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Decorated Vietnam vet deals with challenges

by Kim Fickett
Landmark reporter

When Richard Williams of Platte City first entered the Army in 1963, he never thought that decision would change his life for years to come.

Life-changing events that began with his arrival into the Vietnam War on Dec. 13, 1968, later left Williams facing numerous challenges not under his control.

Williams, who served in the Vietnam War from 1968 until Dec. 12, 1969 as a helicopter crew chief, was one of many service personnel responsible for the distribution of agent Orange over the jungles of Vietnam.

According to Williams the now- known toxin was used by the Army as a defoliant to kill the jungles in Vietnam in order to easily detect the Viet Kong.
Williams worked with Agent Orange at a maintenance outfit at Cantho, South Vietnam mixing and spraying the substance over the area for two weeks.

"The film we were shown said that we could actually drink this stuff and it wouldn't hurt us," stated Williams. "We weren't allowed to wear our no-max uniforms that were used for flying, because Agent Orange would leave yellow stains on our uniform. That left us wearing our fatigues, which the chemical just sank through our clothes and into our skin," he said.

"They were pretty much enveloped in it everyday," said Connie Williams, Richard's wife.
For his service, Williams was awarded a bronze star medal, a distinguished flying cross air medal and an Army accommodation medal.

Williams stated that while faced with many challenges over the years, he did carry away one good memory of the war. While serving in the Vietnam War, Williams made a decision to land the helicopter in heavy combat to save four lives of fellow officers.
"I had a job to do and I did it. And four guys got to come home. That's one of the proudest things to this day is knowing that those guys got to come home," stated Williams.

Six years after being released from his duties in Vietnam, Williams was diagnosed as suffering from diabetes. It was not known until 22 years later, in the fall of 1999, that the diagnosis of diabetes was just one effect of Agent Orange.

Williams stated that in the fall of 1999, the United States Army came out with an official report stating the many health hazards associated with agent orange, including diabetes. "At that time it was good to know they were connected," stated Connie. "In a way we felt lucky because most people that were in contact with Agent Orange died with tremendous tumors and cancer."

It soon turned into a frightening health and economical situation for the Williams family.
While Williams suffered from diabetes, his illness was one of extreme concern. In his case his low blood sugar can fall dangerously low, to the point of reaching levels that would medically be determined as a "flat line."

In October of 2000, an on-the-job injury was the beginning of another challenge to come for him and his wife. Williams twisted his ankle while on the job. He says he wasn't covered by workman's compensation through his employer.
By the end of October, Williams said he was extremely sick and forced to go to the doctors on their own money.

"At that time all the doctors said I was to keep it wrapped and could keep working," explained Williams.

By the first of November, Williams wasn't noticing any improvements and went to the hospital where doctors determined that a bone in his left leg had a severe staff infection and the leg needed to be amputated.

The couple was shocked with the diagnosis, after months of being led on by doctors of its inseverity. They contacted the Veteran's Administration for help.

"The VA told us that they were unable to help us because I had a job, we had my wife's health insurance and because we weren't one of the homeless veterans, which is who they deal with," stated Williams.

With no apparent options facing the Williams, they were left with paying the remainder of the cost left uncovered by Connie's insurance. Williams stated that the total cost of the surgery, including his prosthetic leg, was around $300,000, with their remaining bill an estimated $22,000.

With Williams not being able to work for several weeks following his surgery, the debt of everyday household expenses and medical expenses began to build, causing extreme stress among the couple.

In July of 2001, after Williams had returned to work for another carrier six weeks prior, an infection began appearing in his right foot.

"Now he wasn't able to work again and we had bills from a year ago and these bills were adding on top of those and they compounded themselves," said Connie. On July 25, the Williams' made contact with Ron Adams of the Vietnam Veterans Association in Kansas City, Mo. Adams informed them to take the bronze star medal plaque that was awarded to him for his services to the VA in Leavenworth, KS and if they turned them away to call him and wait for him to arrive.

With no need to call Adams back, the VA Hospital admitted Williams that day and treated him for the infection in his right leg.

"At the VA Hospital they were aware of agent orange. During their evaluation, they discovered that my whole body chemistry was backwards and gave me needed medication to correct that," explained Williams.

He also noted that due to the doctors' knowledge of Agent Orange, they only had to amputate two toes instead of his other leg.

One of the medications given to heal the infection, gentimiasin, began to show serious side affects on Williams in September of 2001.

"It got rid of the infection but it affected Richard's equilibrium," said Connie. "He became deathly ill for about three weeks and they tried different prescriptions to find out what would make him better.

"It was an infection nothing else could kill and if they didn't give that to him he might not be here. It's like holding onto a loved one and there was nothing anyone could do because there are no antibiotics for gentimiasin."
Richard and Connie say over the past two years they have emptied their retirement accounts and insurance.

"Now I am service connected with VA and considered 100 percent disabled and have Social Security," said Williams. "Since the beginning of March we've received $9,000 from Social Security and $10,000 from the VA."

sWhile the Williams' have seemed to temporarily overcome the medical obstacles, they have also been contending with the City of Platte City since the summer of 2000.
Over the past two years, city hall has received complaints about the family's yard at 206 Almond. The couple had vehicles in their fenced backyard that were part of Richard's scheduled car renovation projects before he became ill in October of 2000.

According to Connie, they had been trying to receive a permit from the city to build a two-car garage since 1988, but were informed by officials that wasn't possible because it would consume more than 10 percent of their lot.

"The basis of the problem with the city came when we couldn't get a garage and then he got ill, so he wasn't able to complete the renovation of the cars like intended," stated Connie.

Another issue raised by the letters was the care of their lawn.
"Between being at the hospital with my husband and working to try and stay above water, it was difficult to keep up on the lawn maintenance like we should've," said Connie.

According to Connie, after a visit from a Platte City police officer in October of 2000 stating they had only five days to remove the vehicles from their yard, she visited the police chief.

"We were told he would look into it and we didn't hear anything from them again until this spring," explained Connie. The couple credits new mayor Dave Brooks with trying to help them deal with the problem.

Recently, the Williams' were presented with another letter from the city giving them two weeks to remove the remaining two vehicles from their yard. According to the summary, if not removed by April 15, the city would to tow the vehicles to an impound.

"I don't expect the city to change the law I just want them to understand the circumstances we've been under. Every time we take five steps forward, it seems like someone's there to push us three steps back. And that's no way to live your life," stated Connie."