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Vietnam vet from R.I. still fighting, for his health and fellow soldiers

Dave Zielinski (Grey Whitly/Gatehouse Media)

Dave Zielinski woke before dawn for his first day of chemotherapy.

He’s 70 now and retired near New Bern, North Carolina, after a career as a Providence cop and lawyer and then U.S. investigator abroad.

But an earlier stint was more relevant to the leukemia he was about to be treated for.

His year fighting in Vietnam.

Zielinski had coffee, caught up with things back in Rhode Island by reading the Providence Journal online, and then he was off. It was late last February. His wife, Jeanne, drove him 10 minutes to the CCHC New Bern Cancer Care, where oncologist Dr. John Cho had diagnosed him.

Zielinski had been told his first chemo would take all day — the medicine is so harsh it has to go in slow.

He sat in one of the 20 or so reclining chairs in the treatment room with a calming view of a waterfall and pond through tall windows.

A nurse attached an infusion line to a port that had already been anchored in his chest. He’d been warned the first day is often the roughest.

Zielinski would say later: “It hit me like a Mack truck.”

He soon got chills and sweats and it went like that the whole time, from from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

But he knew the drugs were doing worse to the cancer.

It was the first of a dozen treatments he got over five months through last August, battling an enemy from a war he thought he’d left behind 50 years ago.

His leukemia was caused by Agent Orange.

That’s the official declaration of the Veterans Administration.

Zielinski would learn he’s part of a big group. Between 2002 and 2015, around 650,000 Vietnam vets were granted disability for Agent Orange illnesses, with the numbers only accelerating.

Leukemia is one of the big categories, but the VA has a long list, including Parkinson’s disease, prostate cancer, ischemic heart disease and even a form of diabetes.

If you develop those and served in Vietnam, it’s now assumed it was caused by Agent Orange, a powerful herbicide sprayed throughout the country to deny cover to the enemy.

But when Zielinski was diagnosed two years ago, he didn’t make the connection right away. That’s why he agreed to talk publicly about it — to let fellow soldiers know that if they get sick, they should explore it with the VA.

John David Zielinski is a classic American story — a high school dropout raised in the old Hartford Park Housing Project by a single mom who worked as a waitress. A poverty program got him a teen job as a police clerk.

Then, as he puts it, President Lyndon Johnson sent him “birthday greetings” from the draft board. In July of 1968, at 20 years old, he was in Vietnam as a combat infantryman.

It was a tough year, with dozens in his company wounded; Zielinski says he still carries a sense of brotherhood with those he fought beside.

He told me the war experience gave him the discipline to get a job as a Providence cop, rise to major and get his bachelor’s and law degrees on the side.

After 20 years on the force, he joined Secretary of State Susan Farmer’s office as legal counsel in 1985. Not long after, he was hired by the federal government as an inspector general with several agencies here and abroad. He was an internal watchdog looking for misconduct.

“If anybody knows anything about corruption,” Zielinski jokes, “it’s someone from Rhode Island.”

He retired in 2007, and he and Jeanne moved to North Carolina, where he found a diligent internist named Dr. Craig Zavelo always pushing him to get blood work done.

In late 2015, his labs came back with elevated white cells, so Zavelo referred him to a hematologist — Dr. John Cho, who was also an oncologist.

Still, Zielinski had no symptoms, and figured it was something like anemia.

But Cho did more advanced tests and then broke it to him.

Dave Zielinski had chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

The good news — since he remained healthy, there was no need for treatment.

But a year later, Zielinski began to feel lousy — no appetite or energy and swollen lymph nodes in his neck.

He began chemo.

But he never thought about Vietnam, because like many vets “treated as lepers” when they came home, he’d left the war behind mentally.

He puts it this way: “I hung my discharge dress greens and medals in a closet and moved on.”

Vietnam didn’t even go on his resumé outside the Police Department — he felt that would hurt more than help.

Zielinski later went back in the military when now-retired Col. Steve Kelley of the Rhode Island National Guard brought him in as a JAG officer — Judge Advocate General’s Corps.

“Here’s a kid who didn’t graduate high school,” Kelley told me, “but just kept pushing to improve himself.”

Still, Zielinski kept Vietnam in a box.

It was only after he told his family of his diagnosis that a 40ish nephew got him thinking about it.

“Hey Unc,” the nephew said, “if you got leukemia and were in Vietnam, you probably got an Agent Orange claim.”

Zielinski began to read up on it and thought, “I’ll be damned, he’s right.”

He went to his county veterans office, had papers signed by Dr. Cho, and they were shipped to the VA.

Zielinski was almost surprised at how automatic it was. Three months later, he was declared war-disabled and eligible for a $3,000-a-month tax-free benefit.

Dr. Cho told me he has other Vietnam vet patients with cancer and has no doubt Agent Orange is a likely factor.

He explained it’s no different than cancer from cigarettes or other toxic environmental exposures — it can take decades to play out.

“Having a fairly powerful chemical agent like Agent Orange causing this is not that surprising,” he said.

He expects that as Vietnam veterans age, he’ll see more cases.

Zielinski’s first round of chemo put his cancer into remission. But two months later, last October, his lymph nodes swelled again.

Cho started him on a second round of oral chemo, which has so far worked.

“My appetite hasn’t come back yet,” Zielinski jokes, “but I can’t get whole-belly fried clams down here anyway.”

Still, he knows it’s a tough fight, so I asked if he’s angry that his Vietnam service did this.

He wasn’t.

“I’m probably one of the luckiest bastards you’ll ever talk to,” he said. “My name is not on the wall in Washington with the other 50,000. I’ve had a couple of incredible careers — married to a great woman. And I never forget where I came from.”

So he encourages other vets to get checked, in the hope of catching possible Agent Orange illnesses early, like he did.

“It’s his desire to serve,” Kelley told me. “He’s a citizen veteran who wants to help others by creating awareness.”

Because of his diagnosis, Zielinski today thinks back to Vietnam more often.

Sometimes, he remembers being in foxholes there, enemy fire coming in.

“I was kept alive by my fellow soldiers,” he told me.

Fifty years later, he’s trying to return the favor.

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© 2018 The Providence Journal (Providence, R.I.)

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