange strikes a cross section of people...
(LOS ANGELES) - Recently, totally by accident — as I surfed the net for something — as I often do, I found out some information that has turned my world up side down and devastated me.
This revelation has shaken me to my core and has left me with a great sense of loss and betrayal. Something so unexpected and unbelievable, I can’t even get my mind around what it really means – and how it has changed my life for almost 20 years.
I would like to share my story with you. To understand, we need to start at the beginning.
In September of 1970, when I was a young girl of 18, my father died. He meant the world to me — as most daughters idolized their daddy, I was no different.
The pain of his loss was great. His death came quietly, unexpectedly and stealthily in the middle of the night. He was 56 years old.
He hung the Stars and the Moon for me. He was funny, always there with a smile, joke or the tenderness of a needed Dad. He was the center of our family’s heart.
So, thinking like an 18 year old suffering a pain deeper than anything I had ever known, I wanted to spare myself the emptiness of a Christmas without our loving family, gathered all together like we had always done. I wanted to run away.
My father, Del Moore, was an actor and celebrity. Because of his popularity he knew most of the celebrities within the television and motion picture industries. I called Johnny Grant, then The Hollywood Honorary Mayor and a big proponent of supporting our fighting troops in Vietnam. He traveled to Vietnam every Christmas to show our boys in service that America cared and supported them.
I thought that would be the perfect solution for not being home during Christmas with my heartache. And, I thought I couldn’t possibly get any further from home than that. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure where Southeast Asia was on the map!
On the phone, I asked Johnny if he would take me on the Christmas Tour. He simply asked me if I was a blond — he had all the other girls booked, but needed the last girl to be a blond.
I said, “Yes, I am a blond. And, blue eyes, too!” He said, “Come over and let me take a look at you, and I would be happy to take you on this year’s tour.”
I went that day to Johnny’s Toluca Lake house where we met and talked. He showed me photo albums from past years and shared stories with me of what it was like to be there on the front lines with the boys offering them some support. We went outside his house and he took a photo of me standing by an oak tree that would become the official publicity photo for the 1970 Tour.
After fulfilling the requirements and standards set by the Department of the Army — vaccinations, passport photos, and a briefing in Los Angeles about the upcoming trip — I was ready to go. On a December day in 1970, as an innocent and wide eyed 18-year-old girl, I traveled with the Armed Forces Professional Entertainment Units to Vietnam as part of the Army Special Services for a Christmas Handshaking Tour to offer positive morale to our troops during a time of war. I was under their protection and sponsorship.
The Department of the Army provided me with Invitational Travel Orders issued and dated 7 December 1970. These orders were my official authorization to enter Vietnam under military sponsorship. The orders stated we needed to keep those written orders with us at all times while in the country. Through these Invitational Orders, I was issued a GS-15 Equivalent — a military ranking. This official high-ranking status protected us from the enemy if we were captured (I have extensive original Army documentation).
A Handshake Unit is a small unit. One of the purposes of its small size is that, it allowed the group to travel the entire country, from our home base at the Hotel Meyerkord in Saigon, to the far-out reaches of Quang Tri on the DMZ, where we stayed with the Red Devils traveling out from there as our up-country home base.
We visited Field Hospitals, Evacuation Hospitals, and extreme remote Fire Support Bases, swooping in on a Huey for a fast visit, and then leaving again in a whirl. We traveled throughout the country where no one else was able to reach. The most remote areas were our primary destinations.
The tour was grueling and dangerous. It was a time of loneliness for me, but knowing we were bringing smiles to many during Christmas made the long days worth it. Everyday we were scared to death, but I felt something good was being given and shared. It was a different time then. To me it wasn’t political. It was giving at its purest.
At the end of the tour, I returned home with many photos, memories, and stories for a lifetime, and resumed my normal life. I attended college and completed my education, earning a Bachelors Degree in Television, Radio and Film with a secondary emphasis on journalism.
Over the years, I successfully worked in my field of television production and built a professional name for myself. I got married, and, started a happy life with my new and wonderful husband. Life was good, with the ever-present hum of happiness and the exciting promise of what lay ahead.
Then in June of 1990, I heard the heart stopping words …”you have cancer”. I was diagnosed with a soft tissue sarcoma — a large abdominal retroperitoneal liposarcoma. On the day of diagnosis, the life I knew ended forever. My life’s future changed forever. I was 38.
I was a new bride. A professional in television production, documentaries, live broadcast sporting events. I had a lifetime of possibilities ahead of me. Anything was achievable. At the moment of diagnosis, my life changed in an instant, and there was never any going back to the wonderfully glorious promise of “what’s coming next”.
