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The Dioxin Story
Liane C. Casten, Environmental Task Force Chair
of Chicago Media Watch
She sat in the kitchen of her modest, one-story home, smoking heavily, and interrupting often to instruct or admonish or feed her two, school-age children. Her home is planted squarely in the middle of a small town in corn country Indiana. She wore her red Sunday best shoes. The shoes matched the redness of her mouth, and the round, smoky glasses matched the growing darkness of a kitchen that never seemed to have much light in it. She had a full, rich voice and when she spoke, formally at first, she spoke with conviction, and an awareness that her story, and her life, however pained, had some meaning. Of that, she was certain.
"I married Jack just one month before he went to Vietnam. That was February 5, 1967. He left in March and he came back in May, 1968. He was a Navy corpsman. That's how I met him. I had gone to visit my brother, Buddy. Buddy was in a VA hospital and I had gone to see him."
"What attracted me to Jack was more than his good looks.....and boy, was he handsome."
At that point, a proud Cheryl got up from the kitchen table to show us his picture. There on the wall, framed in gold, was a uniformed, dark-haired, cleanly-etched face, with a straight carriage and a solid set of broad shoulders. The picture of Thomas "Jack" Welter was hung along with pictures of their two children, and the ever-present pictures of printed, sometimes crocheted, sayings and quotes.
"The heart that gives, gathers" said one.
"Joy is being able to share" said another.
Cheryl Welter found these words sustaining.
"What really attracted me to Jack was his ability to be concerned. He gave my brother loving, sensitive care. In fact, the man I fell in love with was a very bright, totally humane person. It's my memory of that part of him that I keep. The rest, the changes that came later when he came back, that's the part I wish I could forget."
"Even the letters Jack sent home should have warned me. He said this was a different kind of war. He wrote about the meanness and the selfishness. He saw certain groups getting special treatment, and it made him mad. Then he'd write about the leeches that got under his skin, and the nightmares that had so many of the younger kids screaming out in the middle of the night. He wrote about the young woman who came to the hospital for treatment. That was the same young woman they caught the very next day, armed to the teeth with grenades, to use against them. Grown men would break down and cry; there were just so many things you could deal with."
"Jack remembered the spraying, too. It was at Da Nang. The planes came over right after they had taken Hill 881. They sprayed a lot."
By 1969, Jack Welter returned from Vietnam. The family was stationed near Camp Le Jeune, in North Carolina. By June, Welter was taken to the VA base hospital. He was spiking over 104 degree fever, for over four days. The pain in his back and legs was so severe, he was unable to walk.
Cheryl remembers the doctor's response well. No one knew what was the matter.
"And that was only the beginning," she continued. "Jack began to suffer chronic backaches. He had to undergo prostate surgery, and in such a young man, the doctors admitted this was most unusual. And the pains in his legs never left him. He acted as if he were in constant pain."
"But the worst was the psychological changes. That's what was so devastating. The man who went to Vietnam was sure of what he wanted. He had a direction. He was supportive of others, and was capable of real hard work. The man who came back had given it all up."
"Jack was never greedy. Even when he was in education (as a school principal), he was working in service of others. Now, his greed became excessive. We moved to Montana (where he was born), and Jack started a collection agency....for people who do not pay their bills. He had job offers here, in Indiana, but he wanted more. He gave up any illusions of going to medical school, and just wanted to 'operate.' That's what he did, too. His motor was moving 38 hours a day. He became intense, hyper. He allowed himself to live on a host of crazy fantasies and false starts. The collection agency identified a bunch of Montana dead beats—but with Jack's crazy energy, the business didn't pan out."
"I was dazed. Here I had come out there with our two little kids...and they both needed medical attention. Jerry was born with a club foot that needed corrective shoes. Margie was born with a badly deformed foot, that required a cast on her leg for 18 months. (One leg is still shorter than the other, and 10 year old Margie has been forced to undergo corrective surgery that might ameliorate the condition). And here my loving husband had become another person."
"By 1974, the Montana dream had collapsed. We returned to South Bend and I hoped, by coming here, Jack would be able to settle down. It got worse."
"Jack's habits became more and more erratic. He'd rarely come home; and when he did, he was just plain mean." "'Is supper ready?' he'd ask."
"It always was, but I barely had time to answer, 'Yes', when he'd turn around and disappear. If I objected, he'd say he was going down the street for a cup of coffee. I reminded him that he could drink his coffee right here. It didn't matter. He'd just turn around and leave. So I sat there, shaken up, with the kids to feed, wondering how to get through the night."
"The nights were especially hard. Jack had become impotent. When we were first married, Jack was the most loving, affectionate person in the world. But now, he was questioning his own male identity. He even thought he might be gay. I guess that's why he avoided me so much. He just didn't want to deal with the sex thing."
"'I know you love me,' he'd say to me. 'It just doesn't obligate me to you.'"
"It had gotten so that he was hurting all of us. He was no more the man I had married than someone from outer space. I didn't want my kids exposed to what he had become. We were divorced in 1976. It was a bleak time."
"Then, right after the divorce, Jack started getting real sick. I found out he could not make it through the day without laying down. He had terrible swelling in his legs. He lost a lot of weight and finally a doctor in South Bend diagnosed his cancer. That, too, was in 1976. The doctor there told me it was the slowest growing cancer they knew of—it had taken 8 years to develop."
"Jack went in for treatment to a VA hospital in Arizona. I now have a letter in my possession that came from the Arizona doctor. He said the cancer was possibly caused by Agent Orange."
"Somehow, when Jack found out he was really sick—when he knew he was suffering from something by name, then I began to see a bit of the old Jack again. We could talk again, after the cancer was diagnosed. He could admit to me, then, after the divorce, after starting his treatment in Arizona, that he had thought of suicide several times. He could admit his fears at the loss of his sex drive. He could admit he still loved me. The cancer was an ironic relief."
"The last time he had come here, he had come from Arizona to get the kids for a final trip. They all piled up in a second hand van that he had found the money to buy, and went fishing and boating, and the kids came back filled with talk of the big adventures and the ones they didn't catch. But he came back almost unable to walk. He was really sick, and we all knew it was getting towards the end."
"So I let him stay with us all, here in Indiana, for a week. You know, it doesn't end with divorce. Marriage is sacred to me. He was my husband, and those last days, a lot of the bitterness had gone, from both of us. We even thought of remarriage, but he felt I had to go on living my own life. That was a hard choice, but I guess he was right."
"That last week, just before he left to go back to the hospital, we spent a lot of time together. 'I'm poor now, and I'm dying,' he said one night. 'But when you stand there looking down at me like that, I'm rich as a king.'"
"There was so much love there," she said. "It just doesn't stop."
Jack Welter died in 1978. He was 41 years old.
Cheryl Welter ordered a memorial service for him in her Indiana town. She needed to do it, for herself and her children. But it took her a long time to get over the memories of the pain.
Liane C. Casten is a free lance investigative environmental journalist whose articles have appeared in The Nation, Mother Jones, Ms., and many other publications.