The house is filled with pristinely arranged piles of useful clutter. The rooms are so full of intricate trinkets that the walls that make them are barely visible. Every inch of space around the perimeter of each room is filled with so many different random objects that, despite their stark material differences, they all seem to blend together like the random cohesion of a Kandinsky print.
Sitting in one of the only average objects in the house, a run-of-the-mill armchair covered in turquoise, Southwestern-print fabric is Jayne St. Myer. In every corner, on every wall, even under the glass of the coffee table that runs perpendicular to her legs are reminders of her husband, Rich.
Richard Schneider, incredibly active in life despite living with an amputated leg, the result of a battle wound, died on April 27 of an even more deadly consequence of war that did not surface until over thirty years after he was in battle; cancer caused by exposure to Agent Orange.
Richard Schneider was only 18 when he entered the military in 1968, intending to help his country out of the rut it had fallen into with the conflict in Vietnam.
“He got into the military basically because he thought it was the right thing to do,” said St. Myer, Schneider’s third wife, who decided to keep her maiden name.
During one of his first tours in Vietnam, Schneider was shot in the back. The wound was not fatal and Schneider was awarded a Purple Heart for his courage after he reentered the fighting in early 1969.
During his time in Vietnam, like many other soldiers, Schneider was literally doused with the harsh defoliant Agent Orange.
“Imagine thick, dense jungle – that was the type of vegetation in Vietnam and, in order to make the terrain less dangerous, the U.S. just dumped this stuff (Agent Orange) over the jungle,” St. Myer’s said. “That stuff turns everything brown and dead. If it can do that to those plant cells, just think what it will do to the human body.”
U.S. forces reportedly used 19 million gallons of Agent Orange in Vietnam between the early 1960s and 1971, according to Lewis Publishing Company, owners of The Veteran’s Book and Video Store in New Jersey.
The herbicide, a fifty-fifty mix of two chemicals – 2-4-d and 2-4-5-t, both acids – that were mixed with kerosene or diesel fuel then air-dropped to thin-out the Vietnamese jungle, has been linked with a number of health problems including diabetes and several forms of cancer. The health complications, however, were not directly apparent after troops were exposed to Agent Orange. Many symptoms did not occur until much later, due to the chemicals having a toxicity latency of over 20 years, according to the World Association of Persons with Disabilities.
Schneider’s exposure to Agent Orange during battle would come back to haunt, and eventually kill him, thirty years later, but for most of his life the only disability he suffered was a lost limb.
Two weeks before his 19th birthday, a fellow soldier in Schneider’s platoon stepped on a “Bouncing Betty,” better known as a wired grenade. Schneider, who walked into the blast, lost a leg and was rendered useless on the battlefield. His misfortune earned him a second Purple Heart and a trip out of Vietnam. By the time he turned 19, Schneider was already a disabled veteran with two Purple Hearts and only one good leg.
“That was an ugly war,” said St. Myer who, though having not yet met Schneider, had still lived through Vietnam. “That was the mentality. These kids were just fodder.”
Nevertheless, when Schneider returned home, he never let his disability slow him down.
“The words, ‘I can’t,’ were never in his vocabulary,” said St. Myer, who went on to point out that the room she was sitting in, the landscaping in the backyard and nearly all the fixtures in the house were made by Schneider during the twenty years he had lived there. “He never let his disability stop him.”
Schneider lived with a prosthesis on one of his legs and, according to his wife, it was a tool that he almost constantly had to replace due to his active lifestyle.
Despite not being stopped by his leg injury and always keeping busy on any number of countless projects that make up what was his living place, Schneider’s most severe war wound finally caught up to him in 2001, thirty years after he had left the service. The cancer – Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma with Richter’s Transformation – which would eventually lead to his death was the only war wound he could not overcome and it was the only one where he was awarded no Purple Heart.
“Everyone in that war came back dead in one way or another, whether it was literal or not; people are still dying of war-related injuries,” St. Myer said.
Schneider fought his cancer for just over a year, never giving up on life. During December of 2002, he had to stay in a hospital for 12 weeks and was then released for five weeks before being readmitted. According to St. Myer, doctors were impressed with Schneider’s will to live and said, “he was a Marine to the end.”
On what would be his deathbed, it was Schneider who was the last to give up saying, in some of his last words, “it ain’t over yet.”
Nevertheless, Schneider had fought his final battle with the remnants of his time in Vietnam and he died on April 27, at University of Colorado Hospital in Denver.
Now, surrounded by the half-built bar, the almost-finished skylights, and a collection of unused scrap-metal, St. Myer is surrounded by the unfinished work of a life cut short.
Her husband’s death at age 53 has opened the eyes of Jayne St. Myer to the seemingly endless horrors of war, and now, in a time where war has become popularized once again, she seeks to spread her husband’s experience.
“War doesn’t just end because three weeks after it starts someone blows the whistle and says its over,” said St. Myer, who pointed out that on CSU’s campus there is a bridge just west of the student center that is called the Vietnam Memorial Bridge and honors not only soldiers but peace protesters who gave their lives for their basic freedoms.
“I want people to know why that bridge exists; I want people to know that my husband gave his life for civil liberties and I want people to know that many people (from the Vietnam era) continue to lose their lives for this cause.”
This Saturday, St. Myer will be holding a memorial for her husband at the Vietnam Memorial Bridge on campus. The public is allowed to attend to commemorate the life of Richard Schneider and all others who have died and continue to suffer at the hands of past wars.