The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

Special Commemorative Issue, November 2002

Beyond The Wall

 By Jim Belshaw

Mike Fluke

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 children.

"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 history."

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 advisory board.

"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."

Nelson Hughes

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 herbicide seaward.

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 pursue it."

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."

Ruth Coder

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 think."

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 replaced dismay.

"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 Interior.

"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."


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