Chuck Fenton and his crew chief, James
Have you ever heard of Operation Ranch Hand? How about Agent Orange? Of course. It was part of the U.S. military herbicidal warfare program during the Vietnam War from 1961-71. Its long-term effects have been battled by an untold number of veterans in their fight for VA benefits. Thankfully, for Chuck Fenton, it was a no-struggle victory.
Fenton grew up in Orondo, Wash., and lived on an apple and peach orchard with his mom, dad and older sister. He attended Eastmont High School in East Wenatchee. In October 1967, at 19, he joined the Army.
“My brother-in-law’s buddy was an Army recruiter,” Fenton said. “And he wanted me!”
After basic training in Fort Lewis, Wash., Fenton went through Advanced Individual Training at Fort Belvoir, Va. And then it was on to Vietnam as a combat engineer for Company 588. In May 1968, he headed to Vietnam and began duty as a combat engineer for Company 588.
Fenton arrived six months after the Tet Offensive, so a lot of equipment had been destroyed.
“We were on standby. There wasn’t a lot to do,” he said.
Fenton would sit with his crew and hear the helicopters fly overhead. When he asked about the aviation unit, he was told he would have to extend his enlistment an extra six months. And he did. As a result, Fenton was assigned to the 118th Assault Helicopter Company as a door gunner.
“We would go out every third day on a mission,” he said.
Fenton enjoyed the job and his buddies. His crew chief, James, was easy to work with, and they became fast friends.
“I loved it. It was exciting,” Fenton said. “You knew you were there helping the guys — picking them up. It felt like you were really doing something.”
Fenton came home to Orondo in December 1969 and worked with his dad in the orchard for the next 10 years. In 1980, he started his career with the Douglas County Fire District No. 2 as a firefighter and became Fire Chief in 2007. Fenton retired in 2012 after serving 32 years with the department.
Fenton kept in contact with his Army buddy, James, who was receiving VA benefits due to Agent Orange exposure. When Fenton mentioned he’d had some medical issues, James suggested — many times — filing a VA claim.
On Oct. 9, 2020, Fenton saw his primary doctor, a physician who had been an Army surgeon in Iraq and was all too familiar with chemical warfare. He referred Fenton to a neurologist on the spot. Fenton was diagnosed Oct. 21, 2020, with Parkinson’s disease.
Fenton’s daughter, Kelsey, immediately began the online process of filing a VA disability claim. She set up an ID.me account and spoke with the VA disability office on what paperwork should be submitted.
“I found the online filing process relatively easy,” Kelsey said. “But I’m somewhat computer savvy. The easiest way to upload the info was to take a picture with my phone. Then I emailed pictures of the diagnosis from the doctors to the VA.”
They submitted the claim Nov. 3, 2020, and it was approved Feb. 11, 2021. The first payment arrived five days later, including two months retroactive pay.
Fenton is a member of the Rathdrum American Legion and has been married to his lovely wife, Willynne, since 1987. They have two daughters, Kelsey and Amy, and four grandchildren.
The VA claims process can be scary, overwhelming and frustrating. Or not.
Kelsey was methodical and kept on top of requesting updates and submitting evidence timely. Fenton is very grateful for her help and thankful for his VA benefits.
Veterans need to be aware of the resources and benefits available to them. Get familiar with the Veterans Administration website. Take the time to browse. Search out specific topics. Get familiar with the local county service officer to ask questions or set up an appointment.
Does this sound like someone you know? Go to VA.gov for online applications and help.
Chuck Fenton and his crew chief, James