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Local hero battles legacy of Vietnam War

The Agent Orange connection


LIBERTY, NY - Eric Neumann is a survivor. Within the space of a year in Vietnam in 1968 and ’69, he was wounded by shrapnel three times?once so badly that he lost part of a lung and he required a four-month stay in Japan to heal. Each time he was wounded, however, the doctors patched him up and sent him back to the war. He was awarded three purple hearts and a bronze star for heroism in battle.

Now, Eric and his wife, Ellen, are confronting a new injury wrought by that distant conflict: cancer in Eric’s lung and brain. The doctor at Catskill Regional Medical Center said the cancer is caused by Eric’s exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange during his days in Vietnam.

Eric was a specialist in Charlie Company, Second Battalion, Fifth Cavalry, First Air Cavalry Division, which was fighting in a province called Tay Ninh.

Ellen, who often exchanges information with the wives of other vets at the various reunions the couple attends, became interested in Agent Orange before she was aware that her husband had cancer. During a recent interview at the couple’s home on Bradley Road in Liberty, she said, “Every man on the ground in Tay Ninh that got sprayed carries Agent Orange in his body, and it’s only a question of the wrong set of circumstances occurring before it triggers an illness. And it’s not only cancer and other illnesses turning up in the men who were exposed; epilepsy, for instance, is showing up in the next generation.”

Eric is philosophical about his time in the military. His father and grandfather were in the Navy. He was drafted, and he didn’t really feel like evading the draft only to spend the rest of his life in Canada or Mexico. Moreover, with memories of World War II still relatively fresh in the national memory, the idea of being in a war didn’t really frighten him.

So he went to Vietnam and did his duty. He came home and got a job in 1970 with a heating company in Monticello that he’s still with today. He said he got good medical care for his wounds, and he’s not bitter about his service.

However, getting cancer from something that happened to him in a war decades ago is not quite as easy to accept.

He is being treated at Catskill Regional Medical Center through insurance provided by his employer. At the same time, Sullivan County Legislator Frank Armstrong is helping to guide him through paperwork with the Veteran’s Administration to help him gain benefits he’s entitled to.

Eric and Ellen say one of most important elements in the battle to recover his health is the support of fellow veterans. When they heard the news, Eric’s army buddies came from near and far. The guy who shared a foxhole came to offer support. Another vet from the same company came and told jokes while Eric was getting chemo treatment.

“Men who were really just children nearly 40 years ago; they hold each other in such high esteem?that was really a big thing for me,” said Ellen.

Though Eric is now living through the pain of cancer and chemotherapy, he still managed to get together with other vets for the Francis Curry Day celebration in Hurleyville on July 15. The event is named after a World War II hero, and this year’s event was specifically dedicated to Vietnam veterans. With a good deal of effort, Eric stood up from his wheelchair and saluted the flag with his fellow veterans. It was a moment that so moved Armstrong that the legislator later recounted it at the government center at a meeting of the Sullivan County veteran’s committee on August 1.

That’s the kind of determination Nuemann brings to the fight against the illness, wrought by exposure to a hazardous chemical so many years ago.

He is a survivor.

Contributed photo
Local veteran Eric Neumann poses for a photo in Vietnam in the late 1960s. (Click for larger version)
Contributed photo
Brian Rodgers, left, salutes the flag with fellow veterans Chuck Buchholz, Eric Neumann and Frank Armstrong, at Francis Curry Day on July 15. (Click for larger version)