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Florida Voices: Vietnam Veterans | Lorne Lister, Navy, 1968 to 1969

Lorne Lister arrived back in the United States from serving in the Navy in Vietnam in 1969. He thought he had left the experience behind him, until a trip to the doctor’s office in 1992 revealed multiple malignant tumors on his prostate — an effect of his exposure to Agent Orange while in country. He underwent successful surgery and has lived another 25 happy years at his home in Ocklawaha, where our conversation took place on Aug. 16, 2017.

My name is Lorne Lister. I was born on the first day of May 1945 in St. John, New Brunswick, Canada. I immigrated to the US in 1964, joined my parents who had left Canada and came to Boston. They came down in May and I always jokingly tell people I flew into Boston airport, 19 years old, a twice failed 12th-grade student at St. John High School, and I had $25 in my pocket and a canceled plane ticket. I never want to forget that. I sit here frequently and look around and think to myself, ‘Ya know buddy you've come a long long way from that.’ My dad was a bus driver.

What is your educational background?

It stopped in 12th grade… I did some night classes in Orlando at Seminole College in Valencia. I think somewhere I've got the record from Valencia College and they credited me with 35 hours just based on my military service and so on and so forth.

My education efforts got disrupted. One of the bad things that occurred while I was in the military: It started when I was in Brooklyn, New York, when I first come out of boot camp. I went to Brooklyn. I was in Flushing Ave, downtown Brooklyn right at the waterfront where the old ship yard was. I went through about an 8 or 9-year period of excessive drinking. Almost killed myself but when I got to Orlando in 1973, I got sober and just 13 days ago I celebrated 44 years of sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous. I don't make a big deal about that. There's a lot of people that I know that don't have any idea, but that's what happened.

When did you first hear about a conflict in Vietnam? Do you remember was it before you became a citizen in the US?

I think the thing I remember most about Vietnam was the Kent State incident. I mean that war started about 1966, really, but it really didn't get going, well it started even before that, we had advisors there. But it was about ‘66 that it really got going. The Navy was looking for ‘volunteers’ to go, and I was in Brooklyn. I was coming off a little less than two years there, and I volunteered. The Navy had what they called B211 RVN desk in the bureau. I called them and talked to a guy and he told me to send a letter because as a personnel administrator, there weren't any combat things for us to do, but needed people that could be in these odd bases and what not.

So they gave me a choice I could either go to Da Nang or I could go to Cam Ranh Bay. I had never heard of Cam Ranh Bay. I always tell people I remember I decided I didn't really want to go to Vietnam I didn’t want to be that much of a hero. Ha. One of the jokes that was running around with the grave humor that the military has for us, the question was what sound does a bullet make when it bounces off a metal helmet and the answer was ‘Da Nang.’ About a month after I got to Cam Ranh Bay, I found out what an inbound mortar sounds like and I still remember to this day, we had about five of them lobbed on to the base at 11 o’clock night. Then I was there when the Tet Offensive started in January and February and March, where we were on the base. Because of that big beach that was there they had nets they used to string across the opening to that beach and there would be 3 or 4 of the swift boats out there patrolling to make sure nobody came in that way. I don't think they ever captured too many whoever's that launched the mortars at us, but other than that it was really a pretty calm environment.

I mean, we had to go through all the drills. When the sirens went off for us to man whatever battle stations, I had to go with a chief postal clerk. I had a radio to carry on my back and an M-14. We sat on the beach looking out over the water watching to see if there was anybody coming in that way. So, ya know, actual combat I have no recollection of it.

What were your actual dates, if you can recall, in country?

I got there the first day of September 1968 and I left on the 22nd of August 1969… I flew back into Seattle and ya know, I don't want to dispute what other veterans have said about being spit on and whatnot, but I did not see any of that. In 1969 when I came back we flew back in civilian clothes… I hopped from Seatle to Chicago to Boston. Got into Boston at 1:30 in the morning and I thought was going to be the end of my thoughts and reminiscences and whatnot about Vietnam.

