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At the age of 7, I was in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina on a hike with my father. He taught me a few things about his military service in Vietnam that still motivate me some 35 years after his death.
It was 1986, and congestive heart failure would take him from us two years later, just short of his 40th birthday. It’s a fact that my dad smoked — Winston’s — and he had a predisposition to heart disease. But Towfeek Mahshie — a second-generation Arab American — was 6 feet tall and 170 pounds and should not have died so young. It turned out that exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam had been the trigger.
As I grew older, I tried to piece together what had happened to him. That sense of curiosity led me into journalism. The stories that are most important to me are about those who were exposed to toxins in the line of duty — veterans who need Congress to grant a presumption of exposure and full medical coverage for their ailments.
On that hike, Dad had his boots laced up tight, the same as he did every day for his job as an airline machinist — just as he had laced his boots in the Army during his tour in Vietnam from March 1968 to March 1969.
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We walked up the red dirt road from our cabin, which he had built. We slogged along a muddy path where water had pooled, then down a steep slope to a creek.
Dad put me on a fallen log beside him. It was a rare moment of quiet together. I felt the moss on the moist wood as he spoke to me. “Always remember to bring an extra pair of socks,” he told me, pulling out a wadded sock ball from his pocket.
On patrol as a buck sergeant in Vietnam, he had tramped for hours through mud and water, his boots and socks soaked through. The rot that resulted affected his skin for life. I never thought much of it when Dad was sitting on the closed toilet seat with an industrial-sized canister of waxy, white cream at his side, rubbing it into his feet each night after he showered.
What I didn’t see — what none of us saw — were the toxins that rained down on him from above in Vietnam. The damage they caused was invisible. Agent Orange penetrated his skin and eventually reached his heart.
My dad arrived at Da Nang Air Base barely two months after the Tet Offensive, as the American public was souring on the war. On his return to the States, his bus was pelted with tomatoes in San Francisco. But he never lost his intense love for America — which he imparted to me.