Ray Uebler never really thought he’d be recognized for the time he served overseas.
“When we got back, most of the time, it was better people didn’t know you had served… It was not a popular time,” the Buckley resident recalled.
Despite decades having passed, Uebler appears to have continued that habit, not letting folks know he was in Vietnam from September 1969 to March 1971, with only one 30-day leave, serving with Marine Air Group 13.
That’s why Arlene Murray, past president of the Gold Star Wives Tahoma chapter and former member of the national Gold Star Wives of America board of directors, threw a special 50th anniversary celebration of Uebler and several other veterans at Bonney Lake’s Chipper’s Jewelry, whose owner is also a veteran.
“You know, typically, Veterans Day is about Veterans Day sales — go buy a mattress, we’ll give you a discount,” she said. “Today was not about any kind of sales gimmick — we were using the store to honor these veterans.”
But it wasn’t just a group of locals thanking veterans for their service, though that may have been enough to being the grizzled vet to tears — Gen. James T. Jackson, director of the United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration, penned Uebler a personal letter of appreciation.
“I offer my personal thank you for your time in uniform and for everything you have contributed [to] following your return home,” Jackson wrote. “Please take comfort that the nation’s attitude toward Vietnam veterans has certainly changed over the years. Today, my team is finding no shortage of Americans wanting to help recognize veterans, such as yourself, and to correct the terrible welcome home each of you received 50 years ago.”
The letter clearly brought back memories, and not all of them pleasant.
“It was emotional,” Uebler said, adding that he’d been able to forget how invisible he felt in the ‘70s, and this ceremony did dredge those memories back up. But, “now there’s so much more support — it’s really encouraging to see the way people are supported now.”
And Uebler doesn’t just mean the emotional, community support; he’s also referring to legislative support. Like many of his compatriots, Uebler was exposed to Agent Orange, a herbicide that contained dioxin, a highly toxic carcinogen that scientists now believe has caused myriad cancers and diseases in vets like Hodgkin’s disease, chronic B-cell leukemia, various respiratory cancers, Parkinson’s, early on-set peripheral neuropathy (a numbing of your nerves), porphyria cutanea tarda (a rare illness that makes the liver stop working and skin blisters while in the sun), and type II diabetes.
It took decades for the U.S. government to recognize the effects of Agent Orange on veterans. Before it did, roughly 2.4 million veterans were involved in a class action lawsuit in 1979; the suit was settled out of court five years later with the companies that created Agent Orange agreeing to pay $180 million in compensation to the veterans or their families, according to History.com — about $75 to each person involved in the suit.
According to an inflation calculator, that would equate to about $185 today.
It was in 1991 when President George H. W. Bush signed the Agent Orange Act into law, mandating that some diseases linked to the herbicide should be treated as the result of a vet’s service. This is important for Uebler, since he was diagnosed with prostate cancer — another cancer linked to dioxin — in 2015. He has only just received 100 percent disability because of his condition, thanks again to Murray.
But the fight over getting benefits due to Agent Orange exposure continues to this day.
Originally, only those who “must have actually set foot on Vietnamese soil or served on a craft in its rivers” could receive benefits, according to a 2014 Congressional Research Service report — around 2.6 million veterans.
The Agent Orange Act was expanded in June 2015 to include Air Force veterans who served on the aircrafts used to spray agent orange, adding up to 2,100 veterans to the list of who could qualify for benefits, according to a 2015 ProPublica article.
But “blue water” veterans, or an estimated 90,000 service members who were on ships around Vietnam and exposed to Agent Orange through their drinking water, only just received the ability to be on the Agent Orange Registry and potentially receive benefits this year with the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2020.
To learn more about Agent Orange benefits, or any sort of support for veterans from any war, Murray is the person you want to talk to.
“I’m an advocate — this is what I do,” she said after the ceremony at Chipper’s. “All our veterans have served, and they deserve to get the most benefits… they need to get every compensation possible.”
The Tahoma chapter of the Gold Star Wives of America is the only chapter in Washington; the national organization aims to preserve and enhance benefits of surviving military spouses and their families and honor the memory of those who die in service or due to complications from their service (like Agent Orange), its website reads.
Murray no longer works under the Gold Star Wives organization, but she continues to operate on her own as a veterans advocate, both locally and nationally; it was she who traveled to Washington D.C. to speak to Gen. Jackson about writing a letter to Uebler.
On the Plateau, Murray hopes to expand this year’s veteran appreciation event she organized for future Veterans Days; she says she likes the large events that recognize veterans as a whole, like Auburn’s annual Veterans Day parade, but she also wants to be able to individually recognize local veterans like Uebler.
To that end, for all the support Murray have given him, Uebler had two words to say: “Thank you.”
“I’m supposed to say thank you to you, silly,” she responded. “Quit it, you’re going to make me cry again.”
Murray can be contacted about veteran benefits, gold star benefits, and future local veteran events by calling her office at 360-893-1537, her cell at 253-720-1766, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There’s also the Department of Veterans Affairs, which can be contacted at 1-800-827-1000 with any questions.
Finally, people who want to honor Vietnam War veterans like Uebler can check out the Vietnam War Commemoration at www.vietnamwar50th.com; the commemoration’s goal is to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the war by recognizing all veterans — including those who are listed as MIA — for their service and sacrifice.