Herb Worthington was a newlywed and recent graduate of the prestigious New York Phoenix School of Design (later known as Pratt Manhattan) when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1969. By early January 1970, he found himself in Vietnam.
Early service in Vietnam
Stationed in the Mekong Delta at III Corps South West of Saigon, Herb was in the 2nd of the 60th, Recon Battalion of the 9th Infantry Division.
He carried a 90mm recoilless rifle during many missions the unit operated along the Cambodian border. He took part in both riverine operations and “jitterbug tactics,” which featured split-second timing of airmobile insertions in close proximity to enemy units. The 2nd Battalion, 60th Infantry was a recon outfit—stirring up trouble while looking for information.
Brigade Headquarters eventually pulled him from the field. With his art background, Herb was made a Combat Artist for the Public Information Office to the 3rd Brigade, 9th Infantry Division. When the last of the 9th Infantry Division was sent home in 1970, Herb was assigned to the 25th Infantry Division at Cu Chi as a Combat Artist with their Military History Detachment. In December of 1970, Herb returned to the states.
Active service ends, but the pain begins
His active career (as a Specialist 4) had ended, but the ramifications of his time in service were just beginning. Post-traumatic stress (PTS) was immediate. To this day, Herb has trouble concentrating, sleep disturbances, nightmares, vivid memories, and panic. He suffers from avoidance and can become hyper-reactive or hypervigilant.
To learn to cope better with his debilitating symptoms, Herb went through a 45-day PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) program at the Veterans Administration (VA) Hospital in Lyons, New Jersey.
The year following his discharge, Herb developed allergies to cats, dogs, mold, and pollen. He experienced migraines. The weight of carrying his rifle for long distances had injured his neck so badly he had three discs removed and replaced with cadaver bones, a plate, and four screws. Lower back pain ensued, as did peripheral neuropathy.
In 2010, Herb was diagnosed with Agent Orange-caused type 2 diabetes; a diagnosis of prostate cancer came a few years later. His cancer is so aggressive that multiple specialists believe removing it would lead to the cancer metastasizing and spreading. He is now halfway through a three-year treatment program of monthly injections and daily hormone pills.
Herb is 100% disabled. Doing anything taxes him. With full-body pain and aching joints, walking is physically difficult. The smallest of tasks—like taking out the garbage or going shopping—causes his heart to race. When walking in any store, he needs a cart to lean against. Since he loses his breath easily and needs to rest often, he looks for chairs everywhere he goes so he can sit.
The plans Herb had for his life were crushed by the war and exposure to Agent Orange.
Seeking creativity in spite of pain
After leaving the Army, Herb worked as an art and marketing director (running a sales force of 40 people) before starting his own advertising agency. Business boomed until the Gulf War. His previously managed PTS roared back. Instead of meeting deadlines, he fixated on the television. He became irate and short-tempered; he avoided others and became hypervigilant. He was losing clients, and worried about his family’s security.
Herb began working for the Vietnam Veterans of America as Chief Service Officer—and finally asked for his disability rating. Despite his health problems, it took Herb more than four years to receive a 100% disability rating.
Feeling abandoned by the Veterans Administration
“They always deny you,” Herb says. “And that is the hardest thing to swallow as a veteran—to be denied by the VA. It is as if they are saying ‘no, you weren’t there; no, we don’t believe you.’ It is a slap in the face. We went to defend the U.S., and now no one is helping us.”
While fortunate to have minimal trouble getting treatments, Herb would rather see doctors outside the system. “Most doctors I have encountered at the VA are going through their internship,” he says. “I feel like a guinea pig for the government all over again.”
Herb has found short respite with massage therapy, but relief is fleeting. Countless creams and ointments have done little to treat his pain over the years. Pain medicine, blood pressure pills, antidepressants, sleeping medicine, and hormones have proven helpful but cause an array of side effects (zoning out, inability to focus, sleepiness), which, in turn, limit Herb’s ability to function.
Raging against Agent Orange
None of Herb’s daily physical suffering compares to the insurmountable guilt, anger, sadness, rage, and helplessness he feels about Agent Orange’s impact on his children and wife.
Agent Orange (otherwise referred to as Herbicide Orange) was used by the U.S. military as part of its herbicidal warfare program, Operation Ranch Hand, during the Vietnam War. Consisting of extremely toxic compounds, Agent Orange has been tied to increased rates of cancer (especially aggressive prostate cancer), and nerve, digestive, skin, and respiratory disorders.
At the time, Herb and the other Soldiers were told the chemicals were harmless. “We were sprayed like they were sprayed,” Herb says. “We weren’t told any more about it than the Vietnamese were. We were told it was a bug spray.”
His daughter, Karen, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis on her 21st birthday. Now 42, she relies on a cane to walk and the right side of her face is numb. In 2015, she was also diagnosed with trigeminal neuralgia.
Herb’s son, Mike, has also faced medical challenges. Since infancy, Mike has dealt with bronchitis and allergies. Married now with two children of his own, Herb’s grandchildren are also paying the price of his time in service.
“We were used as guinea pigs,” Herb says. “Agent Orange hurt me, and I can live with that—but it never should have hurt my family. My children and grandchildren are paying the consequences, and they don’t deserve it. It just rips me apart. It is deplorable that our government would knowingly put us in this predicament and, to this day, continue to protect the chemical companies (Monsanto and Dow). ”
Raising awareness about toxic exposure
Herb uses his experience to bring national attention to toxic exposure issues. As Past Chair of the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) Agent Orange Committee, his mission is to fight for legislation that will appropriately address the emotional, medical, and financial needs of veterans and their families who live with the ramifications of toxic exposure.
“All veterans exposed to Agent Orange deserve the care and compensation they have earned by their service to our nation,” explains Herb. “Our government must also take responsibility and care for the countless new, defenseless victims: our children and grandchildren, whose health and lives have been forever altered due to our service.”
A lifetime of advocacy
Even before his work related to Agent Orange, Herb was a staunch veterans’ advocate. He advises veterans to be their own personal advocates, to use the VA and its programs: “Get the resources and help you can that will help when you get older, because the journey is harder then,” Herb warns younger veterans.
He also devotes much of his time to veteran programs that provide post-war adjustment counseling and support. “It is very hard to go from a battlefield to Main Street U.S.A.,” he says. “Veterans don’t want to be babied or coddled, but they do need space and room. Be patient and give them time.”
Married nearly 48 years to his wife, Angela, Herb credits her support, love, and dedication for keeping him going. “She has been by my side through it all. She deserves everything.” While they have faced many hardships and challenges, Herb celebrates the blessings in their life. “We are still very lucky. We have two amazing kids and two beautiful grandkids.”
Herb Worthington is one strong individual who is determined to use his experiences to make a difference. Through town hall meetings, legislative testimony, news articles, and keynote addresses, he is telling his story in hopes of creating powerful change. Caring and unassuming—yet loyal and fierce—Herb does his part to ensure other veterans don’t have to experience what he has. He is a hero in every sense of the word.
“I don’t know what the future will bring,” Herb says. “I do know the aftermath of the war has consumed my life like no one can imagine. My family is paying the ultimate price, which destroys me. Therefore, l must take measures to spread awareness about the devastating implications millions of our nation’s heroes are faced with each day. I move forward for them. Each day, I make it my goal to help another veteran. And then I tell them to do the same. Vets help each other.”
Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA): vva.org
Vet Center Programs: www.vetcenter.va.gov
Veterans Administration National Center for PTSD: ptsd.va.gov