They Served Together: Brother honored after losing battle to Agent Orange-related cancer

Downs, Herman Photo1Herman Downs was born in Akron, Ohio on September 25, 1947. A graduate of Akron Garfield High School, he was the third of five children. Upon graduation, Herman followed in his older brother’s footsteps and volunteered to serve in Vietnam. Johnnie and Herman Downs served a year in-country from 1966 to 1967.  Johnnie served in the U.S. Army and Herman served in the U.S. Marine Corps.

After he returned home, Herman’s family noticed that the war had changed him. Unbeknownst to Herman or his family, he was suffering from PTSD. The effects brought on by PTSD stymied Herman’s ability to reach his full potential or achieve a fulfilling life, and this was only the beginning.

In 1986, when he was 38 years old, Herman was diagnosed with cancer as a result of his Agent Orange exposure. As a result, Herman would have to have his tongue removed as he battled the cancer. Months later, the cancer would return and consume his entire face.

“Herman’s face was nothing but rotted skin by the time he died a most horrible death,” Johnnie remembers.

Being exposed to herbicides and defoliants like Agent Orange has brought suffering and premature death to an untold numbers of Vietnam veterans.

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A tribute of Johnnie and Herman Downs left at The Wall by Johnnie during the In Memory Day Ceremony, June 2017.

Johnnie inducted Herman into VVMF’s In Memory program in 2016. The In Memory program honors Vietnam veterans who passed away as a result of illnesses and diseases related to their service in Vietnam, but are not eligible to be added to The Wall according to Department of Defense guidelines. As part of the program, families are invited to the In Memory Day Ceremony in June to read their loved one’s name on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Johnnie attended the ceremony that year and has returned every year since as a past participant.

“I’m here today to represent my brother,” he told VVMF in 2017. “My brother passed away from one of the worst cases [of Agent Orange exposure]…it took a while, but I would like to thank the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund for finally recognizing my brother and for my family, we say thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Johnnie said the In Memory ceremony is a “day of healing” where he can “put a closure” to his brother’s death.

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Johnnie Downs reads the name of his brother, Herman Downs, during the 2017 In Memory Day Ceremony on June 17, 2017. (Photo/Bill Shugarts)

Herman Downs was 18 years old when his life changed forever. He returned from Vietnam a very different man. He suffered deeply and passed away at age 42.

Many lives have been cut short as a result of the Vietnam War, but their stories should not be lost with them. For Johnnie, the In Memory program is how his brother’s memory can be honored. Herman’s story can be seen on VVMF’s virtual Honor Roll along with thousands of other Vietnam veterans who had their lives cut short.

Johnnie holds a special place in his heart for his brother and all who served. He adds, “My heroes don’t dribble a basketball, they don’t throw a football. My heroes are the Vietnam veterans and the people that are on this Wall today.”

The effects of the Vietnam War remain as palpable as ever. The Downs family prays every day that the chemicals sprayed in Vietnam won’t be passed on to future generations. For his service and his ruthless sacrifice, the least we can do is remember Herman’s story.

To learn more about the In Memory program or to honor a loved one through the program, click here.

This blog was written by Ann Friel. Latosha Adams contributed to this post.