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Vietnam veteran from Sterling honored at memorial in Washington

by Danielle Ray

On June 20, longtime Sterling resident and 3-year Army veteran Frank Eley was honored for his service posthumously at a memorial ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. His widow Mary Eley, son Frank Eley Jr. and his wife Kristen Gerante, grandson Frank Eley III, daughter Sarah Orabone and her husband Dr. Joshua Orabone, and niece LaFonda Eley attended the event and helped to call out Frank’s name during the ceremony.

Eley served two tours during the Vietnam War and was a sergeant when he was honorably discharged in 1971. He met Mary in 1977 while they were both employed at Digital Equipment Corporation in Maynard. The couple married in September 1981 and moved to Sterling in 1983.

Early in 1990, Frank began experiencing back pain and, in August, was diagnosed with Stage IV advanced prostate cancer at the age of 42.

“This wasn’t normal and the doctors at the time didn’t understand how it was possible,” says Mary Eley. Eventually, it came to light that Frank’s cancer was the result of exposure to Agent Orange in a battle zone.

Initially, he responded well to hormone and radiation treatments, but suffered long-term complications following radiation treatment he underwent in 1990 and 1991. He was disabled in 1994, and was forced to leave his position at Digital, a job he loved. The last five years of his life were especially difficult, plagued with rapidly declining health as a result of the earlier treatments. Following a difficult 23-year battle, he succumbed to cancer on June 14, 2013.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Frank was born on Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, and was rushed to the hospital on D-Day, June 6, and died on Flag Day, June 14,” says his widow. “Frank loved to fly the flag and was a true American patriot. He gave his life for this country.”

In October 2013, son Frank Eley Jr. met with then Sterling Veteran’s Services Officer Richard Sheppard to aid the family in filing a claim with the Veteran’s Association (VA) that would formally acknowledge the role Agent Orange played in Frank’s death.

“We were told the process could be difficult and a long ordeal, possibly lasting several years,” recalls Mary Eley. “Richard [Sheppard] was very helpful and told us if we sent in a fully developed claim it may take a lot less time.”

Eley Jr. completed the VA paperwork and submitted it in November 2013 along with 23 years’ worth of his father’s medical records from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. On March 15, 2014, the family was notified that the VA agreed that Frank’s cancer was the result of Agent Orange exposure.

“We were surprised and thrilled,” says Mary. “I received the letter [from the VA] the day before my birthday. I felt it was a gift from Frank.”

The family was invited to attend the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) ceremony to honor Frank and several other veterans. “The VVMF did an outstanding job for us and all the families,” says Mary. “They had excellent speakers that talked about the sacrifices of Vietnam veterans, those killed and missing in action, and those that came home to fight health battles, and their families.

“The most emotional part was hearing families call out their loved one’s name and then going to the wall to lay the tribute plaque that will go into the VVMF archives. The plaques will be rotated in the VVMF Education Center in Washington, D.C., when it’s completed.”

Mary says the program, which was held on Father’s Day, was particularly moving as sons and daughters of Vietnam veterans who never met their fathers attended the ceremony.

“I know Frank would not have asked for this honor but he deserved it, and it’s very healing for our family to know that his 23-year journey, having to give up a great career and losing his quality of life year after year, will be remembered by his country and all those that knew and loved him,” she says.

Eley’s family members are trying to heal in different ways. Frank Jr. and his wife were expecting a child when Frank died.

“When we found out that we were having a son, it was very important to me to name him after my dad,” says Frank Jr. “One of the hardest things was knowing that my dad would never meet his grandson. Naming him after my dad made us feel like there would always be a connection between my dad and my son. As my son grows up, I’ll tell him about his grandfather.

“I want to be able to take him back to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and explain to him the sacrifices my dad made by serving his country. I hope that one day he’ll be able to appreciate that sacrifice and be proud of who his grandfather was.”

Mary says she would urge other families of veterans who are dealing with health issues to get the help they deserve and that is available.

“Frank never did that during his lifetime but looking back, we could have,” she said.

If you have a loved one who served in Vietnam and died of a disease known to be related to Agent Orange, visit benefits.va.gov/COMPENSATION/resources_comp03.asp to see if you are eligible for Dependency Indemnity Compensation (DIC) benefits.

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