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January/February 2010

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Robert Cummings

BY JIM BELSHAW

“I probably started making connections about Agent Orange when my grandson died in 1991, six days after he was born,” Bob Cummings said. “Then I started putting things together. I found out more about Agent Orange exposure and finally I thought: ‘It is me.’”

And so Cummings began the struggle that so many Vietnam veterans face, the idea that their exposure to Agent Orange during the war had brought exotic diseases—some fatal—upon their sons, daughters, and even their grandchildren.

Cummings has a son, Robbie, born with spina bifida and a daughter diagnosed with Bell’s palsy. His son Cole was born with a congenital heart defect. His three other children are all healthy.

“Cole is scared to death to get married,” Cummings said. “It terrifies him to no end to have a child with a birth defect, especially after what happened with my grandson who died.

Cummings was born and grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He lives now in Michigan, about four hours north of Detroit. In 1971-72, he served with the 101st Airborne and 1st Cav. He remembers clearly the aircraft overhead, spraying the defoliant, soaking the jungle and the troops below. He only knew it was “weed killer.”

When Robbie was born with spina bifida, Cummings never thought to connect it with Agent Orange. “Robbie has no use of his limbs,” he said. “I’m still good friends with his mom [they’re divorced], and she pretty much takes care of everything he needs. VVA service representative George Claxton got a VA claim for him.”

His first marriage didn’t survive the stress of Robbie nor that of the war itself. He said he drank heavily upon returning from Vietnam, and his marriage fell apart largely due to his alcoholism.

Cummings remarried, to an “angel,” he said. Then Cole was born with a heart defect. Now 25, Cole has difficulty finding work. Because of insurance issues, employers are reluctant to take him on. Cole has a pacemaker and doesn’t have the stamina of others his age.

As he and other VVA members started having conversations, the disconnected events of his life began to take shape. He started making the connections that led him to Agent Orange and its long-lasting effects on veterans and their families.

It all came together at a State Council convention in Marquette, Michigan, right after his grandson died. “A bunch of us in my chapter came up with the idea of the Agent Orange flag,” he said. “We had done so much on the POW/MIA issue that we thought it was time to bring attention to the Agent Orange issue. I designed the flag, but it wasn’t just me who made it. It was all the guys in the chapter and the State Council, too. The support I had for the project was mind-boggling.”

Another surprise came with the flag project—telephone calls from the widows of men who had died from Agent Orange-connected diseases or whose children had died from strange diseases.

“They didn’t know where or who to go to for help,” he said. “I always told them to contact their veterans service officers in their areas. But surprisingly, a lot of service officers in small communities, like the one I grew up in on the reservation, have no clue what’s going on. We have an obligation to make sure they know.

“A lot of our fellow Vietnam veterans aren’t involved in veterans organizations and don’t want to be known as Vietnam veterans” he said. “A lot of them are drinking their lives away. How do we find them? Their children? Their families?”

Cummings said he feels as though “all Vietnam veterans have a ticking time bomb inside of them, and we don’t know when it will rear its head. My motto has always been ‘What can we do for the children who are the innocent victims of this war?’ So I call on my brothers and sisters to stand up and get involved and help out. Call your chapters and veterans’ organizations. We need to win the battle for these brave children who have stood with us through thick and thin. They are calling on us for help. ”

 

 

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