In 1992, I don't remember what the occasion was. I was having some pain in my back, and I went to see a urologist in Orlando. Within two weeks he diagnosed that I had prostate cancer. I was 46 years old and he said, ‘I don't want to wait.’ He sent me over and they did an MRI and a PET Scan. He got them back and he went in, he had the ability to do minor surgeries right where he was. It was a medical group of 8 urologists. All of whom by the way used to be on the adjunct faculty at UF, the medical school. But this doctor went in and did the biopsy and he said, ‘I found three that are definitely malignant.’ My wife and I went over to see him and he said I wasn't to talk to about some things that are going to happen. First off, he said, ‘I'm not going to recommend radiation, nothing.’ I said ‘No, my father's having a problem with that. They radiated his and it came back and it ended up it killed him.’ He said ‘I'm not going to talk about any of that. You are too young. I want to go in and remove the prostate right now.’ So he did. He told me later when they got it out they found 4 more tumors on the backside. He said "If we hadn't taken that out, eight or nine months... I was off for about three weeks. I got over it and he told the both of us: ‘I need you to understand, this surgery, there will be no more children. I cannot talk at length about impotency because I don't know.’ But he said, ‘that's the only downside.’ My dear wife looked at him very calmly and quietly and said, ‘Doctor, I want him alive.’ Twenty-five years later, I am still alive. unfortunately, I lost her (my first wife) two and a half years ago but this lady (my fiancée) came into my life. I tell people all the time, I am the luckiest guy in the world.

When I think of where I was and out of 20 years, I was on ships for about seen years, two aviation squadrons, a year in Vietnam. I don't regret having gone to Vietnam because I think we were there with good intentions but I think near the end we just couldn't bring ourselves to admit that we'd made a mistake. We couldn't solve this problem. Twenty years after it all ended and I am sitting here today and one of our biggest trading partners is the nation of Vietnam. I think that for me I don't spend a lot of time back there thinking what was, what could have been. I have a blind friend to tells me all the time ‘I don't know how you do it.’ I said ‘What?' He said, ‘You weren't a citizen, you go to a war we are in and he said 25 years later you find out that they used Agent Orange around you.’

The Agent Orange thing bothers me because I know they knew what the hell they were doing. I have a whole album of letters that I have written over the years to the Navy Times, The Star Banner, and I've got a whole bunch of things my brother-in-law in Canada sent me. One of the things Americans don't understand because nobody talks about it was well before Vietnam when they first came up with Agent Orange. They tested it at the Canadian Forces base in Gagetown, New Brunswick because they had foliage and what not and I said they had how many thousand acres in Maine to use. I quite frankly somebody knew somewhere what this stuff was. That never came out until a brigadier general in the Canadian army who was in Gagetown when they sprayed that stuff, retired and died within 3 months of his retirement with prostate cancer. So I think they knew.

Did you draw an immediate line after your diagnosis back to Agent Orange or was it subsequently after?

The VA did. I told them my father had prostate cancer. They said no, having had it discovered at 46, the urologist told me you are one of 5 percent, rarely do they find it in anybody under the age of 50. What is interesting is the rates are much higher for blacks and Hispanics than they are for white males. It happened, OK? Did I lose something? I don't know. We weren't going to have any more children, my wife and I had one daughter and as a result of a very very hard pregnancy. We were not kids, I was 34 when we got married and she was 30. She had a very hard pregnancy, the doctors suggested she not have any more children. So she had a tubal and we resigned ourselves to the fact that one was what we were going to have. I lost my wife on the 15th of February. 2015. My daughter and her now husband were in West Lafayette, Indiana. Both going to Perdue and they decided that they were going to come down here and get married in December of 95. Not only was I the father of the bride I was the mother of the bride and I was here all alone and I arranged everything. The catering, the whole thing. They got married. Her husband is a teacher. He got his bachelor’s, now he is getting a masters in education. He wants to be a school teacher. He has just signed a contract with the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship Foundation and the STEM education. They paid for his Master's degree and he will start teaching in September at a high school in a little town just north of West Lafayette. He is going to be an environmental science and physics teacher for two years. They are not going to stay there.

Were you aware of being exposed to Agent Orange when you were in country?

They said that was where they sprayed Agent Orange. So where did I come in contact with it? I don't know.

I wasn't aware of it but I can go back and look. This town in Nha Trang is about 40 kilometers north of Cam Ranh Bay and when we went up there we had a construction mobile battalion unit that was in Cam Rahn and they did all of the construction. Their personnel man went up to Mha Trang because he had some people up there and we went up with him in a jeep and I remember driving just north of Cam Rahn Bay. There was a massive grove and the dirt road wound around but it came out for about 5 miles right along the coastline. You could see the water even though you were about a quarter of a mile inland because all along this road there was nothing. Everything was gone. They said that was where they sprayed Agent Orange. So where did I come in contact with it? I don't know. The VA told me that it really didn't matter. There were so many ways that that stuff got spread around. SO when I applied to the VA, they told me that I was 20 percent disabled as a result of it, now I am getting medical care from the VA, who are just magnificent.

So you didn't have quite the fight that others seem to get?

