Editor's Note: This is the second of a two-part series on the effects of Agent Orange on local vets. To read Part One, click here.
As he was towing F-4 Phantom jets across the tarmac of the Takhli Air Force Base in Thailand, Raymond Soileau may not have paid too much attention to the barrels of herbicide used to control weeds all around where he lived and worked as an Air Force mechanic. He may have wondered, though, when the deadly chemical was being pumped into the holding tanks of aircraft that sprayed more than 20 million gallons above the jungles, rice paddies and the people of Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia.
At the 1982 dedication of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., there were 57,939 names inscribed on its stark black walls. By Memorial Day 2017, there were 58,318 names. Those 379 new names were men and women who had since died from the wounds they had suffered from 1957 to 1975, according to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.
There are, however, more than 3,200 other veterans who have recently died from diseases related to their exposure to Agent Orange who are not eligible to be included on the memorial because of Department of Defense guidelines. Former Airman First Class Raymond Soileau is just one of them.
More than 50 years after he served on that far-off airbase, it wasn’t a wound or injury that killed Soileau. It was glioblastoma, a brain tumor, which the Stanford Cancer Center, according to local Veterans Administration representative Shari Stevenson, diagnosed to be directly linked to a weed killer the U.S. government thought would do no harm to more than 2.4 million soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen who served during the Vietnam War.
His last two weeks were miserable as he was moved between facilities in three counties, growing weaker and thinner each day. Like many who served, Soileau did not go gently or quietly.
His widow, Irene Soileau, said he fought to stay alive until she relented to doctors’ advice that nothing else could be done. He died while in an induced coma at Stanford Cancer Center on Oct. 17. They had been married 11 years, almost to the day.
“He donated his body for research,” Irene said as she sat on the porch of the travel trailer that was her home two months after Raymond’s death. “That was important to him. He told them time and again that’s what he wanted. We signed the papers for his body to go for research so he could help other cancer patients.”
She said he had agreed to take part in a cancer study in preparation to donating his body. But even as his last days did not go as planned, neither did the study. Somehow, she said, Stanford or the Santa Clara County Coroner—she wasn’t quite sure which—lost track of his body. This delayed the issuance of his death certificate, which, in turn, delayed the issuance of his retirement benefits from the State of Louisiana.
“I called Santa Clara County [coroner’s office] and they said they didn’t have it, and then I called Stanford, but no one called back,” she said. “Six weeks later, I called and they said he was still at Stanford. I couldn’t believe it when they said it was too late to do research. That’s what upset me so much. They already had him, so I don’t know why there was so much confusion.”
As she told her story, Irene leaned over and picked up a small white FedEx box containing Raymond's remains.
“This is how Stanford returned my husband to me,” she said. “I received him Dec. 23, the day before Christmas Eve.”
She said she finally received the death certificate, but as she spoke with BenitoLink in early February, she had yet to receive any of Raymond’s retirement benefits. Though the 42-foot fifth wheel trailer she lives in is hardly what most would think of as being homeless, she said that’s her legal classification because she does not have a fixed address. Without Raymond’s state retirement, she only has their combined Social Security benefits, which fall far short of covering medical bills and living expenses.
Shortly after being diagnosed, Raymond went to see Shari Stevenson at the Veterans Memorial Building and filed an Agent Orange claim with the VA. Even with a letter from Stanford that attributed his cancer to Agent Orange, the VA denied his claim. Stevenson said she wasn’t surprised because that’s what the VA does most of the time. And because Irene was living off of Social Security and the state benefits were delayed, she filed an appeal on Irene’s behalf.
Irene said she and Raymond met through the online dating service eHarmony. She lived in Texas; he lived in Louisiana. After they were married 11 years ago, he retired and they hit the road as full-time RVers in 2011. After three years and 30 states, they found themselves in San Benito County.
