Vietnam widow fights for her soldier

May 21, 2008 10:41:04 PM PDT
The wife of a Vietnam Vet from Wendell is fighting for disability benefits even though her husband's been dead for nearly two years.

She says he died of Agent Orange exposure and that the government has turned its back on her husband and thousands of others.

"They are the forgotten soldiers. They're the ones that came home and died, they didn't get a medal. They didn't get shot or blown up. They died a slow death, a very sad death," says Judy Sollinger. She met her husband Tom in high school, just before he joined the army and left for Vietnam.

Tom made it back from Vietnam alive and when he did Judy says he told her war stories, including one about a chemical called Agent Orange.

"He said planes and helicopters would fly over and dump it on the soldiers that were walking through the fields. They would be so saturated with the Agent Orange that every orifice that they had would burn," says Judy.

As the years passed, she says health issues emerged, starting with skin problems, but then getting much more serious.

"He developed diabetes type two and we started going to see the doctors to find out what was going on, he had a stroke one night and we took him to the doctor. He had cirrhosis of the liver, which, he never drank," says Judy.

Then, Judy says a doctor at Duke began to put the pieces together.

"He asked if Tom had been sprayed with something, that he couldn't understand why his body was deteriorating," says Judy.

"We always knew something was wrong but we just couldn't put our finger on it," says their daughter Jennifer Sollinger. It was so bad that Jennifer moved back home to finish college and help take care of her dad.

"Even though it took six and half years or so for him to die, how he progressed was very quick," says Jennifer. She continued, "He looked like you know, a fifty year old man, and then he turned into an 80 or 90 year old man."

"He requested to die at home," says Judy. She continued, "He didn't want to die at the VA hospital and so we watched him die."

37 years after surviving Vietnam, Tom Sollinger died at 58.

"I thought I'd have 20 more years with Tom. We were going to grow old together," says Judy.

She took his death certificate with his cause of death ? dementia and possible agent orange exposure ? and went to the VA trying to get disability benefits to help pay bills.

"All the evidence went up there, even the pictures of him walking in fields that were sprayed with Agent Orange, the foliage was dead, the helicopters going over spraying him, and they still denied it," says Judy. She continued, "They still say he didn't die from anything that was service connected."

Denied benefits, Judy says she had to sell the house and move in with Jennifer.

"They just want them to die, they want them to go away, and then they don't have to be responsible for the families or the children that they leave behind," says Judy.

She says Tom's love for his country is why he fought for it and why she's not done fighting for him.

"They killed him, they took agent orange and poured it on those guys, over and over and over again and you might as well just put a gun to their heads," says Judy.

The VA said they denied benefits because his actual cause of death was not "associated" with Agent Orange exposure. Judy disagrees and says she'll appeal the VA's denial. The VA wouldn't comment for our story. But, they admit on their website that a "small percentage" of the veterans with "disability claims are for illnesses that scientists have listed as being associated with Agent Orange". They also say the VA "presumes that all military personnel who served in Vietnam were exposed to Agent Orange". They settled a class action lawsuit over Agent Orange in 1984 for 180 million dollars. That's the largest settlement of its kind at the time. The fund ran out of money in 1997, nine years before Tom Sollinger's death.

If you have a story about how Agent Orange affects you or your family send ABC 11 Investigates an email at investigates@abc11mail.com.


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