Vietnam Vet Killed by Hepatitis C Added to D.C. Memorial

The History

In the United States, the Vietnam War was considered very controversial while it was occurring. However, since the creation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to soldiers who died in that war, the memorial has been seen as a place of honor and respect. The names of those who lost their lives are etched into black granite walls in Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital. More than 58,000 service members are listed. Americans and others travel to this set of walls to pay respects to those they knew and to those they did not. The space is considered sacred.

In order for a soldier’s name to be included on the memorial wall, the person has to meet certain criteria. The general requirement is that the person died during the war due to combat injuries or through death within a combat zone. Many families have applied to get their loved one’s name included but were unsuccessful. Often, this is because the person died after the war or because they died in a manner that is not guaranteed to be due to the war such as deaths via illness or suicide. Most of the names that have been added to the memorial after its original creation are based on the finding of misplaced records, causing soldiers to have not been included in the first place, though they should have been.

This Individual

Jim McGough was an Army Specialist in 1971, where he was stationed near the Laotian border. When it came under fire, McGough’s body was hit by a nearby grenade. This caused significant injury, ripping apart his lower legs and his feet. In order to receive proper treatment, he was moved by medivac to Okinawa Japan. There, he went through numerous surgeries and a blood transfusion in order to survive. This left him unable to continue to serve, so McGough was sent home.

Twenty years later, he tested positive for hepatitis C. This virus was unknown until 1989, so it was not tested for previously, nor was the blood in McGough’s transfusion tested in 1971. Hepatitis C is a blood borne virus that is commonly contracted through infected needles via the use of IV drugs or receiving tattoos, neither of which had occurred in McGough’s life, so the doctors were able to determine the cause of the infection tied to his Okinawa surgeries and blood transfusion.

At that time, there were no good treatment options and McGough was showing no signs or symptoms of the virus, so he and his wife decided to not take the available treatment, which had horrific side effects and risks. It was not until other treatments such as interferon became available that McGough began to treat his virus, which by then had created permanent organ damage in his body. McGough died of the disease in 2014.

Before his death, McGough had visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and he asked his wife to get his name included, if he died of the hepatitis C he had contracted due to the war. After his passing, this looked impossible due to the strict rules for inclusion. However, the McGoughs happened to find a handwritten note from an Okinawa nurse, ordering the very blood transfusion that had resulted in the hepatitis C infection. This proved the virus was based on his service and it allowed McGough to qualify for veterans’ benefits. This same information was later used to bolster the McGough family claim that Jim McGough’s name be added to the Memorial. His name and seven other names were added in 2016.

Why It Matters

Before the McGough situation, those who decided whether to include a name on the memorial were basing their judgments on instant death during combat. Their requirement list prohibited those who were victims of PTSD, suicide, and exposure to Agent Orange, among other things, because they believed there was no way to verify the direct correlation between the illness and the Vietnam War. McGough’s inclusion now allows others in such situations with documentation to fight for their relative’s right to be included on a memorial meant to honor those who gave their lives for the war. US veterans are considered to be twice as likely to be living with hepatitis C as the average person, which means it is possible that there are more soldiers like McGough, whose exposure was a direct result of their time in the Vietnam war, who also deserve to be honored on the Memorial. It remains unknown whether other families have experienced similar situations with their soldiers and whether the Memorial will include additional names of those who died as a direct result of becoming infected with hepatitis C during their service.1-4

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