She said Raymond was a stubborn Cajun who would give away everything he owned and help anyone. He paid off her parents’ RV, gave her sisters money, insisting they needn’t pay it back. When the couple sold their home to an oil field worker, Raymond and Irene financed it themselves at no interest. When the buyer was injured on the job and couldn’t make the payments for the next five years, it was Raymond who told the buyer it wasn’t his fault and to pay them when he could.
They were residents of the Thousand Trails RV Park when he had his first seizure. It happened while they were driving to Lake Tahoe. They had made it to Patterson in the San Joaquin Valley when it struck suddenly.
“He was behind the wheel,” Irene recalled. “I grabbed the wheel. You know that song, ‘Jesus, take the wheel.’ That’s exactly what I was saying as I kept us in our lane. We went over the edge through a barbed wire fence and down an embankment where we crashed into a pile of dirt, which kept us from going into the canal. We walked away from that one.”
After he started suffering from headaches, they went to see Hollister Dr. Joseph Godbout, who ordered a CT scan and then an MRI. That’s when they found the mass in his brain. Godbout got Raymond into Stanford, where he began treatments and underwent brain surgery, but it was too late.
“He is awesome,” Irene said of Godbout. “He has done so much for us. The other day he stopped by and brought me a bunch of food.”
Irene said throughout the ordeal of the next year, Raymond always had a smile for those around him, whether in a hospital room or nursing home. But his condition deteriorated quickly and Irene said the last two weeks were horrible. She brought him back to their trailer at Casa de Fruta. Fortunately, his two granddaughters had come to visit and they helped her move him into their trailer and into his favorite chair. After they left, the nightmare began.
“When he had to go to the bathroom he couldn’t get back up and I couldn’t lift him,” she said. “He ended up on the floor and I couldn’t get him up. I called the paramedics and they got him up. After they left he had to go to the bathroom again and ended up on the floor again. He lay there all night and wet himself. There was nothing I could do. He wouldn’t allow me to call the paramedics again.”
His granddaughters came back the next day and were able to get him off the floor and clean him up. When some friends dropped in for a visit and someone suggested going out for pizza, Raymond wanted to go too, and the granddaughters did not want to disappoint him. Despite Irene’s insistence that they shouldn’t listen to him, they dressed Raymond and everyone headed to the Casa de Fruta Restaurant.
When it came time to leave, Raymond could not get up. Neither the granddaughters nor the restaurant manager could get him up. Irene wanted to call 911, but Raymond argued against it. Finally, there was no choice and they called 911.
“The EMTs got there first and they couldn’t get him up; then the paramedics got there and it took four of them to get him up because he fought the whole way,” Irene said. “When we got to the emergency room at Hazel Hawkins he told me he didn’t want to go home. I knew what he meant. He didn’t want to die. To him the paramedics coming meant he was going to die. He wanted to live.”
Over the following week, Raymond was moved between Stanford and facilities in San Benito and Monterey counties. He was becoming violent, Irene said, because he couldn’t make himself understood. One last time, he went back to Stanford.
“He went back and started having seizures during the night,” she said. “I couldn’t get there because I can’t drive at night. The doctor called and told me about the seizures. I told him he wants to live, so they put a breathing tube in him. They put him into an induced coma because the seizures wouldn’t stop. Finally, they came to me and said there was nothing more they could do. I said okay and they waited for his daughters to come before they took out the breathing tube.”
Ever since that night, she has been alone, except for her small dog, Angel. She is still waiting to hear from Louisiana about the death benefits. And, as of Feb. 13, Stevenson said Irene’s appeal, which she filed under a financial hardship review, is still pending.
Irene remains hopeful and she’s recently met another widow in the RV park and they help each other from time to time. The one positive thing that has come out of this ordeal, she said, is her admiration for the EMTs and paramedics who came to help the Soileaus so many times.
“I can’t say enough about the EMTs and paramedics around here,” she said. “They were awesome. The guys in San Benito got to know us pretty well. They were very loving and compassionate, and when I get my settlement, I’m going to donate money to both.”
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, by 2016 nearly 300,000 veterans had died from Agent Orange exposure—five times the number killed in combat.
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