WARSAW — The day Rex Rife had been waiting for finally arrived Saturday morning at Oakwood Cemetery when he and other local military veterans and family came to honor those who have died or have been affected by Agent Orange.
On Saturday, Aug. 10, representatives of Kosciusko Honor & Remember dedicated a memorial to honor veterans and others who have suffered from Agent Orange or other types of chemical agents.
The memorial stands in the middle of the newest veterans circle near the front of the cemetery, a spot that will eventually become the final resting place for local veterans who served in the Vietnam era.
Kosciusko Honor & Remember, a local group that works to organize events to honor veterans, coordinated with the cemetery and American Legion Post 49, which owns the land used for the third veterans circle.
Those donating to support the project were McHatton-Sadler Funeral Chapel, Titus Funeral Home and Wilbert Burial Vault Co., of Akron.
Agent Orange was a herbicide that contained Dioxin, a deadly chemical. The government used it to clear brush and forests in Vietnam for ten years. Combined with other herbicides, the military spread about 20 million gallons of various herbicides over a ten-year period. An estimated 2.8 million Americans were exposed.
“We come to honor today, we come to remember. We place a reminder in this beautiful cemetery of the sacrifice of the American soldier, at times years after their service, dying from this friendly fire,” said Ken Locke, of Kosciusko Honor & Remember.
“Everyone who lost his life in Vietnam died there. Not everyone who came home from Vietnam ever left there,” Locke said.
Saturday’s ceremony included a Color Guard that performed taps and a 21-gun salute. A flag honoring Agent Orange victims was unveiled. Locke said it will be flown in the future on Aug. 10, which commemorates the date in 1961 in which the chemical was first used in Vietnam. It will also be available for funerals of those who have been affected.
Locke also read the names of 22 area people who have died from or were directly affected by Agent Orange.
One of those names was Rex Rife, an Army veteran who returned home from Vietnam in 1972 and was tested positive for Agent Orange about five years ago.
Locke said Rife had been urging him and others to create a memorial.
Rife said he loved the ceremony.
“I’ve lost a lot of friends that didn’t get recognized,” Rife said. “I just feel that something should be said for the ones who died after the war.”
Another of those remembered Saturday was Loren “Kenny” Collier, who died at 34 in 1980 from a brain tumor. His first child was born with a birth defect.
Collier was in college when he felt a desire to enlist with the Marines. When he returned, he became an attorney and a Kosciusko County Court Judge before he died.
Representing Collier was his wife at the time, Connie Hobson Collier Kerr, and Colier’s brother, Shawn Collier.
“I’m glad they’re getting some recognition for something they didn’t expect when they went over there,” Shawn Collier said.
“It was a beautiful ceremony,” he said.
Connie Hobson Collier Kerr said she didn’t support the war at the time, but mentions with some resentment that her husband was spit upon while wearing a military-style coat after returning home.
She expressed appreciation for the ceremony and the new tradition at Oakwood.
“It has a lot to do with Ken Locke,” she said. “I don’t think every cemetery does what they are doing. It’s very special.”
While the government was slow to recognize the impact of Agent Orange, there was no sense of lingering anger from some of the survivors who attended the ceremony.
“I don’t harbor any ill feelings,” Shawn Collier said.
In Locke’s address, he mentioned that extensive use of chemical warfare in American history dated back to World War I.
“Our government makes mistakes. It’s not perfect,” Locke said. “The nice thing is we can stand out here and talk about it. We don’t have to worry about somebody coming and throwing us in the clink for talking about it.”