DeKALB – It’s noon, and John Davis is wrapping up a conversation about his time giving back to DeKalb County veterans when a hard rain begins to fall on his one-story brown house with an American flag in the front yard.
He said it’s not unlike the rains that fell on him in Vietnam in 1970, when he was a combat engineer in the mountains between Hue and the former demilitarized zone – a period of his life he struggled for years to recover from until he joined a group of other DeKalb County Vietnam vets.
“For some of the deep things inside of you, that was hard to talk to anybody about – we all probably needed a psychiatrist – but we could talk amongst each other,” Davis said. “With the vets sitting around, we cured a lot of our ailments.”
For the past 30 years, Davis and other local Vietnam veterans raised money and donated time to local veterans programs and living facilities through the DeKalb County VietNow chapter. December marked the end of an era, when the aging members of the organization – now in or approaching their 70s – decided to disband their group, some of them sick from what they said are side effects of agent orange exposure.
‘We couldn’t talk about it’
Lonnie Stojan of Genoa recalled being overjoyed at leaving Vietnam, and then feeling he needed to hide his service, having to change into civilian clothes as soon as he could on his return.
“There were reports of them getting spit on and hollered at at the airports,” Stojan said. “I was lucky – I didn’t have any problems wearing my khakis home.”
Although some anti-war citizens rejected them, older veterans weren’t always welcoming, either, said Steve Walz a Sycamore resident who served two tours in Vietnam.
“I joined the VFW back in 1970 and I went to one meeting and I was an outcast,” Walz said. “They wouldn’t even talk to me because it was a conflict that we did not win.”
‘Started out with a bang’
It was more than a decade after he returned from Vietnam before Davis was finally able to talk openly and proudly about his experiences. In 1985, he met Walz and Stojan, as well as other local former servicemen who have since become like a family to him.
“We started out with a bang,” Davis said.
Almost immediately the three joined VietNow, an organization that for years donated money and resources to Vietnam veterans at the local level, and raised $800 for a memorial dedicated to the 19 DeKalb County servicemen who were killed in Vietnam.
The plaque still sits on the DeKalb County Courthouse lawn.
They marched in the Sycamore Pumpkin Fest parade that year, where Stojan said he finally felt good again.
“We got ovations – hell, it still brings tears to my eyes – and after the parade, we all gathered for a meal, but I can remember standing down at the bottom of the steps and guys started coming in, they had their fatigue shirts on and their medals and all of a sudden I just felt like I was at home again,” Stojan said.
War that keeps giving
Davis said the three, as well as the rest of the members of the former DeKalb Chapter of VietNow, want to continue giving to veterans, but they themselves are getting too old to do so. The local VietNow group disbanded in December in part because of that.
Davis recently was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which he attributes to exposure to Agent Orange, a mixture of chemical herbicides the U.S. Army used in its attempt to deprive North Vietnamese forces of cover in the jungles of Vietnam. Walz believes his bladder cancer is related, as well.
The American Cancer Society says both bladder and prostate cancer may be attributable to Agent Orange exposure, which contained the carcinogenic substance dioxin.
Jon’s wife, Sandra Davis, had lobbied Congress pushing for acknowledgment that Agent Orange is directly linked to certain cancers and other health effects. She said she believes their son, Randy, who was born with cerebral palsy and has since died, had health complications because of John’s exposure to the chemical.
“These guys are still fighting a war because of the chemicals,” Sandra said. “It’s the war that keeps on giving.”