Several articles have been written about the impact David Benbow has had on Korean Veterans, and his efforts to help them receive the benefits they deserve. Below is a reprint from an article in VFW Magazine, and an article about a special to air on the History channel, from the DMZ.
DAVID BENBOW SPEAKS AT MITCHELL COMMUNITY COLLEGE
He helped convince the Veterans Administration to add those veterans to the national Agent Orange registry and formed a veterans organization that now numbers 550 nationwide.
Now, Benbow's voice will be heard in a documentary on his tour of duty. That documentary, "The History of the Korean DMZ," will air on the History Channel in December or January.
Recently, the director of the documentary, Michael Slee, asked Benbow and four other Korean veterans to return to the DMZ to film interviews.
For Benbow, a well-known Statesville attorney and father of five, it was a step back in time. From Sept. 30 to Oct. 9, he slept in Army barracks, sometimes ate Army food and went for days without a shower. He also relived a couple of experiences from his tour of duty.
Slee was particularly interested in documenting a night in the summer of 1968 when a North Korean soldier tried to dig under the fence in front of a position Benbow was occupying, and a second incident in which a friend of Benbow's, Michael Rymarczuk, was killed and three other GIs wounded during a firefight with North Koreans.
Standing along the DMZ again left Benbow feeling more than a little apprehensive. "I was out there with no weapon and without my Army buddies," he said. "Frankly, I was really uncomfortable."
The area appeared to have changed little since his days as a young soldier. "The smells and the insect sounds are the same, and the loudspeakers were still blasting. I think they were playing North Korean propaganda."
One thing was markedly different, he said. "No one was getting shot."
In fact, the message Benbow hopes to convey through the documentary and his activism in the veterans organization is that American soldiers were being killed in Korea in the late 1960s.
Benbow tells their stories with exacting detail, citing names and places from 1967, 1968 and 1969.
He talks about the patrol in which Rymarczuk died. "I was not along that night, but it has stayed with me," he said. He described the sight of the tracers going off in the distance. "I realized the guys were in a vicious firefight," he said.
And he talks about an incident in which two GIs were killed long after he left Korea. Called the Poplar Tree at the DMZ, a group of American soldiers were attacked on Aug. 18, 1976, by a North Korean patrol while they were trying to trim a poplar tree that was blocking their view of a strategic bridge - The Bridge of No Return near the DMZ.
These are the stories Benbow wants told, in order to illuminate the dangers soldiers were - and still are - facing in Korea.
"Most of the attention was on Vietnam, and most people do not realize how dangerous the situation was in Korea at that time," he said.
In 1968, 16 Americas were killed in action in Korea and another 51 wounded.
"That pales in comparison to what was going on in Vietnam, but if you were one of those guys in the DMZ, it was a dangerous place," he said.
"I am convinced the North Koreans were seeing how far they could push us," he said.
During his return to Korea, Benbow had the chance to talk with soldiers serving with his old division - the 2nd Infantry Division. He said he was impressed with the young men and women serving in Korea. "They are very highly motivated and highly educated," he said.
He also took the opportunity to talk and visit with as many of the citizens of the area as he could.
"I love the Korean people. They are wonderful, wonderful friends," he said. And he said he believes South Korea is American's strongest ally. "They are a tremendous economic power. They have really risen out of the rubble of 1953," he said.
That's one of the reasons Benbow chose to participate in the documentary - to show the strength of the Korean people. But he also chose to participate to remind people of the sacrifices made by American soldiers in Korea, long after the official Korean conflict ended in 1953.
"I feel a real sense of responsibility to tell these stories. I'm not just telling my own story, I'm telling all of their stories," he said.
AGENT ORANGE DEFOLIATED KOREA'S DMZ
By John L. Davis
In 1968-69, during the "Second Korean War," 59,000 gallons of three toxic chemicals defoliated nearly 21,000 acres of the DMZ. For vets of the U.S. 2nd and 7th Infantry divisions, the recent U.S. government acknowledgment is a major breakthrough. It is said you can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake. Events transpiring on the Korean Peninsula some 30 years ago add credence to that old adage. An investigation by the South Korean government into reports
|"We also filled our canteens and water cans from a spring at the base of a defoliated guard post called 'Gladys.' Agent Orange had to have washed down the hill and into our water supply." -C. David Benbow||U.S. troops sprayed Agent Orange along the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ) three decades ago has raised questions about possible contamination of American servicemen who also served on that hostile border. Citing declassified U.S. Department of Defense documents, Korean officials fear thousands of its soldiers may have come into contact with the deadly defoliant in the late 1960s and early 1970s. According to one top government official, as many as "30,000 Korean veterans are suffering from illness related to their exposure."|
Orange along the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ) three decades ago has raised questions about possible contamination of American servicemen who also served on that hostile border. Citing declassified U.S. Department of Defense documents, Korean officials fear thousands of its soldiers may have come into contact with the deadly defoliant in the late 1960s and early 1970s. According to one top government official, as many as "30,000 Korean veterans are suffering from illness related to their exposure."
