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The enemy on the inside: Veteran searches for kidney after Agent Orange exposure


Chuck Winer holds a magazine he created for the Army's First Aviation Brigade. (WJAR)
Chuck Winer holds a magazine he created for the Army's First Aviation Brigade. (WJAR)
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"This was what they called a naval gunfire mission," Chuck Winer said, turning pages of a magazine.

At 23, Winer, originally from Medford, Massachusetts, was among the 2.2 million American men drafted into the military. At the time, he was attending a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin. By 1970, he was flying thousands of feet above the Mekong Delta, taking photos as a combat correspondent and crafting monthly magazines for the Army's First Aviation Brigade.

"On the side, next to the door gunner, you're out there, feeling like Cecil B. DeMille or somebody," he said.

But the Vietnam War was a far cry from the silver screen. It was a long, divisive reality with lifelong consequences for service members and Vietnamese alike.

"The good news is it's exciting," Winer said. "The bad news is you can be exposed to Agent Orange, which I was."

The United State military used Agent Orange to clear leaves and vegetation mostly during the Vietnam War. The power herbicide contained the deadly chemical dioxin and was later proven to cause serious health issues.

That means decades after war, veterans are still fighting an enemy -- on the inside.

"When I was in my early forties, I got multiple myeloma," Winer said. "It was an incurable disease, still is an incurable disease. I was given about a year to live."

Multiple myeloma is a type of blood cancer. The Department of Veterans Affairs added it to its list of diseases believed to be caused by Agent Orange in 2016, long after Winer went into remission.

The treatment that helped Winer beat the odds -- an experimental bone marrow transplant, chemotherapy and radiation -- wreaked havoc on his already-weakened kidneys.

"I really need a kidney donor to survive," he said.

Winer, 75, is searching for a compatible kidney from a living donor.

"I'm trying to avoid now having to go on dialysis and I don't want to live my life tethered to a machine," he said.

Dr. Katherine Richman, medical director at the Providence VA hemodialysis center and Section Chief of Nephrology, said veterans

"It varies very, very widely depending on the person. No matter how I answer that, I would never make a prediction for a veteran," Richman said. "They are very hearty, they come through a lot. For every one time someone has done worse than I thought they would do, there are ten who do better than I expect they would. I think the average, if you had to quote, is four to seven years."

According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, about 2,000 veterans are awaiting life-saving kidney transplant at either a VA or military hospital, with many more at private medical centers.

"You would think we would have a cure for this," Richman said. "We don't. But we can do a lot to keep it from getting worse, to slow the progression of the disease."

Although a 2011 VA study found links between the herbicide and renal failure, kidney disease is not among the list of presumptive conditions. Veterans can, however, qualify for a secondary service connection for their kidney disease if they have type two diabetes.

"For some, that's been connected to Agent Orange experience," Richman said. "Most have diabetes because it's very common."

According to the Veterans Health Administration, roughly one quarter of veterans have diabetes. Richman said living a healthy lifestyle and regularly checking in with primary care physicians are crucial in preventing the blood sugar disorder and kidney disease.

Winer, now living in Newton, has always lived an active lifestyle, and is fighting fatigue caused by his health battle to maintain that.

He and his wife created a website, Kidney4Chuck.com, in an attempt to reach people around New England and the country.

"When I tell people I'm a vet, they thank me for my service and I have to say that wasn't the case when we came home in 1970, or 71," he said. "Nobody ever thanked me and now I go in and they ask me what they can do. I ask them to spread the word about my website."

For Winer, a new kidney would mean a world of possibilities. A bucket-list item is to get out to the coast again.

According to Brigham and Women's Hospital, a matching donor can expect a several-hour surgery and possibly two days in the hospital.

"You'll still be a healthy person but you'll also have saved a person's life. I think it's important to demystify what it means to be a donor," Winer said.

Winer is also working with Living Kidney Donations for Veterans, which helps match donors with those in need.

To find out if you are a match, register to donate here. Potential donors will be asked to answer a series of health questions and will later be contacted by the hospital's transplant center.

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