Pittsfield veteran suffers from Parkinson's linked to Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam

Paula and Harold Byrdy in 2018. Harold Byrdy, a former psychiatrist, is suffering from Parkinson’s disease caused by exposure to Agent Orange while on duty in Vietnam and receives nursing care at the Northampton Veterans Affairs Medical Center. For much of this year, he and his wife were not able to visit, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

PITTSFIELD — No one would have ever known he is a veteran. Among the crowd at the Memorial Day ceremony at Pittsfield Cemetery, he wears no uniform, no hat, no decorations.

But what Harold Byrdy does have is a wheelchair. In it he sits quietly, and he is quiet because of what happened to him in Vietnam when he was stationed at An Khe, where American troops had built an air base in the central highlands.

As people leave the cemetery, his wife, Paula Byrdy, sticks close to her husband and tells the story of how a body and a brilliant mind were torn asunder by Parkinson's disease as a result of exposure to Agent Orange.

"It's not only the dead who were killed in Vietnam," she said, noting that many veterans of that war returned with a host of diseases. "We're lucky he wasn't killed, but 50 years later, he suffers still the effects."

The U.S. used the tactical chemical from 1962 to 1971 to defoliate Vietnamese jungles and destroy enemy crops. About 20 million gallons of herbicides were sprayed by American planes over a large swath of the country. Agent Orange was named for the orange stripe that girdled the barrels of what was a dioxin-laden chemical made by Dow Chemical and Monsanto, among other companies.

Damage from the chemical is thought to have had a vast reach into generations of Vietnamese families and those of American veterans.

At the time, company officials had made assurances that the chemical was safe for humans, but now, a half-century later, the U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs presumes the chemical to be the cause of Parkinson's and gives generous disability benefits, said Paula Byrdy. She said she is grateful for benefits that have made it possible for her husband to stay in his home and receive good medical care.

Both Byrdys, who now live in Lanesborough, are Pittsfield natives and attended Pittsfield High School. Harold Byrdy, 81, went to Williams College and got a medical degree from John Hopkins University School of Medicine. In 1965 he was drafted, just after completing his residency in psychiatry, heading to Vietnam with the first 44,000 troops.

Byrdy returned to the states and began his career as a psychiatrist at Valley Forge General Hospital, then an army hospital. After his discharge, the couple moved back to the Berkshires, and he continued his career here for 30 years.

But memory loss was the first sign that something was amiss.

"They didn't know the effects," said Paula Byrdy, 83, who said in the 1970s and '80s veterans were beginning to reveal signs of this and other illnesses.

Byrdy said her husband isn't alone.

"There are still veterans in our community, here in the Berkshires, who many years after the war are still suffering."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.