The exact number of GIs who may have been exposed is unknown. But C. David Benbow, a North Carolina attorney who served as a sergeant with Co. C, 3rd Bn., 23rd Inf. Regt., 2nd Div., along the DMZ in 1968-69, estimates as many as "4,000 soldiers at any given time" could have been affected.
Benbow, a life member of Post 2031 in Statesville, N.C., is spearheading a campaign to publicize the use of the defoliant in South Korea. He bases his estimate on "the number of GIs who received hostile fire pay" while serving between 1968 and 1973. "Hostile fire pay began on April 2, 1968, for soldiers serving north of the Imjin River," Benbow explained. "And it ended on Sept. 1, 1973. These 4,000 soldiers [out of the 50,000 serving at any given time in Korea] should be the focal point for determining the rate of exposure." The region was on heightened alert due to the continuing war in Vietnam and the seizure of the USS Pueblo by North Korean forces, Benbow said. According to a Pentagon spokesman, the total number of soldiers serving "North of the Imjin River" during the period in question "[probably] did not exceed 20,000."
'Widespread' Herbecide Use Previously, the U.S. government had said Agent Orange was used only in Vietnam. But a recent television report by the Seoul Broadcasting System quoted from the Defense Department documents: "American troops stationed in South Korea spread more than 21,000 gallons of toxic defoliants along the border in 1968 and 1969." At a Pentagon briefing, Rear Adm. Craig Quigley said the U.S. military "researched the matter" as a result of the South Korean media reports. "[But] there is no evidence of an effort to cover up use of Agent Orange in Korea," Quigley stated. Its use was not classified but "just had fallen off people's scopes for a long period of time."
There was "widespread knowledge" of the use of herbicides in Korea at the time, Quigley added. "Along with involvement of the U.S. secretary of state and comparable South Korean officials." Regardless of the claims and counter-claims, evidence of existence of the previously classified documents has been around for more than a decade. Denver Combs, director of the Montgomery County Veterans Service Center in Kettering, Ohio, cited the documents in a Jan. 11, 1989, newspaper column.
"[Recently released documents] clearly substantiates that Agent Orange was also applied in Korea as early as 1968," Combs wrote. "[Agent Orange] was used primarily along the DMZ where over 12,000 of our men were assigned."
According to Combs, the chemical was used "to keep the area on either side of the 18.5-mile barrier clear of vegetation."
The report first came to light through the persistence of Richard D. Morrow, a former 2nd Infantry Division soldier who also "walked the perimeter" during the early 1970s. Upon returning to the states, Morrow began to develop classic symptoms of Agent Orange exposure. "After [Morrow] fought to get the documents released," Benbow said, "he stayed with it until Congress passed the Agent Orange Act of 1991." Essentially, because of Morrow's efforts, Benbow added, "The legislation allows for service members stationed outside of Vietnam to apply for VA disability benefits."
According to the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), service members who served along the Korean DMZ during the late 1960s and early 1970s are covered under the 1991 Agent Orange Act. For veterans who served elsewhere on the peninsula, eligibility for benefits will be determined on a case-by-case basis. Special legislation would have to be enacted for "blanket coverage," VBA says.
In the intervening years, Combs, Benbow, Morrow and others have worked to bring the story to the public's attention. Mostly, however, it remained a back-burner topic until the Korean media broke it last November. Benbow thinks it's about time. "An old Army buddy of mine, Jimmy Fleenor, often commented that he remembered being on patrol [along the DMZ] and walking through head-high vegetation dripping with defoliant and diesel fuel," Benbow said. "He told me how his clothes were soaked from the defoliant even though it hadn't rained for days. It's stories like this that have kept me motivated to try to do the right thing."
Benbow, an "Admin. NCO," who also "walked patrol and served in the foxholes [along the DMZ]," remembers seeing Korean troops and service workers using "hand-applied sprayers" to clear away the thick foliage in the no-man's land separating North from South Korea.
"Every night of the 16 months I spent in Korea, GIs were sitting in foxholes along the barrier fence and the area was totally devoid of vegetation," Benbow said. "We also filled our canteens and water cans from a spring at the base of a defoliated guard post called 'Gladys.' Agent Orange had to have washed down the hill and into our water supply."
VA DECISION CRUCIAL
A March 12, 1999, ruling by VA's Board of Appeals served to bolster Benbow's claims. Citing the 1991 legislation, the Board awarded full VA benefits to a former "Camp Casey soldier" suffering from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (a cancer widely associated with Agent Orange exposure).
Linkage of the disease with exposure to Agent Orange in Korea marked a major milestone for Benbow and his fellow veterans. "Taken [in context] with release of the documents, there is no doubt that our suspicions were right all along," Benbow said. "[We] are not doing this for anything other than fairness."
JOHN L. DAVIS, a VFW life member, is a Virginia based free-lance writer.