SYRACUSE — Today is Veterans Day, undoubtedly an appropriate time to think about people like Larry Kerr.
The unassuming, 69-year-old Syracuse resident doesn’t particularly like attention, but he doesn’t mind if his story serves as a microcosm for what he calls the “thousands and thousands of people in the same boat as me.”
The Ohio native volunteered for the Air Force in 1965, when he was 17 and fresh out of high school. By 1966 he was in Vietnam. He spent three years there, serving in several locations between the southern tip and the central part of the country.
His specialty was chemical weapons — detecting, treating and neutralizing them. He also learned how to decontaminate equipment and fellow service members.
“Everyone associates chemical weaponry with the Army,” Kerr said. “But the Air Force had chemicals in bombs, artillery heads, and they had them in sprayer systems on the aircraft. We were dealing with a lot of bad, bad stuff.”
Kerr was fortunate enough to avoid getting hurt by the chemicals he worked with on a daily basis. His good fortune stayed with him as he fought in and escaped the Tet Offensive, one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War that coincidentally launched on Kerr’s birthday in 1968.
Kerr left Vietnam and did a stint in Korea. He came back to the states intact, but his luck would quickly run out.
In 1969, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer, and in 1980, at the age of 32, he suffered a major heart attack. Shortly afterward, he was diagnosed with rare form of cardiomyopathy. After extensive testing and finding no hereditary links to the disease, it was determined Kerr’s mysterious health problems could be attributable to Agent Orange exposure.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Agent Orange is a mixture of herbicides the U.S. military used in Vietnam between 1962 and 1971. Dubbed “Operation Ranch Hand,” the U.S. sprayed the chemical to remove trees and other foliage from the dense forests that provided cover for enemy forces.
“It was their playground,” Kerr said. “They obviously had an intimate knowledge of their surroundings, and they used it to their advantage. They had these intricate underground tunnels, they knew the (jungles) and we had a very hard time getting to them. So they used Agent Orange to clear out the trees and vegetation.”
The VA says more than 19 million gallons of various herbicide combinations were sprayed during the Vietnam conflict, but Agent Orange was far and away used most often. The chemical’s name came from an orange stripe that was affixed to the 55-gallon drums it was stored in.
“It came in these enormous drums, and we’d open the drum and the stuff would just spill all over you,” Kerr said. “Then it was just sprayed everywhere, including on our soldiers. We breathed it, we ate it and we drank it. But the entire time, we were told repeatedly, ‘This stuff won’t hurt you.’ Well, that was about as incorrect as you can get.”
Years after the fact, the VA began recognizing several cancers and multiple health problems — from heart disease to Parkinson’s — that could be definitively tied to exposure to Agent Orange. The VA has even acknowledged certain birth defects among veterans' children and grandchildren associated with the chemical.
Veterans and their surviving family can be eligible for benefits for Agent Orange-related diseases, but Kerr attests that obtaining them can be a long haul.
“I’d been trying to get them to acknowledge my (health issues) were from Agent Orange, basically since my heart problems started in 1980,” Kerr said.
After years of work, the VA and the Air Force finally did it. Kerr keeps the official acknowledgment letter close by, which in part reads, “we are able to authorize compensation for your Cardiomyopathy, Supraventricular Arrhythmias and Scars for a total combined percentage rate of 100 (percent).”
“It finally came, but it took 35 years,” Kerr said. “Can you imagine how many people have died from all this stuff during that time? And they got nothing.”
Kerr’s heart condition basically left him unable to work. His wife, Shuree Kerr, worked at the IRS and served as the main bread winner. Kerr stayed busy and earned an income by fixing up cars, but the couple and their two children had to scrape by for all those years.
“You kind of just learn to grin and bear it,” Shuree Kerr said.
Kerr now receives $900 every month as part of his Agent Orange benefit.
“It’s not a whole lot, and I feel like it’s late, but it does help,” Kerr said. “Now, we only have another eight months until we can pay off our house. We’ve been paying on it since 1983.”
Today Kerr, his wife and his friend, Butch Eckhoff, travel to car shows around Utah and other parts of the Intermountain West to educate Vietnam veterans on how to get their Agent Orange benefits.
“You have to go through a lot of hoops and a lot of paper work,” Kerr said. “But we try to walk people through some of that and stress that they don’t give up. Those are your benefits, and your earned them.”
Kerr said he’s willing to help any veteran who might be in a circumstance similar to his. His phone number is 801-776-4230.