Like many aging Vietnam veterans, Larry Whitt, 73, is grappling with the full cost of his time spent in the service. Larry, a 1964 graduate of Gallatin High School, was a mortar gunner with Company B, 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry, 1st Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division in Tay Ninh Province.
Larry was 23 years old when he entered the Army in May of 1968. He and his wife Sharon were married and had a daughter before he went overseas.
A sergeant and squad leader in Vietnam, Larry recalls seeing airplanes spraying Agent Orange overhead. The toxic herbicide was used to kill dense tree cover and eliminate places for the enemy to hide. But in the process, as many as 2.7 million soldiers were exposed during the war from 1961-1971.
“Anybody in the infantry division was exposed when they were in the jungle,” Larry says.
Larry has been diagnosed with small cell cancer in his lung and liver. “It is caused by Agent Orange,” he says. “That is the VA telling me that.”
This is after the American government denied the lethal effects of Agent Orange for decades.
Larry was diagnosed last year. This will be his second go around for chemo, and doctors have increased the strength of the treatments. He goes five days a week for chemo; off for two weeks; then five days a week again.
“I’ll have a cat scan at the end of month to see how it’s working,” he says. “The first go round didn’t work. I did it for several months and it didn’t work.”
But more worrisome for Larry than his own health is the health of his children and grandchildren. Their illness could be linked to his time in Vietnam, according to what he is being told by medical officials.
His son and one of his granddaughters have been diagnosed with Type I Diabetes.
“It may have come from me being exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam,” Larry says. “I hate that. It’s not fair to them. Vietnam isn’t just something I have to live with for the rest of my life; it’s something they have to live with, too.”
Larry came home from Vietnam on Nov. 27, 1969. It was his daughter’s birthday. She was two years old.
He started work at the Bank of Weston on Dec. 15 of that same year. He worked there for 42.5 years and was senior vice-president of the loan department and a board member. He retired on July 1, 2012.
Since retirement, he has raised gardens in two separate places and played a lot of golf. He and Sharon have gone on a couple of cruises, which he really enjoyed. He’s a 50-year member and Commander of the American Legion and Worshipful Master of the Masonic Lodge.
Larry was born just north of Gallatin on July 2, 1946, to Herbert and Cecilia Whitt. He came back to Gallatin a lot until his parents died. “Dad and I loved to fish on the Grand River and the lakes around,” he says.
After being diagnosed with cancer, he tried to go through the VA for medical help. “I had to quit them,” he says. “It took the VA so long, they weren’t getting anything done. When you’ve been told you have cancer and you’ll only live six months without treatments, you want to get treatment as quick as possible.”
Larry says his problems were not so much with the VA as with contracts with other places. “They drop the ball on you,” he says. “That happens to a lot of people who have anything seriously wrong with them; they have to go outside the VA. It’s there for the small stuff.”
He finally got into a hospital using Medicare and private insurance. “The VA would have got me in eventually — but how long?” he says. “You do what you have to do when you don’t have long to live.”
Larry does not like to talk about his experiences in Vietnam. “It was pretty tough on a lot of people,” he says. “A lot had it worse than I did and I had it bad enough.”
Coming home was not what he expected. “It was kind of sad,” he says. “When I got off the airplane in California, there were people there calling me bad names and things like that.”
Larry says it helped to be married, with a small child, and from a small hometown that didn’t treat him disrespectfully. “I had things to concentrate on and take care of, rather than sit around and feel sorry for myself,” he says. “I can’t imagine what would have happened without strong support when I got home.”
For soldiers coming home today, he says: “Keep the faith. Trust yourself that you will do the right thing. Connect yourself to the right people when you get home. Don’t be going to bars and being around people that can’t get over it and feel sorry for themselves. Be around the right people and listen to them.”
Today in 2019 Larry and Sharon have a daughter and a son; four grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. “They are my life,” he says. “What I live for is to be around them.”