As U.S. forces fought their way through Vietnam’s jungles, rice paddies and villages, enemy fire often pinned them down. That’s where the F-4 came in. The interceptor fighter-bombers often plowed the road for American troops.
In 1970-71 Tom Jenkins, a U.S. Air Force mechanic and crew chief, readied F-4’s for the war.
“To drop bombs on Vietnam, they would come back and you would work on them,” Tom said.
Tom, now 71, was stationed at the Ubon Royal Air Force Base in Thailand. There he and others met a different enemy.
“In fact they’d talk about you’re standing in Agent Orange, ‘Don’t worry about it. It’s not toxic. It won’t hurt you,'” Tom recalled. He claims Agent Orange was used to knock down the foliage around the perimeter of the base, where he stood guard and worked on engines. He says he also wore frayed asbestos suits and, while serving as a crew chief on the F-4’s, stood on or near the plane during radar checks, exposing him to radiation. U.S. forces sprayed Agent Orange to kill vegetation where the enemy hid.
Exposure to it continues to kill Americans who served there.
Tom, who now lives in Belleair Bluffs, has developed skin and prostate cancers, heart disease and peripheral neuropathy, which causes stabbing burning pain.
“I will never in my life be able to walk barefoot anywhere because of the neuropathy; it’s like walking on broken glass,” he said.
Those diseases and a list of others are tied to Agent Orange exposure. Tom applied for Department of Veterans Affairs benefits in 2013, submitting 50 pages of evidence. Eight months later he received a notice from the VA.
“No evidence to support this claim has been received to date,” the notice said.
The VA also said, “Because the required service in Vietnam is not shown nor is there evidence of exposure to herbicides during military service.”
Tom claims he rushed to Bay Pines and demanded to see his file, which contained only his application. After climbing the chain of command, a supervisor eventually found his documentation.
“I think they were mad because I caught them not submitting 50 pages of evidence into my file and they took offense to it,” Tom said.
The VA did provide him a 10 percent disability for developing tinnitus, ringing in the ears, due to exposure to loud jet engines.
“They hope I die or I give up. I’m not going to give up; I hope the hell I don’t die,” Tom said.
Tom is appealing the decision. He showed 8 On Your Side a VA document that states Ubon Air Force Base was recently added to a list of bases where between 1961 and 1975, service members may have been exposed to Agent Orange.
Tom plans to bring his fight to the VA in Washington, D.C. for an appeal hearing. He claims he is on a multi-year waiting list.
“No one, not me or anybody else should have to wait several years,” he said. We agree. 8 On Your Side reached out to a veterans’ advocate on Tom’s behalf as well as Congressman David Jolly’s office and Senator Bill Nelson, in the hope that someone can get him a hearing sooner than that.
“If I can give them 20 years active duty, damn it, they can give me 30 minutes of their time up at Washington, D.C.,” Tom said.