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Michael Ryan dies at 72; vet raised awareness of Agent Orange effects

Michael Ryan, who died in his sleep April

Michael Ryan, who died in his sleep April 5, in an undated family photo with his daughter, Kerry Ryan. Credit: Ryan family photo

Years after retiring to Florida in 1996, former Suffolk police lieutenant Michael Ryan would listen for the intercom call of his adult daughter Kerry Ryan with whom he lived.

He would go bathe her, change her colostomy bag, fuss with her hair, and lift her into a wheelchair — a widowed single father battling to give his severely deformed daughter the best life she could have before she died in 2006.

Ryan, a Vietnam veteran who with his late wife Maureen crusaded about the effects of the herbicide Agent Orange after both their children were born with serious congenital defects, died April 5.

The former Stony Brook resident who moved to Florida in 1996, died in his sleep at his Boca Raton home. He was 72, and was described by family as a heavy smoker.

Ryan, who was exposed to Agent Orange during a 13-month combat tour from 1966 to 1967, helped awaken America to the damaging effects of the toxic chemical cocktail when he joined a class-action lawsuit against seven chemical company suppliers. The U.S. military sprayed 20 million gallons of the dioxin-contaminated defoliant over Vietnam and Cambodia in an effort to strip the landscape of forests that hid enemy soldiers.

Issues raised in the lawsuit are credited with eventually persuading the federal government to presume that all Vietnam veterans who come down with any of a range of maladies associated with Agent Orange, including several cancers and type 2 diabetes, are eligible for compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

But Ryan was angered when lawyers in 1984 agreed to an $180 million settlement that did not acknowledge that the effects of Agent Orange exposure could be passed to children. The settlement resulted in payments to approximately 52,000 Vietnam veterans or their survivors, who received cash payments averaging about $3,800 each, according to the VA.

Victor Yannacone Jr., the Patchogue lawyer who filed the first case in 1979, said the nation owes a debt of gratitude to Ryan.

“His and Maureen’s legacy is the veterans who were sprayed and betrayed in Vietnam still are remembered as their children age, carrying the injuries of that war to their grave,” said Yannacone, who was ousted in a dispute with other lawyers before the lawsuit was settled.

Just weeks after Ryan joined the Suffolk police department in late 1970, Kerry was born with a host of developmental abnormalities, including deformed fingers, a missing thumb, a mangled intestinal tract, and a deformed heart. In 1983, their son Michael was born with brain damage.

“To the lawyers, this is a legal issue,” Ryan told Newsday in a 2005 profile. “But for the veterans who are dying or their children, it is their life. I live Agent Orange 24 hours a day.”

Ryan and his wife tried to make their children’s lives as normal as possible, even bringing Kerry with them to congressional hearings. The couple told their story in the 1982 book titled “Kerry: Agent Orange and an American Family,” published by St. Martin’s Press.

After his wife, who was known as “Mickey,” died in 2003, Ryan cared for his children on his own, even helping Kerry participate in an adult wheelchair soccer league.

“The doctors told us don’t expect to live past 30,” he said in the Newsday profile. “Now she is 34 and Mickey’s gone.”

Their son Michael, 34, is the sole family survivor. He is a deputy with the Broward County Sheriff’s Department in Florida.

Viewing is set for Friday from 2 to 4 p.m. and from 7 to 9 p.m. at Clayton Funeral Home, Kings Park. A Mass of Christian Burial will be said Saturday at 9:30 a.m. in St. Joseph RC Church, Kings Park. Interment is to follow at St. Patrick’s Cemetery, Smithtown.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Disabled American Veterans.

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