As a young Marine in Vietnam, Sammye Weinstock once wrote home about the military’s efforts to strip the dense jungle around him by spraying chemicals from above.
It seemed as though the leaves were melting off the trees over his head, he wrote in a letter to his brother Harold in Spokane in the late 1960s.
A few years after the war, those chemicals – a combination of herbicides known as Agent Orange – led to Weinstock’s death.
He was 28, studying to be a parole officer, when he was diagnosed with a particularly virulent form of melanoma. He went to see a doctor about a problem with a mole in the summer of 1976, his mother, Reni Weinstock recalled recently. In just a few months he was dead from the cancer that spread through his body. “He died pretty horribly,” Reni Weinstock said.
Sammye Weinstock’s family regards him as a casualty of the Vietnam War, just as surely as if he’d been killed by a bullet or a bomb in the jungle during his 18 months in that Asian country. Doctors at the Veterans Administration hospital told him Agent Orange was the cause of his cancer when he went in for treatment, they said, although the government wouldn’t officially recognize a link between the defoliant and cancers until years later.
Today, Weinstock will be honored with 76 other veterans of that conflict who died as a result of their service after they returned home. Their names will be read during a special ceremony at the place many participants of that war hold sacred, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The Wall, as it is commonly known, is reserved for those military personnel who died in country or died later as the direct result of combat-related wounds. But for the past nine years, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund has held an annual ceremony called Memory Day to honor veterans who became casualties of the war after their service ended.
Relatives will read their names in the order in which they died, and place mementos at the base of the Wall near the names of men and women who were serving in Vietnam at the same time. Names are inscribed on the Wall in the order in which service members died.
Lisa Gough, a spokeswoman for the memorial fund, said the number of veterans honored on Memory Day fluctuates each year, with some ceremonies including as many as 400 names. There were 86 honored last year, and 77 names will be read this year.
“A lot of it depends on how well we get the word out,” Gough said.
Claire Weinstock, Sammye’s sister-in-law, read a story last year in The Spokesman-Review about two Spokane families who participated in the 2006 memorial ceremony, and got information on how to contact the memorial fund through the newspaper. She rounded up the needed paperwork, a biography and a picture of Sammye, who graduated from Lewis and Clark High School and served in the Marine Corps from 1967 to 1971.
Her brother-in-law spent 18 months in Vietnam with a front-line unit in the thick jungle, Claire Weinstock said. That’s where he was exposed to Agent Orange.
After his enlistment was up, Sammye came back to Spokane and eventually went to school on the GI Bill. He attended Spokane Falls Community College and Eastern Washington University, and in 1976 he moved to Las Vegas to enroll in a college program to become a juvenile parole officer, Reni Weinstock said. It was in Las Vegas that he was first diagnosed with cancer.
He came home for treatment at the Spokane VA hospital, but there wasn’t much the doctors could do, other than send him home with morphine for the pain.
“I know I sound bitter … but he was just 28 years old,” Reni Weinstock said.
When the federal government announced links between cancer and Agent Orange, the Weinstocks tried to get some recognition that Sammye was a casualty of Vietnam. “I called the 800 number, but all I got was the run-around,” Claire Weinstock said.
Then she read about Memory Day at the Wall.
Last week, Sammye’s family traveled to Washington, D.C., to make their first visit to the Wall.
“I think the fact that we’re all going to be there is important,” Claire Weinstock said. “To me, it’s closure.”