By John Stiles


The Vietnam War has claimed yet another casualty. Oh, there won’t be any "The President of the United States regrets" form letters in the mail, and the death certificate won’t bear any tell-tale descriptions of bullet and/or shrapnel wounds. And about the only scars worth noting will be those left by scalpels that were made necessary in the battle against the cancer that ended up winning in the end. And don’t look for his name on that long black granite wall on the Washington Mall. It won’t be there either.

But Ken Sweeney, 56, most recently of the Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown, and formerly of Cedar Rapids and up until three years ago the desk that faces mine in this newsroom in Dubuque, was killed by that war as surely as if an AK-47 had shot him between the eyes and he’d been sent home in one of those aluminum, two-piece coffins 30-some odd years back.

You see Ken, who served a tour of duty in Southeast Asia with the U.S. Air Force, succumbed to the effects of a weapon that was forged right here in the nation that sent him off to that war – Agent Orange.

And no doubt, it will continue to kill and maim God-knows-how-many-more probably until there are none of us left to kill.

I am proud to say that Ken Sweeney was a friend of mine. And any failings in that relationship were, I am ashamed to admit, entirely my own. In the three years since Ken was diagnosed with Melanoma and the disease started to ravage his body from the tip of his tailbone, I had tried, not hard enough I am afraid, to keep in touch with him. However, it would be much more truthful to say that it was really Ken who tried to keep in touch with me.

He was a little more than a year younger than I, and we shared both Vietnam and several decades in this business together. A month ago Ken was, with the good offices of a Veterans’ Home chaplain, scheduled to come to town. And he called to ask if I might be able to take him to the Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, which he had yet to see, as well as his obligatory visit to the Dubuque Greyhound Park & Casino. Ken loved to play the dogs and he was pretty damn good at picking winners. Well, as it turned out, I got sick the night before he was to arrive and his ride also crapped out, so we made a promise to get together in Marshalltown real soon.

That’s the way it was far too many times in our more than four-year acquaintance. And I’m afraid that many of those excuses that we all have for not keeping such friendships as close as they should be, were just that, excuses.

I guess it won’t do the relationship any harm now to confess that his illness and most especially his most recent quarters in Marshalltown left me more than just a little uneasy.

I never liked hospitals and I’ve found that I like veterans‚ hospitals, which I equate with places where former warriors are warehoused waiting to die, even less.

I’d always make a date to stop and see him every time I was headed to central Iowa to visit my youngest daughter. But, on too many of those occasions I’d either spend just a few fleeting minutes or simply beg off all together with what must have seemed to him like a plethora of very flimsy excuses.

Unfortunately, Ken will never get to see the Mississippi River Museum and he‘s placed his last wager at the $2 window at the greyhound park. I am sure that considering all he’s been through Ken Sweeney is probably much better off, not having to exist by himself in the few square feet of a room on the second floor of a place that always smelled of medication and bedpans.

And, on the upside I won’t have to make any more excuses. But, I’d give anything to be able to take a few of them back right now. So long, Buddy.