A Vietnam veteran from Andover is heading to Washington D.C. for the State of the Union Address on a mission to rally support from federal lawmakers to make health care more accessible to veterans exposed to the toxic chemical known as Agent Orange.
Gerry Wright spoke exclusively to NBC Connecticut about his upcoming trip to the Capitol, the next step in a journey that has already taken him to 32 states speaking with veterans and their families about the long-term side effects of Agent Orange exposure.
American soldiers sprayed the herbicide that came to be referred to as Agent Orange over dense jungle in Vietnam in a military effort to kill foliage providing cover to enemy soldiers.
Wright has amassed shelves full of photographs, testimonials, newspaper clippings and studies at his home in Andover. He pointed to one picture in particular of a truck he remembers riding while spraying the toxic chemical.
“We would stand on the back of here and spray around our compound. No hat, no shirt, no masks,” Wright said.
He now suffers from heart, skin and nerve conditions associated with Agent Orange. He receives treatment from the VA hospital for heart disease, but does not qualify for treatment of his other ailments because of a rule requiring soldiers to have reported symptoms within a year of chemical exposure.
Wright says he and many of his fellow veterans did not recognize those symptoms until it was too late.
Last year, he traveled 10,000 miles around the country towing a trailer painted, “sprayed and betrayed,” and collecting more than 6,000 signatures from supporters, he said.
Now, he is working with Connecticut congressmen Joe Courtney and John Larson, who are co-sponsors on a house bill introduced last month to remove that requirement. Senator Richard Blumenthal is expected to introduce a corresponding Senate bill soon, and invited Wright to be his guest at Tuesday night’s State of the Union Address.
Lawmakers introduced similar bills in both houses of Congress last year that were not successful.
Wright hopes to use the remainder of his trip to Washington to speak to as many lawmakers as he can on both sides of the aisle. He believes the stakes could not be higher for veterans like him who need treatment. “We’re still dying from this,” he said.