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Kingman's Villani still fighting almost half-century after leaving Vietnam
Luigi and Filomena Villani stand in the lush backyard of their Kingman home. Harmed by a chemical defoliant the U.S. Army used in Vietnam, Villani has turned the acre of property he and his family owned into an oasis in the desert.
4/29/2013 6:00:00 AM
By Doug McMurdo
KINGMAN - The Vietnam War divided the nation. It is called the only war the U.S. ever lost. More than 58,000 Americans died in the war and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese also perished.
For many who fought in that long-ago "police action," the war is still being waged.
In 1965, Luigi Villani was drafted into the United States Army, two years after he emigrated from Italy as an 18-year-old.
After boot camp and specialized training at Ft. Jackson, S.C., Ft. Dix, N.J. and Ft. Lewis, Washington, Villani was assigned to Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion of the 4th Infantry Division's 8th Infantry.
Next stop: Camp Holloway, Pleiku, Vietnam.
It was September 1966 and the legendary 4th Infantry, a unit that was created in WWI, conducted combat operations in the western Central Highlands that run along Vietnam's border with Cambodia.
Historic accounts of the region indicate Villani and his fellow soldiers experienced intense combat against regular forces with the North Vietnamese Army.
But it wasn't just determined, well-disciplined communist forces that were the enemy.
Our own military sprayed the jungles with a chemical herbicide known as Agent Orange, a toxic, deadly mix of dioxin and other poisons that did far more harm than defoliating the forests.
"Not only did we get sprayed with Agent Orange, we had no water supply so we drank water right from the fields," said Villani, who became an American citizen shortly after his tour of duty ended in 1967.
"They told us it was harmless. They gave us green tablets that were supposed to purify our water. They never told us the tablets killed the bacteria, but they didn't kill the chemicals."
The spray came from huge C-130 transport planes, helicopters and even from troops on the ground.
More than 20 million gallons of the deadly herbicide was sprayed from 1962 to 1971 in the ironically named Operation Ranch Hand.
Initially, Villani believed the spray was used to kill the millions of brown beetles that infested the jungle.
"They were everywhere and they were pests," he said.
The truth began to dawn on Villani and his fellow soldiers as soon as a helicopter dropped them in a newly defoliated jungle.
"When we moved, and it was always by helicopter, they would drop us off in the jungle and everything was burnt."
In the beginning, cloying jungle that Agent Orange turned into a broad-vista desert pleased the GIs.
"It was good," said Villani. "You could see the enemy better. They (the NVA) used to wipe out our entire company in just five minutes. One minute you're walking through the jungle, the next minute, they pop up all around you and start shooting. I watched my friends die.
"In the jungle, when we got action we lost people. So yes, Agent Orange was an improvement for us, but they forgot to tell us about the danger."
Hauling a mortar
Villani carried an M-16 rifle in the field and he also carried the M29, an 81 mm mortar that weighed nearly 100 pounds.
He and his platoon would spend about a month at a time in the jungle, seeking out an enemy that was adept at not being found. They would return to Pleiku for a few days to R&R, and then a helicopter would take them back to the jungle.
The U.S. had not yet entered Cambodia, and North Vietnamese troops would cross the border into Vietnam, conduct an ambush and run back.
"They had a lot of jungle," said Villani. "My biggest thing was, you wanted help but you had no authority. The rules were wrong. I know freedom has costs and I know we were sent there for a reason, but all the things you see over there, it makes you depressed."
He said it wasn't only Americans who committed barbarous acts, even by wartime standards.
Early in his tour, Villani saw how the enemy fought.
He said soldiers would conduct long-range reconnaissance patrols, nicknamed LERPS.
The point of the patrols was to move well into the jungle and spy on the enemy. The idea was to remain undetected and simply report the enemy's location.
"These guys, they got caught, but they didn't take them prisoner. They killed them and chopped off their hands. When they do stuff like that it makes you want to fight. You say, you guys want to fight? OK. We want to fight, too."
On another occasion, a young thief used a razor to cut a fellow soldier's pocket and steal his wallet. The blade cut deeply into the man's leg.
"He ran off so fast. They would have killed him, and they would have got in trouble," he said.
He spoke of the My Lai Massacre, easily the most notorious event of a war chock full of notoriety.
U.S. soldiers killed between 347 and 504 civilians, most who were women or children, in 1968, after Villani's tour ended.
The number of dead is conflicted because the lower count is the official U.S. Army's position. The higher number is what the Vietnamese government assigned.
The killings were for one reason: revenge. Booby traps had killed a number of soldiers and the frustration boiled over into the mass murder of civilians.
The Army covered up the incident for 18 months, but three soldiers who were there that day remained steadfast in their account of what happened.
"My Lai was brutal," said Villani. "It was brutal. No other word can describe it, but when you go into a war and your mind is weak, sometimes they can force you to do things."
He said troops with the Republic of Korea routinely committed massacres but never suffered consequences.
"I'm not justifying anything, but the South Koreans, if just one of their men got killed they'd destroy the entire village.
"You never heard about that, but if we did the smallest thing they called us baby killers. We were fighting the war nobody wanted."
Villani was luckier than most. A bullet fired by the enemy tore threw his uniform, leaving his skin unbroken.
He was injured by shrapnel in another firefight but came out of the rest scratch-free.
His family welcomed him back home to the upstate New York town of Westchester in August 1967.
Little did he know it, but Villani's war had just begun.
He could have collected unemployment. He could have stayed with his mom or one of his brothers until he was ready for life out of the jungles of Vietnam, but he went straight to work.
"I got home from Vietnam on a Thursday and I was at work on Monday," said the lifelong homebuilder who moved to Kingman with his wife, Filomena, and their three children in 1983.
He said the nation thinks it treats modern warriors better than it did those of his generation, but he sees through the car ribbons and the feel-good patriotism.
"Look at the people we sent to Iraq and Afghanistan," he said. "We give them praise and clap for them when they go over there, but when they come back and wind up on the streets we turn our back."
For Villani, who has spent the past 45 years fighting the government over its use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, frustration has given way to incredulity.
"Monsanto made billions and billions of dollars selling that poison to the government," he said, "now the government says they can't assume everything that's wrong with me was caused by the spray. They can't even tell me anything that's wrong with me was caused by Agent Orange."
From a medical standpoint, Agent Orange and the cancers and diseases it causes are also caused by exposure to other things, giving VA doctors a convenient excuse to do nothing for the men most affected.
Villani is convinced he and thousands of other troops were poisoned by Agent Orange. He's not looking for money. He's not looking for anyone to go to prison,
All he wants is for somebody in the government to stand up and acknowledge that using the defoliant in Vietnam was, at the least, a lapse in judgment.
Not only was the jungle deforested, a large part of Operation Ranch Hand focused on the tiny plots of land farmers in rural Vietnam used to grow crops.
The idea was to interrupt the North Vietnamese Army's food supply. Instead, hundreds of thousands of civilians starved or were forced to move to Saigon or some other city under American control.
Saigon, for instance, grew by about 6 million people during the Vietnam War. The vast majority of newcomers came from the countryside.
Now 68, Villani credits living this long with never having been a drinker or a smoker.
He's testified before legislative panels and he's been interviewed on radio. He's advocated for other soldiers afflicted by exposure to Agent Orange and he continues to reach out to veterans of all generations.
Through it all, the man who fought for his country before it was his country remains a patriot.
"The Army can be a good opportunity," he said. "I love this country and I know it's true when they say freedom isn't free. Freedom can cost a lot. For some, it can cost everything."
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