Mike Fluke said he was the only one his
father would talk to about Vietnam, but the conversation was
one way, none of it marked with any give and take between
father and son. Not that Mike had a lot to bring to the table
at the time. He was seven years old, the oldest of three
"He was mostly talking to himself," he
said. "But I think he just wanted someone else there with him.
He would take me out of school sometimes. He never went into
drugs or got abusive, but he took a lot of sleeping pills. He
wanted to sleep a lot. It got worse toward the end."
The end came in 1976. Jim Fluke, Army
infantry veteran and holder of the Purple Heart and Bronze
Star, hanged himself. He was 30 years old.
"Back in 1993, I initiated a claim on
behalf of my mother, trying to get my dad's death diagnosed as
PTSD-related so she could get veterans benefits," Mike Fluke
said. "We just won that claim two months ago. We were rejected
three times, and we were on our last appeal."
In order to make the claim Mike would
have to go back through a painful history, but it was not the
first time he tried to learn more about his father and what
might have happened to cause Jim Fluke to take his own life.
Right out of high school, Mike joined the
Army. He went into the infantry and volunteered for airborne
training. He went to college and through ROTC. While at the
infantry officer basic course at Fort Benning, Mike searched
out anyone with information about his father's old outfit -
the 173rd Airborne.
"I met a guy who recognized the 173rd pin
I had on my jacket, and he asked what the deal was," he said.
"The guy I talked to said he was a member of the 173rd's
reunion organization. Through them, I tried to meet people who
might have known my father, and I started reading the unit's
Eventually, his search led to an
involvement with the Friends of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
In 1994, Mike Fluke arranged to have his father inducted in an
"In Memory" ceremony. The next year he was invited to speak at
the ceremony. Ruth Coder Fitzgerald was in the audience. She
called and asked him to serve on her In Memory Memorial's
"I'm going to finalize getting the
173rd's endorsement of the memorial," he said. "I'm going
before the president of the organization and the board of the
Society of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. I've tried to
understand what happened to my father. It's hard to do. Being
in the military has helped [he is 29 and in the Pennsylvania
National Guard]; being around Vietnam veterans has helped. The
In Memory program down in D.C. was tremendous. It's important
because it recognizes the casualties from the war that The
Wall doesn't. I didn't realize how many people are affected by
this. At that first ceremony there were about a thousand
people. When I came back the next year, it was two thousand.
It's always hanging in the background of their lives."
Trailing behind the diagnosis of Nelson
Hughes like so many afterthoughts scribbled on a medical
chart, the ironies come one after another, none of them lost
on the 47-year-old In Memory Memorial advisory board member.
Trained as a laboratory technician in
Buffalo, N.Y, he spends his working days searching out cancer
cells. When his own biopsy came to the lab, it would be his
boss who found the non-Hodgkin's lymphoma cells on the
specimen taken from Nelson Hughes.
The diagnosis came July 3, 1995, the day
before Independence Day, when families gathered for fireworks,
a summer tradition for which he had lost his enthusiasm since
the Vietnam War.
Nelson Hughes knew that Agent Orange
caused cancer in Vietnam veterans, but for some reason he
thought it only caused testicular cancer. He never made the
connection to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Besides, he had been in the Navy,
stationed off the coast of Vietnam on a guided missile
destroyer. They had been shooting well inland and often came
close enough to the shoreline to draw mortar fire, but it
never occurred to him that the wind might carry the airborne
He was shocked to find out that
non-Hodgkin's lymphoma was one of the cancers related to Agent
Orange exposure. He was even more shocked to see the National
Academy of Sciences report that showed the incidence among
Navy veterans to be the highest. He thought the guys in the
bush would be getting it much more.
"I started asking the questions most
people ask," he said. "How did I get this? Where? Why? People
told me I should go through the Agent Orange screening, but I
never gave it another thought. Then I went. The doctor who
examined me said there was no doubt that it was connected to
Agent Orange exposure. I received disability benefits from the
Navy because of this."
Given a thirty percent chance of
survival, he began six months of chemotherapy. Three years
have passed with the cancer in remission. Before he officially
becomes a cancer survivor, Hughes needs two more years, which
will bring him to the year 2000, the same year he thinks the
Vietnam War In Memory Memorial will become a reality.
"After I got the cancer, I joined the VVA
[Chapter 193]," he said. "Somebody noticed in the chapter
newsletter a story about Ruth Coder Fitzgerald and the plaque
she wanted as a memorial to those who died after the war. I
saw that her brother had contracted the same cancer I had.
That caught my attention. I called her on a Sunday and we
talked. I thought the project was worthwhile and that I should
Hughes said he felt that he had "lucked
out" when he came back from Vietnam uninjured. Even now, he
believes his luck is holding with the cancer in remission.
"Me getting involved with the plaque
isn't so much for me, but for veterans who haven't been so
lucky" he said. "It will certainly make me feel good to know
I'm involved, that I did something."
Fitzgerald asked him to serve on the In
Memory Memorial advisory board. Hughes agreed, writing a
public letter in which he acknowledges his good fortune and
vows to use it to recognize others.
