Gene Burkat had his first heart attack at 37.
When he was 44 and after his second heart attack, he received a triple bypass, and doctors told his wife he had five years to live. After a third heart attack at 52, he received two stents in his heart, and after Burkat's fourth heart attack at 56, four more stents were placed in his heart.
When the Hobart man visited his doctor at a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs clinic when he was 58, the doctor told him he had the body of an 80-year-old.
Burkat was 20 in 1965 when he was drafted into the U.S. Army. Forty-five years later, he believes his body is experiencing the effects of exposure to Agent Orange, an herbicide sprayed over the jungles of Vietnam on the foliage used as cover by enemy forces during the war.
For years, the VA has offered compensation to veterans exposed to the herbicide who suffer from a variety of health conditions such as certain cancers. On Nov. 1, the agency began distributing disability benefits to veterans exposed to Agent Orange based on an expanded list of health conditions. Parkinson's disease, ischemic heart disease and all chronic B cell leukemias were added to the list based on evidence from an independent study by the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, a statement from the VA shows.
"I don't know that my medical problems are related to Agent Orange," said Burkat, now 65, of Hobart, who heard about the list expansion in March and filed a claim in May. "I'm just going by what (the doctors) said."
Burkat didn't see being drafted as a bad thing. He wanted to join the military voluntarily, but his parents had said no.
"We knew we were going to Vietnam. I was glad. I felt like I wanted to make a difference in the world," he said. "I was dumb and naive."
Burkat still can flip through photo albums of his time in the service and remember specific moments. There's a picture of Burkat in uniform standing beside his father, both smiling. In another photo, Burkat stands with two other soldiers with socks full of food pinned to their shirts. There's also a photo of a little girl who ran up to Burkat when his convoy stopped, refusing the food he offered her, just wanting to stand near him.
"Boy, I wonder what happened to her. You can't imagine living that way for a year," he said of his experiences. "You can't imagine the nightmares that would start after you got home and last for years to come."
Along with the nightmares came Burkat's health problems. He not only had heart trouble, despite little history of heart disease in his family, but also suffered from a mysterious skin rash and peripheral neuropathy, or nerve damage. There were nights his toes hurt so badly that he couldn't stand the weight of the sheets resting on his feet as he lay in bed.
The VA said it expects more than 150,000 veterans to submit Agent Orange claims within the next 12 to 18 months. And there are many more like Burkat, who have submitted claims and are waiting for a decision. He hopes the acceptance of his claim would lead to expanded medical coverage.
"My message to vets is: just keep accurate records of anything that develops," Burkat said. "If you are hospitalized or treated for something, ask for copies of the medical records and keep everything in a safe place. It will be so much easier for you if you need to justify something at some point in the future."