Oh, no. They came out and urged people to apply because it was a court case that was won back in the ‘90s and I don't even remember how long I have been going to the VA. I know I was still working and I quit working when I was 62. It's been probably 12 to 14 years ago that they had a court case that was won and they decided anybody that was in country Vietnam between this date and this date was considered to have come in contact with Agent Orange and those who came down with prostate cancer and there is a bunch, Hodgkins and they have even linked Parkinson's to it also. The list of things... and my daughter is on the Agent Orange registry because they can't quite figure out why when she was born, she wasn't born with ovaries and she also has a little minor crack in the spinal column that the good folks at Shands looked at. The doctor said that it was sealing over but that could also be tied to the Agent Orange. So she is on the Agent Orange registry so that if anything when I am gone, anything comes up, the VA will take care of her too.

You mentioned those 4 mortars that you heard coming in, did you have other initial contacts with the enemy?

No. We never saw anybody or anything. Well, I guess that the base was laid out....

The barracks were all open on the sides because we didn't have air conditioning which made it warm and sweaty.

Hear more stories from this series, "Florida Voices: Vietnam Veterans"

How does their climate compare to ours?

Theirs is much more.... We had hills. The hills to the south of us. When you look behind us, mountains all around us. We had many of the comforts of home.

Cam Rahn Bay had the only deep-water harbor in South Vietnam. The piers we built are being used for most of their shipping.

Tell me the basics of the swift boats. You said they would patrol that one portion of the bay.

They were out along the coastline. They were wooden hull as opposed to being the metal hull boats that were used the PBRs and the riverine forces in the Mekong Delta and up around Da Nang. These were coastal vessels, for the most part. They were 80 feet long. They carried a crew of about five or six guys, a couple of gunners mates. They had a 50-caliber machine gun mounted on the bow and they were either a lieutenant JG or an Enson was the officer in charge. As opposed to the patrol boats with the riverine forces, they had mainly first class and chief petty officers because they were much smaller, but more heavily armed. We had a massive repair facility for the swift boats. They had a huge crane and they would bring these ships in and put these lines under them, raise them up, put them on a set of skids on railroad tracks and run them right into the repair facility. They would work on them, fix the hull if there were bullet casings or anything and then they would run them out and put them back in the water and the guys would be ready to go again.

We lost our repair officer and for the life of me, I cannot remember his name. But our administrator officer, Don France, he and this lieutenant were both limited duty officers, both former listed men, went to school and everything together. When Lieutenant France arrived, it was a big reunion between the two of them. They got a call one night that one of the swift boats was coming in pretty badly shot up and the lieutenant was in his jeep racing to the facility. You had to go through where we were and down a hill and around a curve. They figured he was in such a hurry to get there because he knew so many people and his jeep overturned and killed him. They had to ship his body back to the states. Lieutenant France was just... I mean the man was almost in tears. He was beginning to prepare the documentation and our chief went in and told him, sat down at the Lieutenant's desk and did it for him because his hands were just trembling, I mean he knew the guy for 20 years and then he was just gone. But that was the kind of man he was, he had to get there, make sure the guys were OK, that his men were getting ready to do what they had to do to get the boat back in the water again.

You did not know or John Kerry was not John Kerry (of U.S. Senate and Secretary of State fame) at the time? But it was after the fact that he came back and became part of the anti-war movement that he came on your radar?

No, not really. I knew him when he was a senator and was elected. I remembered and he talked about his service in Vietnam. I've always told people, ‘Those people alleged that he didn't earn the silver star and the bronze star. I am here to tell you, ‘I know that captain he worked for. He was one ruthless man. Nobody got anything from him that they didn't deserve.’ What really bothers me is the fact that I know he is still alive, and I was appalled at the fact that he did not come to John Kerry's defense. That was wrong. It was just after I came back that the real bad stuff started happening, the campuses and the kids saying, "Hell no, we won't go" and that sort of thing.

It's interesting how things change over the years. I always tell people, I have lived a whole lot longer than I ever thought I would. I can't live in the past, I have to live in today and that's what I try to do. I don't make a big deal about having been to Vietnam. I'm not a member of any veterans’ organization. Part of that is my alcoholism because there is too much booze, in many cases, affiliated with those organizations.

Was that exacerbated in country?

I'm one-half Irish, they don't call it the Irish virus for nothing. Ha! The guys said that God invented booze so that the Irish couldn't take over the world. I had my first drink when I was 16 and my last one when I was 28. We won't go into the DUIs and public intoxications and all that sort of stuff.

What haven't I asked about your personal experience there or American involvement as a whole that you think people should know?

