They Served Together: Brother honored after losing battle to Agent Orange-related cancer
Herman 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 wanted to follow in his older brother’s footsteps and volunteered to serve in the Vietnam War. Johnnie and Herman Downs would spend a year in Vietnam together from 1966 to 1967. The only difference was that Johnnie served in the U.S. Army and Herman served in the U.S. Marine Corps. Herman was honorably discharged as a Corporal.
After he returned home, Herman’s family noticed that the war had greatly changed him. His mother would say, “I do not know who this person is,” referring to her son. 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 exposure to Agent Orange. He would continue to suffer. In addition to PTSD, 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 like Agent Orange would bring suffering and premature death to an untold numbers of veterans of that war.
Herman Down was inducted into VVMF’s In Memory program in 2016. The In Memory program honors Vietnam veterans who passed away as a result of service-connected illnesses, 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 that year. He returned in 2017 as a past participant, alongside thousands of other family members who lost a loved one after the war ended.
“I’m here today to represent my brother,” he told VVMF this past June. “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 was a “day of healing.” It was a day he could “put a closure” on his brother’s death.
Herman Downs was 18 years old when his life changed forever. He returned from Vietnam a very different man from when he left. He suffered deeply and was 42 years old when he passed away.
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 a place where his brother’s story can live. Herman’s story can be seen on VVMF’s virtual Honor Roll along with the stories of more than 3,200 other Vietnam veterans who had their lives taken from them.
Johnnie holds a special place in his heart for his brother and those 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 pray every day that the chemicals sprayed in Vietnam won’t be passed on to the next generation. For his service and his ruthless sacrifice, the least we can do is remember Herman’s story.
This blog was written by Ann Friel. Latosha Adams contributed to this post.