They survived combat in Vietnam 50 years ago, but it contributed to their deaths

Turlock resident James Albert Dick and Modesto resident Byron Allan Selvage II survived combat in the Vietnam War, but their exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange contributed to their deaths 50 years later.

This weekend, the two men will become the first Stanislaus County residents inducted into the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund’s In Memory Program, dedicated to the men and women who died after the war as a result of their service.

Dick, 72, passed away in February 2018, just shy of a year after having the upper lobe of one of his lungs removed.

Before being diagnosed with lung cancer, he survived prostate cancer and also suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease.

All of the diseases have been linked to exposure to Agent Orange, which was used by the military to remove foliage providing coverage to the enemy.

“During his time there, he would get big welts all over his body and sometimes they would have to be lanced,” Dick’s daughter Jenn Kokochak said. “At the time, they said he was allergic to tropical weather.”

The effects of Agent Orange and related diseases and cancers are still being studied.

Another disease linked to Agent Orange is ischemic heart disease, which killed Selvage in February of this year, according to his daughter Kyrstyne Dickerson. He also suffered from diabetes and nerve pain.

The Agent Orange-related diseases killed many of the thousands of veterans honored by the In Memory Program, but it recognizes any service-related death, like suicide or others connected to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Dick and Byron both struggled with PTSD, their daughters said.

“It is really sad to me how many people have taken their lives because of what they saw there,” Dickerson said. “I can’t imagine having to kill people just because I was told that is what I have to do.”

Selvage, 69 when he died, was a door gunner in the Army.

“They would fly over and he would shoot out of the helicopter at anything that moved,” Dickerson said.

She said it took her father many years to accept counseling.

“He had depression and guilt about surviving when others of his group did not … guilt for feeling like he was murdering people he didn’t even know or know if they were deserving of that,” Dickerson said. “Just the sight of seeing all these dead people was really traumatic. I imagine it would be for anyone.”

Dick’s daughter Kokochak, like Dickerson, said her dad spoke very little about his time in Vietnam.

Dick didn’t go to counseling until after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2009.

He was an Army combat engineer and tunnel rat, the soldiers who searched for Viet Cong and their booby traps in the elaborate underground tunnel system they built.

Kokochak said her dad, who enlisted in 1965 and served 11 years in the Army, for a long time wanted nothing to do with it.

But after finally seeking services from Veterans Affairs, he joined the Modesto VFW and connected with people who could relate.

Kokochak said the surgery on her dad’s lung gave him another 11 months to live and he used that time to be with his family.

The month before his death, he took his wife, children and grandchildren to Disneyland.

He was on a trip with his wife in Santa Cruz to celebrate her birthday when he fell ill and was hospitalized. He died 10 days later on his son’s birthday after being taken off a ventilator, Kokochak said.

Dickerson said her father was always very active — he enjoyed golf and racquetball — but the nerve pain and fatigue from diabetes slowly degraded his quality of life.

She wishes her children could have done more of the things with Selvage that she did with him when she was a kid, like going to baseball games and the zoo.

Dick and Selvage are among 534 veterans being added to the In Memory Program’s Honor Roll during a ceremony on Saturday at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

According to a search of the Honor Roll, they will be the first veterans who list hometowns in Stanislaus County.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund spokeswoman Heidi Zimmerman said 4,176 veterans have been added to the Honor Roll since the program began in 1993.

With 3 million Americans serving in Vietnam, she said, the number of veterans on the Honor Roll is expected to some day exceed the 58,276 who were killed during the Vietnam War.

Family members who attend the ceremony, which is held annually on Father’s Day weekend, can read their loved ones’ names. Every name is read each year, regardless of whether a family member attends.

Dickerson is going to the ceremony with her mom and children. Kokochak is attending with her mother.

“This is giving him the respect that he deserved,” she said. “When they came back (from war), they weren’t respected, and this is honoring what they did and the sacrifices that they made.”

On Sunday, the families will lay roses on a plaque on the grounds of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial site that reads: “In memory of the men and women who served in the Vietnam War and later died as a result of their service. We honor and remember their sacrifice.”

To apply for a loved one to be included in the In Memory Program, visit www.vvmf.org/In-Memory-Program. You must have a DD214 that shows proof of service in Vietnam and a death certificate, Zimmerman said.

“There are so many diseases that are not included in the VA’s list that are believed to be caused by Agent Orange, so we do not make it mandatory that the VA says its service-connected,” Zimmerman said in an email. “Many of our In Memory families are still fighting the VA for benefits.”

Erin has been covering breaking news and crime at The Modesto Bee since 2010. She is a Humboldt State graduate and resides in Oakdale.