Added to the wall: Vietnam vets who died from exposure years later get recognized

Fourteen new names added to California’s Vietnam Memorial in Sacramento

This is an extended version of a story that appears in the October 19, 2017, issue.

A crowd gathered in Capitol Park on Saturday to watch 14 names added to the walls of its Vietnam Memorial. Most belonged to men who were killed by the conflict, though not alongside their fallen comrades in the jungle. Instead, they suffered for decades from exposure to toxins like Agent Orange.

The October 14 event was conducted by the California Department of Veterans Affairs, which helps track former servicemen who’ve died from illnesses connected to their time in Vietnam. CDVA spokeswoman Cathy Kenny told SN&R that the majority of names added to the memorial were as a result of deaths due to Agent Orange, with the exception of pilots Lt. Gregory Hodson and Lt. Harold Roach.

“Two are Navy pilots who died when their plane went down in the South China Sea in October 1964,” Kenny said.

Hodson was from West Sacramento.

Among the other names added were James Allen Gray of Auburn, Ronald Van Westburg of Sacramento and Dennis Wilburn Williams of Sacramento.

The CDVA cited Williams as an example of the kind of ongoing sacrifice some veterans made after Vietnam, noting that Williams was “100 percent disabled” from chemical exposure.

Westburg was another Sacramentan who endured years of chronic illness due to his service. According to family members, Westburg had already survived driving over a landmine in the battle zone—an explosion that killed everyone in his truck but him.

“He just knew he’d be coming home,” recalled Linda Westburg, Ron’s window. “It was something he always believed, before he left and while he was there.”

Westburg did make it back, though only to start dealing with a series of rare cancers. Doctors attributed them to dioxin defoliants used in Nam. Westburg continued working part-time as a bartender at VFW Post 67 on Stockton Boulevard right up until his radiation treatment. He died from cancer in 2013. More than 20 of Westburg’s family members and friends attended Saturday’s ceremony at Capital Park.

“Ron would never have thought of putting his name forward, but I really believe that war killed him,” Linda Westburg said, fighting back tears. “And we have one of the most emotionally meaningful monuments in the U.S., one that says so much about what they went through. So, this means the world to me.”