Deceased Vietnam vet to get recognition at wall

Thursday, April 11, 2002

PROUD CAPE FAMILY

By Mark Bliss ~ Southeast Missourian

What the Viet Cong couldn't do to Roger Flynn East, Agent Orange finally did.

Now, three years after his death, the former Cape Girardeau man will be honored as a casualty of war in a ceremony Monday at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington.

His parents, Dorothy and J.J. East Jr. of Cape Girardeau, say they're glad their son, who died at the age of 46, will be recognized for his sacrifice.

Kyle East, one of Roger's three sons and a punter on the Southeast Missouri State University football team, will read his father's name at the ceremony. Doing so, he said, will be a lot harder than kicking a football.

"He is a hero for sure, especially for us," Kyle East said.

Dorothy and J.J. East refuse to be bitter about their son's death, although they say the toxic chemical used by the United States to defoliate the jungles of Vietnam caused the throat cancer that killed him. Still, they say Roger didn't blame the federal government when he was dying. They don't either.

Joining the Army

Roger East graduated from Cape Girardeau Central High School in 1970 and joined the Army at 18 to fight in Vietnam. He arrived in Saigon in January 1971 and served on helicopter gunships as crew chief and gunner, mostly close to the Cambodian border.

He returned home in February 1972 having seen his share of combat.

He joined the Missouri National Guard, serving with the 1140th Engineering Battalion and the 135th Engineering Group headquartered at the armory in Cape Girardeau. He worked his way up to the rank of major and managed the Guard's weekend training site at Wappapello, Mo., from February 1998 until his death.

Roger East lived near Paducah, Ky., with his wife, Pam, and their sons for the last dozen years of his life. He worked as a pharmaceutical salesman and as a coach of the Lone Oak, Ky., High School football team.

He died at a Paducah hospital on Jan. 11, 1999. It came 27 years after returning home from the Vietnam War as a decorated soldier. He had a Bronze Star for bravery in combat, among other medals. He helped rescue two wounded soldiers during a skirmish with the Viet Cong.

Dorothy East and her husband say they have come to terms with their son's death.

"We just decided this was God's plan," she said.

Canceled insurance

Dorothy East said the throat cancer surfaced in 1997, shortly after her son canceled his cancer insurance because he thought Agent Orange-related cancer wouldn't show up more than 25 years after his tour of duty in Vietnam.

East continued to serve in the National Guard even as he battled the cancer, undergoing treatment at a Houston hospital.

When he died, there was no posthumous medal, just a brief mention of his service to his country in a newspaper obituary. His name wasn't etched on the Vietnam memorial wall because he didn't die in combat.

But East and 53 other Vietnam veterans who died after exposure to Agent Orange will be recognized at the fourth annual "In Memory Day," scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday at the memorial wall.

East's parents, wife and children will attend the ceremony, which is expected to draw more than 500 family members and friends of the honorees.

"We are anxious to go and honor him," said his mother.

"He would be proud of it," J.J. East said of his son.

But Dorothy East said her son would have been even prouder of the other honorees.

"He was not a selfish person."

Bert Wells, chief warrant officer for the Missouri National Guard's 1140th Engineering Battalion, welcomed the ceremony.

East and others deserve to be honored as casualties of war, he said. "He was just a super individual," said Wells, who served with East in the National Guard. "He was highly respected."

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, a non-profit group, has recognized nearly 800 deceased veterans of the Vietnam War since it began holding the ceremonies in 1999. The honorees all died from illnesses or suicides said to be related to their tours of duty in Vietnam.

Even though the federal government hasn't officially attributed the death of East and others to Agent Orange, the evidence is enough for many veterans' families and their supporters.

East was nominated by a nephew, Jeremy East of Lee's Summit, Mo., who wanted to see him recognized for having given his life for his country.

Dorothy East said the family has contributed photographs and other personal items that will be placed in the National Park Service archives.

Organizers said the annual ceremony is held on April 15 to coincide with Patriots Day, which commemorates the battles of Lexington and Concord at the start of the Revolutionary War.

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

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