Chicago post screens, raises awareness for Hep C

When Jim Atkins was being sent to Vietnam, he was told to stand in a line with other troops so that a military doctor could "shoot" each of them in the shoulder with an air gun that gave vaccinations.

"They just went down the line and 'bam, bam, bam.' They shot each of us in the shoulder," Atkins said. "Then they'd tell you you to turn, and then they'd give you a shot of some sort of other medicine in the other shoulder."

Almost 50 years later, that archaic immunization process is causing a host of problems for veterans from Atkins' era. Chief among them is the Hepatitis C virus, which one in five Vietnam veterans carry due to the Vietnam-era military's discipline for mass-administering vaccinations and doing blood work.

On May 28, Argo Summit Post 735 in Chicago hosted a free Hepatitis C screening event targeting those Vietnam veterans, and veterans of all eras, who carry the virus at an estimated one in 10 rate, which is disproportionately higher than the 1-percent infection rate for the United States' general population.

Doctors from the Department of Veterans Affairs were on hand to administer tests and review results with attendees. And support was provided by The American Legion's national headquarters and the organization's Department of Illinois.

Around 100 veterans attended the event and received a free screening and counseling in the event of a positive test. Many of them, like Bob Grember - a Vietnam vet from Darien, Ill. - had never heard about Hepatitis C's prevalence among veterans prior to the event.

"I didn't know about it until I got the card in the mail for this," Grember said. "I was surprised that, after all these years, we weren't notified earlier. For all the guys that did serve, I guess we don't know what the heck we were exposed to over the years."

Magnifying the problem is the fact that the Hepatitis C virus can lie dormant in a person's body without showing symptoms for decades, then emerge to cause liver fibrosis and cirrhosis. This exacerbates the need to raise awareness of the issue among Vietnam veterans who are now 40 and 50 years removed from their service, said Past National Commander Marty Conatser, who helped coordinate the event.

"It’s somewhat a forgotten issue," said Conatser, a Vietnam veteran. "A lot of Vietnam veterans can have Hep C and either be misdiagnosed or never diagnosed, and have this chronic nausea and other things they can never explain. Now, not only is Hep C pretty much curable, but it is surely controllable so that they can have a good life."

The event is also trying to overcome ambivalence among Vietnam veterans and veterans of all eras who may not be keen to participate in things like free health screenings, said Paul W. Gardner, senior vice commander of the Department of Illinois.

"Vietnam veterans and other veterans don't really participate in these kinds of things unless they are pushed out the door," Gardner said. "You’ve got homeless veterans, and a lot of them are from the Vietnam era or Vietnam veterans. These type of events are really meant to get them out there and help them, and all other veterans."

Conatser says that the Department of Illinois, and other facets of the Legion and its partners, have plans to host similar events in the near future.

These events aim not only to provide health assistance to veterans, but also to raise awareness among veterans like Atkins, who says that he wasn't aware at all of the Hep C problem prior to receiving an email about the event.

"I think this (event) is fantastic. I can't even beging to put it in words," Atkins said. " I didn’t realize what this was all about, and being a servicemember who went overseas, and beginning to hear more about it, I thought I better get my carcass down here to The American Legion. They’ve just done a heck of a job. They got me here."