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    Vietnam veteran now battles for his health


    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 12, 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 Thanksgiving.

    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," Miller said. His cancer first was diagnosed in late 1999.

    Miller now is on 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 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.

    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 crops, as well as reveal enemy hiding places.

    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.

    * * *

    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.

    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.

    Mrs. Myers, whose husband died Jan. 19 at age 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.

    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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