ALPENA - In 1969, Bill Walton was eating lunch as Agent Orange was defoliating the jungle around him. A 19-year-old soldier, he found himself near the end of his tour with other soldiers clearing away mountain-top jungle for artillery bases.
"We lived in the woods," the Ossineke man said, referring to the dense foliage. "They would spray Agent Orange, then we'd clear the trees once the leaves were gone. We'd be right there a lot of times when they would do that."
Now 65, the former U.S. Army sergeant can't recall if the chemical had a particular color, but he said he would know that it had been deployed, because the ground and everything else would look wet.
"I think I read they sprayed 26 million gallons of Agent Orange over there," he said.
A while later, he would be able to see through the trees as vegetation from three layers of canopy fell to the ground. Left behind were the skeletons of trees, which he and his squad cleared away.
His standard work uniform consisted of combat pants, boots and a shirt - no underwear or socks, because of extreme heat and humidity. Less was better. In a soaking environment, his underarms chafed from a heavy radio pack he carried. Skin between toes would crack and fall away, then sting as sweat rolled down legs. Beneath clothes, other areas were affected, producing pain that felt like a stinging sunburn.
The only opportunity to change out of the chemically laced gear would come when the Army would dump clean laundry on the ground every two weeks.
"We'd get pretty ripe," Walton said.
"I was just a small-town kid," he said. "I knew people were going to shoot at us. But I didn't think the government was going to hurt us. And in their defense, I would hope they didn't know either."
Then one day in May 1969, Walton was shipped out after serving 13 months, 12 days and 2 1/2 hours.
"I don't know the seconds, but I left Vietnam at 2:30 a.m.," he said.
He also didn't know at the time that the toxic defoliant had hitched a ride with him, working its way into his genetic makeup.
Today, Walton has thyroid problems and a spot on his lung that doctors are watching. However, only cancer, systemic heart disease and diabetes have been fully recognized by the Veteran's Administration as Agent Orange illnesses in men, he said. For approximately 8,000 to 12,000 women who also served in Vietnam, the list is much longer, and includes breast and ovarian cancer.
But his bigger worry is about his children and their children, he said. Walton's 14-year-old granddaughter is hoping to have surgery for correct spina bifida, a birth defect he said can be attributed to Agent Orange.
"We already figure we're collateral damage," said Walton, who was wounded twice. "The government is done with us. But our children?"
Walton said he and other veterans don't know how many future generations will be affected by other birth defects and illnesses.
"Outdoors, it takes 140 years in weather for Agent Orange to break down. But inside our bodies, we don't know," he said.
Betsy Lehndorff can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5693. Follow Betsy on Twitter @bl_alpenanews.