"If you ever had cancer or know someone
who has had it, I do not need to explain," he wrote. "If you
have not been close to it, I doubt that you will understand.
Veterans are dying as a direct result of Vietnam. I believe
that the numbers of us are higher than we know. I believe this
memorial will help to close the circle. I was lucky then and I
am lucky now. I feel obligated to recognize veterans, our
brothers who are still fighting this war. This is a small
token that can mean a lot to the families and loved ones of
those who gave all for America."
In 1989, when John Keath Coder called his
sister, Ruth, long distance in the middle of the day, she
thought it odd. They didn't do things like that in the Coder
family. It cost too much. If you called long distance, you did
it after 5 p.m., when the rates dropped.
When he said he had just been told he had
cancer, she began writing notes on the conversation so she
would remember what was said.
"We don't get cancer," she told him. "We
have heart attacks. You must have gotten this in Vietnam."
"Yeah," he said. "That's what they
Then he asked her to send a blood sample
to the University of Iowa to see if she might be a match for a
marrow transplant. She wasn't. No one in the family was.
On July 17, 1992, John Keath Coder died
from complications arising from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He was
49 years old, the father of two daughters, an Air Force
veteran who flew rescue helicopters out of Da Nang in 1969-70.
He had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air
Medal. His cancer had been attributed to his exposure to Agent
Orange while serving in Vietnam.
Ruth rode home from the funeral to her
Fredericksburg, Virginia, home in a daze. Within a week, anger
"I felt he had died because of the war,
and I wanted him to have some recognition," she said. "It
seemed unfair to me that he would not be remembered some way
other than in our hearts."
She talked with her sister-in-law (John's
widow), and then made a formal request that her brother's name
be added to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. The
request was denied.
Before her brother's death she had no
connection with Vietnam veterans, but in 1993 Ruth became
active with the Friends of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The
group conducted an "In Memory" service to honor those who had
died as a result of their service in the war long after the
war's end. Her brother was among the first ten.
But dissatisfaction still tugged at her.
She looked at The Wall and imagined the names not on it. She
wondered about the loved ones of those who had suffered and
died long after the war's end.
In 1995, still wanting a more formal
recognition for Vietnam veterans who had died as a result of
the war, she wrote to surviving family members.
"The Friends of the Vietnam Veterans
Memorial had a list of people who lost family, who wanted to
hear from other family members who went through the same
thing," Ruth said. "I got a fairly decent response, enough to
make me feel it would be worth pursuing." In 1996, she
incorporated "The Vietnam War In Memory Memorial, Inc."
She organized a board of directors and an
advisory board that includes Admiral Eimo Zumwalt, whose son
died of Agent Orange-related cancer, and Linda T. "Toddy"
Puller, widow of Lewis B. Puller, Jr., grievously wounded in
Vietnam who took his own life many years after the war.
Ruth seeks a permanent marker near The
Wall, a small bronze plaque that gives physical evidence of
the lives lost long after the war's end.
"It's small, three by three feet," she
said. "We've suggested that it be flat on the ground or
slightly raised. I don't know if our suggestions will be
considered or not. We have proposed wording, but it's only
proposed: "In memory of American veterans whose postwar deaths
can be attributed to their Vietnam War Service. Their names
are not inscribed here, but their spirits are ever present."
"One reason we want this to be
unobtrusive is they don't want any more freestanding monuments
on the Mall, and I don't blame them for that. I look on this
as being a footnote to The Wall. It's an addition. The beauty
of The Wall is the names, but at the end there is nothing to
say the deaths continued after the war was over."
She said the National Park Service has
been polite, but not enthusiastic. Ruth has no illusions about
the difficulty of the task the group has undertaken.
If she can compile enough national
support, she then will take the request to both the Senate and
House, and if successful there, on to the Secretary of
"If we get this by 2001 or 2002, it would
be kind of miraculous," she said. "I expected it to be this
involved. The Department of the Interior sends you a little
packet, and I would read the first five items, and I'd get
depressed. A high-ranking official of the Park Service wrote
back and essentially said, 'Don't do this.' It was formally
worded, but that's what it said. I wrote back and said, 'Well,
I'm going to do it.' I think all of us feel that maybe this is
impossible, but we would rather be trying to achieve it than
just sitting around wishing we were."
In 1997, Ruth began the process of
requesting endorsements from veterans groups and spreading the
word about the project.
The first two votes of public support
came in February and March from VVA Piedmont Area Chapter 752
(Culpeper, Virginia) and Chapter 617, the Battlefield Chapter
of Virginia (Woodbridge, Virginia).
"Some people, and they're always polite,
say this won't happen, that it won't fly," she said. "But our
group is tenacious. We're going to work on it, but it won't
happen unless the veterans want it, the Vietnam veterans.
There is a void at The Wall. We feel the addition of a small
memorial would be a footnote to Vietnam history. There are
many who have died whose deaths are not recognized as being
service-related. This memorial would give those families some
comfort, and if it does, then I think it is needed."