James Brown worked as a heavy equipment operator for the Town of Babylon until he was 65, when retirement made way for days on the fairway as often as three times a week.
The self-described “scratch-plus-plus golfer” said he never thought that just six years later, while many of his contemporaries are still shanking tee shots into the woods or water skiing with their children, that he would be passing his days in a nursing home.
“I got shot at in Vietnam but never got hurt,” said Brown, 71, who had both legs amputated below the knee in the past three years after a blackened left pinkie toe tipped doctors off to gangrene brought on by diabetes. “Now this. I never put two and two together and realized it was Vietnam,” added Brown, who as a 21-year-old soldier slogged through the Mekong Delta as a member of C Company, 6th Battalion, 31st Infantry, 9th Infantry Division.
Now, because of what Brown describes as his poor health, the former Wyandanch fire chief has lived for just more than a year at the Long Island State Veterans Home in Stony Brook.
For years, the 350-bed medical and rehabilitation center was home to mostly World War II and Korean War veterans in the last years of life. Today, Vietnam veterans make up more than a quarter of the residents at the facility, which typically operates at capacity, said the nursing home’s director, Fred Sganga.
Many of the 2.7 million veterans of that conflict, including a few who are still in their 60s, are battling health problems usually associated with men a decade or more older, including Parkinson’s disease and various other neuropathies. In an area of the nursing home devoted to about 100 patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia, 19 of them served during the Vietnam era.
Veterans advocates said a combination of health-related factors has resulted in Vietnam War soldiers getting sick and showing up at nursing homes well before their time.
Sganga has worked at the Veterans Home since 2001 and said that during that time, “the average age of admission was 85 to 88. With the influx of Vietnam veterans, we’ve seen the age at admission reduced by almost 15 years.”
Several studies have linked combat experiences with the advance of geriatric maladies. Veterans who served in Vietnam may have been exposed to an array of occupational poisons, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, including a class of dioxane-tainted herbicides known as Agent Orange. Twenty million gallons of the herbicides were sprayed over Vietnam during the war, which studies have linked to increased diabetes, heart disease, various cancers and other health maladies. Asbestos that was used to insulate older ships, and lead dust from firing guns are among other threatening toxins acknowledged by the VA.
“The Agent Orange caught up with me so bad, I couldn’t walk from here to there [about 20 feet] without being out of breath,” said Albert Anderson, 72, of Ronkonkoma, who has been at the Veterans Home for nearly 18 months with a multitude of health issues, including pulmonary hypertension and congestive heart failure.
Anderson, a former Special Forces soldier who served two tours in Vietnam that ended in 1968, and who later worked as a Nesconset emergency medical technician, is now wheelchair-bound.
“I feel angry and cheated,” he said.
Veterans who experience moderate to severe traumatic brain injury are nearly four times as likely to develop dementia than the general population, according to a joint study by the University of San Francisco and the VA. A separate study done by the two linked military concussions and higher rates of Parkinson’s disease.
And the National Vietnam Veterans’ Readjustment Study, conducted in the 1980s, found that more than a third of Vietnam veterans with high levels of war-zone exposure had significantly higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, which has also been linked with dementia and other cognitive declines associated with old age.
A 1997 study of 1,399 Vietnam veterans showed that soldiers who developed PTSD after heavy combat were as much as 150 percent more likely to have circulatory, digestive, musculoskeletal, respiratory, infectious and other serious disease 20 years after their military service.
“Neuromuscular issues are the big ones,” Sganga said. “And also the various cancers.”
Soldiers of all wars, Vietnam included, routinely encounter situations that can lead to obvious brain injury, including blunt-force injuries, whiplash from traumatic falls or vehicle accidents, or gunshot wounds. And soldiers who fire mortars and other weapons can themselves be harmed by the intense shock waves those weapons produce, which pass invisibly through a victim’s body but slam the brain against the skull.
Brown, who had one amputation about a year ago, said he is hopeful he can heal his wounds and one day go home.
“Some of these guys are in here for life,” said Brown of his fellow nursing home residents. “I don’t want to be in that group.”