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    Veteran now fights health battles

    A former Marine who served 13 months in Vietnam points to Agent Orange for his problems.

    By JULIANNE WU

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001


    LARGO -- For years, David C. Miller has battled for veterans' rights.

    He spends countless hours as president of the Pinellas County Veterans Liaison Council, helps organize countywide veterans' observances and helps make sure homeless veterans get a hot meal at Thanskgiving.

    Now, Miller, 52, of Largo -- a decorated Vietnam War veteran, husband and father of two young boys -- is facing his own fight. He has two inoperable tumors the size of footballs in his stomach, caused by terminal prostate cancer.

    "I believe it is because I was exposed to Agent Orange as a Marine during the Vietnam War," said Miller. His cancer was first diagnosed in late 1999.

    Miller is now on a permanent disability from his job at Garden Sanctuary Funeral Home and Cemetery in Seminole. Since being declared 100 percent disabled by the VA, he qualifies for veterans' benefits and insurance and Social Security.

    Miller's wife, Kathy, 41, has taken a leave of absence from her job at the Pie Factory in Largo.

    "We're going to fight this as much as we can," she said. "Sometimes you feel you're banging your head against the wall. This has put a lot of pressure on me and my family."

    Miller now uses a cane, walker or wheelchair to get around. But he still drives, often shuttling his sons Jeremiah, 9, and Adam, 8, to and from Oakhurst Elementary School in Largo.

    Sandwiched between his own doctor appointments, Miller -- the American Legion's national hospital representative at the VA Medical Center at Bay Pines -- still manages to visit about 10 to 20 veterans every other day or so.

    "I steer them to the right person if they need to file a claim or just talk with them if they need a friend. And I visit with lots of veterans who aren't even connected to the American Legion," he said.

    Last year, Miller was a candidate for state commander of the Legion, "but I had to give up that idea when I started getting sick," he said.

    * * *

    Miller is not the first veteran to suspect his cancer is the result of Agent Orange, a weed-killer that got its name from the orange-striped 55-gallon drums that carried it.

    U.S. armed forces sprayed more than 10.6-million gallons of the substance, which contains a toxic dioxin, in South Vietnam and Laos to kill trees, shrubs and crop plants, as well as reveal enemy hiding places.

    For years, Vietnam veterans have claimed it causes various types of cancer, diabetes and other health problems.

    "For many years, our government denied they even used Agent Orange," said Miller, a Marine who served 13 months in Vietnam, then another five years as a weapons training instructor at Quantico, Va.

    It was almost 20 years after the Vietnam War when the U.S. government finally acknowledged the use of the weed-killer. The government said it presumed Agent Orange could cause certain diseases among veterans that may extend to their children, such as spina bifida and other birth defects.

    After numerous lawsuits, including a class-action suit, a $180-million settlement was reached in 1984 with the nine manufacturers of Agent Orange. Miller was a part of the class-action suit, he said.

    The Department of Veterans Affairs now says all of the 2.6-million veterans who served in Vietnam during the war are presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange.

    Also, according to the Veterans Affairs' Web site, there are now a number of illnesses "the VA currently presumes resulted from exposure to herbicides like Agent Orange," including Hodgkin's disease, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, prostate cancer, respiratory cancers, soft-tissue sarcoma and most recently, Type-II diabetes.

    * * *

    Miller has two Purple Hearts from Vietnam, something he is reminded of daily. "I still have shrapnel in my face and my arm," he said.

    He also has a Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Palm and several other medals, including a new one, the Order of the Silver Rose: a civilian award established by Mary Elizabeth Marchland in 1996, to honor her father who died of cancer after exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.

    Miller also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

    Over the years, he said, "I've had other, unexplained ailments such as bleeding in my throat and rectum and severe headaches."

    Although he had gone to the VA Centers at Bay Pines and in Tampa, Miller said the testing there didn't reveal the cancer.

    When he started to lose weight rapidly, Miller said, his wife insisted he go to the family doctor, who diagnosed cancer.

    He is now being treated at the Lykes Center for Radiation Therapy in Clearwater, affiliated with the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa.

    For 68 consecutive days, Miller had massive doses of radiation. Now, he takes numerous pills, including about five a day for pain. And he sees the doctor several times a week.

    Pat Myers of Largo, who has been friends with the Millers since they were married, thinks the world of Miller.

    "I tell you when me and my husband, Raymond, learned of his troubles, it broke both our hearts," she said.

    Mrs. Myers, whose husband died Jan. 19 at the age of 69, said: "I don't know what I would have done without David's help when Raymond died."

    Miller accompanied Mrs. Myers to the funeral home and assisted her with the arrangements. He also helped Mrs. Myers apply for a spouse's pension and filled out other paperwork.

    "I can't say enough about David," said Mrs. Myers. "My husband, who got David into the American Legion and its honor guard, was especially proud of him."

    Miller said he is not bitter about his disease.

    "I wish the cancer was discovered sooner. But, I don't want people to feel sorry for me. I'm in a lot of pain, but I want to keep active. I'm just not going to curl up into a ball."

    - Times researcher Caryn Baird helped with this report.

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