The day before the surgery, my oncology surgeons told my husband and I they would do the very best they could in the resection during the procedure.
What did that mean??
And, they would do their best to be successful in accomplishing the surgery with a positive outcome.
What did that mean??
The first meant they would try to leave as many organs as they could.
The second meant they would try to get me off the table…..alive.
My cancer surgery was long, intensive and a violation of my body. Mostly it was a search and assault mission looking for the cancerous invader taking over my life force. During the surgery, the tumor was removed (almost 8 lbs in size). The surgeons removed 80% of my stomach, my spleen was removed, my left adrenal gland was removed, and they did a partial pancreatectomy.
The healing process was long and painful. Waiting for chemotherapy to begin with the uncertainty of the future — or whether there would even be a future — enveloped me in a darkness I had never felt before. Even with others around, I was alone in my fear, alone with my thoughts, and alone with the heartbreak of losing my beloved organs.
Coming to understand that my stomach was gone forever, with the reality of what that meant, including missing all of the pleasures food had brought me in “my past life” was difficult. So many things had changed in this new life I was trying to build and get used to. During my successes and failures with all the struggles, I never knew if survival were even within my reach.
Then in 1992, I underwent a second surgical procedure when a CAT scan revealed a possible recurrence of the cancerous tumor. During that surgery the adhesion tissue was found and removed along with four feet of my jejunum (the middle portion of the small intestine). This again resulted in almost two years of recovery due to the nature of the invasive surgical procedure.
During the many years since, I have struggled physically and emotionally to get my everyday life on track. My years have been difficult with many new health problems developed from my compromised immune system, from the loss of organs, the ravishes of chemo and its long term aftermath. I have fought all the changes and challenges in “this new life” with Herculean determination. I confront every new health problem with grace and dogged strength.
Now, back to where I started my story. One day in August of this year, as I was doing my surfing and enjoying a rather normal and pleasant day – my life was brought crashing down by the following words I found on the Veterans Administration website, “Liposarcoma is a presumptive disease the VA recognizes as being associated with Agent Orange and those presumed exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam between 1962 and 1975 (including those who visited Vietnam even briefly).”
I sat stunned.
I reread the statement over and over. I wept. The Government site stated that if I had one of the presumptive diseases (liposarcoma, being one of the diseases), had been in Vietnam during the specified years (even briefly) and was a Veteran, I was entitled (without question) to file for compensation for my Agent Orange presumptive disease.
Of course, I was not a veteran! I was an 18-year-old civilian girl at the time of travel, going to a war zone under the auspices and the supervision of the Army!
During my time in Vietnam, I was exposed numerous and multiple times to Agent Orange. I have maps and documentation of all the places we traveled while in the country. Every remote jungle and outpost that existed we traveled to. The harder to reach, the bigger the challenge — and so we went there.
I have been devastated during these past several weeks, since I found out the cause of my cancer. Liposarcoma is a rare cancer, life threatening as well as forever life changing. At the time of my surgery I was given perhaps a 1% chance of living the first year and with very high odds, that if I did live the first year, a recurrence would almost be certain in years to come.
To find out the cancer that has so completely changed my life, was contracted, coming from an act of kindness and giving — is unbelievable and outrageous. The depth of pain it is causing me is immeasurable. It is unacceptable.
I never knew the cause of my cancer. It never mattered to me at the time, because it seemed there was no real explanation. A fluke. A cancer so rare nothing could be pointed to. So, I bore down to the tremendous battle that lay ahead for me. Fighting to survive.
Now, knowing the cause was exposure to Agent Orange is a physical and emotional pain that is unbearable. I can’t comprehend something so incomprehensible. My heart is broken into a million pieces with the disbelief. My oncologist of nineteen years reviewed the information and documentation of where I had been in Vietnam and the time frame from exposure to his diagnosis. He said it is irrefutable that my liposarcoma came from my extensive exposure to Agent Orange.
While in Vietnam, I was simply a young innocent 18-year-old girl. Fresh with hope, an endless enthusiastic spirit, and filled with encouragement for our young soldiers in a dangerous time of war.
I have been grieving for the loss of not only what my life could have been, but also, for the genuine loss and betrayal of the 18-year-old girl inside of me.
The personal tragedy of enduring the cancer with its profound and prolonged effects on my life is immeasurable. I have endured many extensive losses over all these many years. My health continues to present hardships and challenges every day.
The cost to me has been great, both physically and financially. We had to sell our home in 2008 because of the high cost of my health care. In 2009, we had to file and complete the very emotionally difficult task of going bankrupt. We had no choice. We were out of options.
