‘Wonderful family men’: Honoring brothers, dad who died due to exposure to Agent Orange
Steven Wright grew up the youngest of three siblings. He constantly looked up to his two older brothers, Pat and Terry. All three were very close – all three looked after the other.
“Being the youngest was not the easiest,” Steven said, as he struggled to keep up with them in athletics.
Everyone looked to Terry for guidance on sports and hunting. He was the oldest and loved to chase birds and rabbits. He had also learned how to water ski before his two younger siblings.
The three boys had a lot in common. For one, they all loved sports. They all looked up to their dad, Robert, and they would all serve their country.
Robert, a career military man, started in the Merchant Marines. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1946 and served during World War II and the Korean War. In 1954, he was assigned to the 503rd MP Battalion as a cook.
“Many times we would visit him at work baking that wonderful aroma of fresh bread,” Steven remembered.
Robert later pursued the medical field. And at age 36, he proudly served with the Green Berets. He was an inspiration to the young recruits and paratroopers he served with. Robert served two tours in Vietnam, spending one as an advisor and then another as Senior Medical Advisor.
“While not on patrol, dad would step in and help the surgeons repair cleft palette deformities of the young males and females. The North Vietnamese posted a $10K bounty on him for his efforts, so upper leadership sent him home a month early,” Steven recalled.
Robert reenlisted twice in order to keep the family together and they were soon able to find roots and make memories in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
“Dad would throw the football around and we would have foot races in the street,” Steven remembered. “He taught us the essential skills in the art of cooking outdoors: steaks, hot dogs, hamburgers, and an occasional wild game. We spent many days at the swimming pool at Fort Bragg or at the lake on post.”
It wasn’t long before Terry, the oldest, followed in his dad’s footsteps. After high school, their mother gave him a choice – either get a job or enlist in the military. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in December 1963 and was trained as a Field Communication Repairman with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg.
When Terry was eventually ordered to South Vietnam, he was stationed a camp or two away from where their dad was located. From 1965 and 1966, Terry served as a Field Command Communications Wireman and Paratrooper for the 82nd Airborne Division.
“They would periodically get together, play horseshoes, talk about home and Army matters,” Steven told VVMF.
And after his military service ended, Terry moved to Ventura, California where he raised his family and worked as an Electrician and Telecommunications Technician.
In December 1967, Pat enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was trained as a Radio Telecommunication Operator and as the senior NCO of his detachment, he was active in extracting intelligence.
Steven entered the military shortly after. Unlike his siblings and his father, he chose a different branch—the U.S. Marine Corps. While going through communications school, Pat sent him a letter stating he would remain in South Vietnam so his younger would not have to go. He was following the one family member in-country rule – a perfect example of one brother looking after the other.
Steven told him that he was safe. He had a top secret/crypto security clearance, after all. Little did he realize that one had to go where the intelligence was to be extracted, and he was trained in the U.S. Marine Corps for the same type of training Pat had in the Army. Steven would serve for two years, stationed at the Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay in Kaneohe, Hawaii. He was never sent to Vietnam.
Once all brothers were out of the military and returned to civilian life, they camped, fished and relished in their time together. Pat introduced their dad to hang gliding and Steven introduced him to snow skiing.
“It brought us all closer together,” Steven recalled.
There was little talk of their time in Vietnam.
“Dad was a Green Beret and Pat was intelligence,” Steven said, reinforcing how they all held different positions. And aside from Terry reminiscing about the times he and dad would visit while in-country, Vietnam remained a distant memory. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the war caught up with them.
Pat was the first to become ill. As a result of his exposure to Agent Orange, he passed away due to metastatic lung cancer on June 28, 1997. At the time, the family didn’t know it was connected to the defoliant Agent Orange and they didn’t suspect its effects would befall any other family members.
“We never connected the pieces,” Steven admitted.
He could only speculate how Pat could have come into contact with toxic defoliant.
“He would fly in UH-1 helicopters while on missions,” Steven said. Pat could have been on a helicopter that sprayed Agent Orange on the Vietnamese countryside.
Agent Orange served as a defoliant during the war—meaning it would kill crops and other vegetation in the areas where it was sprayed. It was meant to rapidly and effectively clear areas that might provide cover and food to enemy troops.
It wasn’t until 2014 that they found out Pat’s cancer was Agent Orange-related. And by the time the cause was revealed, their dad’s health was beginning to deteriorate.
Later that year, Steven took it upon himself to induct Pat into VVMF’s In Memory program, which honors Vietnam veterans who returned home and later died from illnesses related to their service. Steven traveled to Washington, D.C. in June to read his brother’s name on the National Mall. This was his way of ensuring Pat would not be forgotten for his untimely death.
Two years later, their dad succumbed to illnesses related to his exposure to Agent Orange. He passed away on September 3, 2016 from prostate cancer. Steven, too, felt that honoring him on a national level was the right thing to do. Robert was inducted into the In Memory program in 2017.
“It is hard to stand there, but so rewarding to see so many family members and loved ones in attendance,” he said about publicly recognizing his brother and dad. The program signifies one final recognition for all they gave in service.
Steven sees the In Memory program as part of his healing process. It helps keep his family’s memories alive and lets others know they are not forgotten. The program has meant so much to him that he has continued to educate others about its impact. He feels moved to let others know about this community—brought together by the lingering effects of Agent Orange.
Steven became a supporter of the In Memory Circle of Friends in 2018, a community of people who help fund the program. Through collective outreach, encouragement, and compassion, the Circle of Friends helps bring healing to those who continue to feel the effects of the Vietnam War.
“Being a part of the In Memory Circle of Friends…offers me the opportunity to educate families, friends and loved ones,” he said. “This program understands their loss, brings them all together and provides emotional support.”
This June will be Steven’s sixth year at the In Memory Ceremony and third time saying a loved one’s name at the podium. Terry, his oldest brother, will be remembered. He passed away on November 17, 2018 from coronary artery disease caused by the same exposure that took his dad and younger brother.
Even though the Vietnam War reemerged in the Wright family through a myriad of diseases, Steven wants them to be remembered for much more than that. He wants them to be remembered as great veterans to the U.S. Army. He wants them to be remembered for the wonderful family men they were. He wants them to be seen as examples to follow. This is why he chose to remember them through In Memory, and why he comes back every year to say their names.
Terry served for three years and one month. He was awarded the Vietnam Service Medal, Overseas Service Bar, National Defense Service Medal, Parachute Badge and was a Rifle Expert.
Pat was awarded the Bronze Star and the National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnam Campaign Medal, and Vietnam Service Medal, along with two O/S Bars.
Robert proudly served his country for 20 years, five months and 19 days. He was awarded the Bronze Star, Parachute Badge, GCM w/3 Loops, Medical Badge, Vietnam Service Badge, GCM 4th Award, National Defense Service Medal w/1st Oak Leaf Cluster.
The Wright family lived their lives with distinction. Steven understands this and wants future generations to know this as well. He knows that his dad and brothers, all men he looked up to, “did not falter when it came time to serve their country.” When he says their names on the National Mall, he has not forgotten them. And as their lives are honored through the In Memory program, a grateful nation will not forget them either.