I think they should know that not everything that our country and our government does is correct, but I think the thing that really caused the problem was when we blame the soldiers and the sailors and the airmen who went there for where we were. It wasn't their war either. It was a war that we declared war for whatever reason, and guys went.

They should not be blamed for the mistakes for those people in Congress and the White House and everywhere else. I think sometimes we have a hard time forgiving ourselves for our own mistakes…

I think the tragedy of the whole thing was those young draftees that got sent there. I had occasion last year when they had the Vietnam wall over in Dunnellon. I went down to see it. I had never seen it, and I kid you not, I stood there and I looked at those names, and then I came home and I read the statistics. The highest number of losses occurred in the age group of 18. was the highest number of deaths. I looked at that and I mean, I wanted to cry. 57,000 (American dead) I think it is? While I say I look at that and I want to cry, I am not angry at the people that got us involved and what not, I think they had good intentions and we know what road is paved with those good intentions.

Do I think they knew what Agent Orange was? Yeah, but what am I going to do about it now? Absolutely nothing.

I don't have time to be angry about things. This friend of mine, my blind buddy, said, ‘I would be so mad.’ I said ‘Do I think they knew what Agent Orange was? Yeah, but what am I going to do about it now? Absolutely nothing.’ I've had 25 years that I wouldn't have had had it not been for a great surgeon… Have I lost some things? Yeah, I sure did and when that lady over there died, I thought for sure, I was numb for two months. But now I got the other lady (my daughter) with the wonderful guy she married. Now I got another reason to live. Then this lady (my fiancée) came into my life. Why me? I don't deserve this, but here I sit.

I can wake up in the morning and be grumpy or I can wake up in the morning and say it's another day and what am I going to try to accomplish today, and that's my next effort. I'm going to contact the guys at the VA down here. They've got a heck of a psychologist. He helped me with my grief thing. I talked to him after (my first wife) Katherine passed away and he said ‘I think you're going to be alright, unlike many, you've got a program to go to. You'll do well.’ They are doing a big thing with alcohol abuse and drug abuse. I've got to call them and tell them if you ever need my help if there is anything I can ever do, I'm not an expert on anything. The only thing I've got is 44 years of experience. I've met an awful lot of drunks in my life…

You can look at all of these programs that you want to, but the only time-tested, experienced, proved way of getting sober is an organization called Alcoholics Anonymous. We’ve been doing it the same way since 1935, and I am just eternally grateful they were there. I wouldn't be here if it weren't for AA. I'd be dead. I know it.

How did you end up here 22 years ago? Career?

When I retired, we moved back to Orlando. My AA sponsor owned a mobile home park and we were living there. He got to the point where he couldn't do the stuff in the park, he was 69 and he had a heart thing. He died tragically of a massive heart attack over a weekend when his wife was away from home. She came home Sunday morning and found him dead. After that, my daughter was going to be starting middle school in 92. they told us when she came out of elementary school that she was probably going into 45 student classes in the middle school. We had found this spot. This lot and the one on this side, it was an old gent who bought that one. We found this place and we looked around and we liked it. The lady who owned these two was in trouble with the county. She had 5 lots and she had them on the market so I paid $5000 for the lot. THen we bought this home and put it on it and we moved up here July 25, 1995. Have been here ever since and I have no intention of going anywhere else. I tell people when I have to go to the VA hospital I always go up 441. I don't travel on 75 any more than I have to.....

I can't express to anybody my gratitude for my chosen country and the life that I've had.

Yeah, there's been calamities and tragedies but there had been a heck of a lot of wonderful things that I've seen and been able to do and places I've gone. I wouldn't change a day of it. I try to enjoy things as they are. Sometimes it's hard. I keep losing parts, I had another surgery 3 years ago, they took a cyst off my pancreas and they punched the holes to go in laparoscopically and I started oozing stuff. They opened me up 7 inches and cleaned my entire abdominal cavity out. THe doctor said what was in there could have killed me. The doctors said sometimes we don't understand why these cysts form. Now my problem is that because they took the head of the pancreas to take the cyst off, they also had to take the spleen because they share a common blood source, so now I've got them watching me for my red blood cell count and the other thing they are watching me is my sugar count because they are afraid of type 2 onset diabetes. That's another thing from Agent Orange. These kinds of things happen when you get older though. I look at men that are younger than me every day and their health has deteriorated more than mine. Uncle Arthur is driving me nuts.

This interview transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Ethan is the Managing Editor in the Innovation News Center, home to WUFT News.He is a Pennsylvania native who found a home reporting Florida's stories. Reach him by emailing emagoc@wuft.org or calling 352-294-1525.