For me to find out now, by an accident of surfing the web, that I was unknowingly exposed to a chemical so diabolical and lethal that it lay hidden and menacing within my body producing a horrendous cancer leaves me in a state of outrage. This quiet monster unleashed such suffering, hardship and incalculable financial burdens on us for many years. It was an act of violence on an innocent citizen. Am I now just collateral damage?
Since the cancer surgeries with their aftermath, I have been unable to work and contribute to our family. I continue to develop new stressful and challenging health ills all the time. Each day I take eleven prescribed medicines. Even with our insurance coverage, the monthly out-of-pocket cost to us is horrendous.
We have always paid all our own personal health insurance — never with any employer help. My premiums have continued to rise every year, the monthly premium is what many American families might pay for all of their monthly household bills combined. Living with the terror of my insurance being cancelled at any time for any reason, makes it critical that the Blue Cross bill gets paid FIRST and BEFORE any bills are paid.
We are proud middle class Americans taking care of ourselves — because that’s what we do. We have never asked for help from our government. We have never asked for or have taken help from anyone. I do not qualify for public assistance, I never ever filed for permanent disability — for which I would qualify. We have always sacrificed to meet our obligations.
I lost a regular productive life from having been exposed to Agent Orange. I suffered with the resulting catastrophic cancer. I have struggled through all its treatments, and have made so many concessions to the changes in my life the cancer with its surgery brought. These have been major sacrifices and losses. The most painful loss of all is my innocence and dreams.
I believe a great injustice has occurred. A wrong incomprehensible. Unfair. And, unforgivable to the girl with the wide-eyed innocence and giving heart.
I am at a loss. A serious injustice has been done. Something needs to be done. Someone has to be accountable. Someone needs to take responsibility for their actions toward me. I should be compensated for struggling all these years to pay for a cancer I did nothing to deserve.
The government sent a civilian child into a battle zone to cheer soldiers, and to offer them some support and morale — a touch of hometown America. I believe I was collateral damage of the most inhumane kind.
All these years I have fought for my survival — losing everything — being unable to work, not enjoying a normal life to my fullest or its greatest potential, being limited in my daily activities, and having to give up the dreams I had for my life. The most painful of all was the insult of having to sell our beautiful home just to be able to maintain my personal health care costs. Eventually we failed in our attempts to stay afloat and ultimately we had to file bankruptcy.
I need help. I contacted a Senior United States Senator with a letter explaining all the details of my exposure, the subsequent cancer, and reached out to him for help and guidance. I received no response. Not even a perfunctory thank you for writing.
I have contacted five of the most prestigious law firms in America for help in opening a case on my behalf. One firm stated, I needed to do something before the statute of limitations on some of the actions expired, and I should secure counsel promptly. I thought that is what I was doing contacting them! They thanked me for my interest in their firm, and said they would not be able to represent me at this time.
The firm told me, at this time the courts — including the United States Supreme Court — have blocked all cases involving civilians. The government and chemical companies are receiving protection from prosecution under the “government contractor defense.” There appears to be no legal action available to me as an innocent civilian.
These firms were focusing only on the military or governmental agencies involved and basing it on existing case law and precedent. I do not qualify under these circumstances.
There must be another approach or avenue for me.
I am not giving up. I want to fight and find some justice for myself and any other surviving American non-military civilians who were exposed to this deadly and devastating chemical.
This tragedy needs to be brought to light. It is my heartfelt belief that if the public hears my story they will feel the same outrage I feel. With public opinion and support from the American people, I trust that this terrible injustice will be addressed. Actions have consequences. There should be accountability.
I can never be given back my life before the cancer. This wrong can never be made right. The Army was responsible for my well-being and care. I was under their protection and sponsorship – I have the original documentation showing the involvement of the Department of the United States Army. This trip to a far off land so many years ago and their actions have had powerful and never ending consequences on my life and future.
I would like to bring my story to the court of public opinion, bringing this injustice out of the shadows, and let my voice be heard. I think my story needs to be told.
Lesli Moore Dahlke is a Salem-News.com Contributor based in Los Angeles who was born and raised in the Golden State of California. She describes herself as a child of the 50’s, growing up in the same place she has always lived- the San Fernando Valley, which is a vast suburb of Los Angeles, where her father Del Moore was a noted television and movie actor.
Lesli studied journalism and recieved a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Television and Film Production from California State University Northridge. Her credits include commercial film production, numerous areas of television production; including producing live sports programming, documentaries for The Discovery Channel, PBS Network programming and Telecourse, as well as producing the first series for the Playboy Channel and various other ventures. Her experiences were vast, challenging and never routine, yet Lesli’s most challenging experiences were yet to come, with the diagnoses of two virulent cancers caused by her exposure to Agent Orange while with the USO as an innocent 18-year old girl. Send Lesli an email ad this address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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