“I fought for my life then. I’m fighting for my life now,” said Rockford resident George Thomas. With throat and neck cancer and a 50/50 chance to beat it, according to his doctors, Thomas will be spending the holidays at the American Cancer Society Hope Lodge and is being treated at Lacks Cancer Center in Grand Rapids. Thomas will face 35 sessions of chemotherapy to fight his inoperable cancer.
Thomas said he hopes sharing his story might save another Vietnam veteran’s life. He hopes his battle will inspire others to be diligent in doing all they can to detect and fight cancer early on, should it strike.
At 19, Thomas joined the U.S. Army and volunteered to go to Vietnam. He was there for 11 months total in 1968 and 1969.
“It was what everyone was doing then,” he said. “I was proud to serve my country. I am proud I served my country.”
Thomas said he never would have been drafted, because he had a high draft lottery number. He wanted to do what was right.
Once in Vietnam, he faced the harsh reality of fighting for his life. He knew he could be killed at any time. He looked forward to returning home to his old life.
“I used to lie awake in my bunker and cry. I tried not to cry out loud, because there was another guy in the bunker, but I’m sure he was crying, too,” Thomas said.
Then, it didn’t occur to him that the worst danger could be the chemicals the United States was using to keep them safer from enemy fire. He kept his faith by reading a tiny Bible every night and through prayer.
Thomas said he and others were routinely exposed to the defoliant Agent Orange—named because of the orange-striped containers in which it was shipped.
“One guy was smart. He would strip off all his clothes right in front of us and wash off,” Thomas said.
Thomas said there was little he and others in his five-man unit could do to avoid the herbicide, which was sprayed to remove the jungle foliage in which their enemy hid.
“We walked through it, we drank it. We sterilized water from the streams, but it still had dioxin in it. It’s the world’s most powerful poison.”
When Thomas left the service with an honorable discharge and having earned the Bronze Star Army accommodations medal, he thought he could put the war behind him.
“I listened to the older vets who told me to be careful because we were dying of cancer,” he said.
In his early 20s, Thomas heard tale after tale of veterans, young men like himself, who were dying.
Thomas himself then began experiencing problems. Recurring skin lesions affected his athletic lifestyle. He began to experience seizures that he said cost him jobs. He said co-workers performed CPR on him at one point.
In 1981, Thomas was 30. He was the feature in a Grand Rapids Press story about Agent Orange. A Lansing attorney had instituted a class action lawsuit for veterans, their wives and children who may have suffered from the effects of Agent Orange. In the story, one Veteran’s Administration doctor said only one ailment could be traced to the chemical, a skin disorder. He said the illnesses reported by Vietnam vets were no more pronounced in that group than in the general population of the country.
Thomas wasn’t in agreement then, and he isn’t now. Now 15 illnesses are recognized as “presumptive” as related to exposure to Agent Orange and other herbicides used in Vietnam. They are acute and subacute transient peripheral neuropathy, chloracne, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, diabetes mellitus (type two), Hodgkin’s disease, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgekin’s lymphoma, porphyria cutanea tarda, prostate cancer, respiratory cancers and soft tissue sarcoma.
The recognition that the chemicals were dangerous is little consolation to Thomas, who blames the drug companies who he thinks got rich off their deadly product and did too little to protect those injured by it.
“My whole life I never smoked, I never drank, I never ate red meat, I kept in good shape and worked out,” Thomas said.
He kept track of the vets he knows who had cancer.
“I never forgot what that vet told me about making sure I got my six-month checkups,” Thomas said.
Not long ago, Thomas was shaving and noticed something odd. His neck looked uneven in the mirror. “I had a biopsy and found out I have cancer,” he stated.
While many prepared for Thanksgiving dinner and made Christmas plans, Thomas was having pre-chemotherapy dental work done. He had to have a mask made to protect his face during the therapy and he began his treatment.
“Regular physicals wouldn’t have caught this,” he said of his cancer. “Blood tests wouldn’t have caught this.”
At 59, Thomas is again facing a fight for his life. He hopes his story will be a reminder to other veterans to be vigilant.
“Get all the tests you can get your doctor to do. Get your throat checked, get the colonoscopy, whatever you can do, do it,” he said.
Thomas is currently staying at Hope Lodge, 129 Jefferson SE, in Grand Rapids through his treatment.
“What keeps me going is Jesus,” he said. “Maybe he’s trying to teach me a lesson. Instead of turning three-fourths of my life over to him, I need to turn it over to him 100 percent.”
“I’m going to beat this,” Thomas said, although he worries because of the many veterans he’s known who didn’t survive their cancer. “If I can help save another vet’s life, I want to. I want to save my life, too. I won’t give up now.”