They were the lucky ones who managed to make it home from Vietnam. Now, a half-century later, some veterans are finding out they, too, are victims of the war. The enemy is a known killer in parts of Asia: parasites ingested in raw or poorly cooked river fish, the AP reports. These liver flukes attach to the lining of the bile duct and, over time, cause inflammation and scarring. Decades after infection, a rare cancer called cholangiocarcinoma can develop. Symptoms typically don't occur until advanced stages. The head of post-deployment health services at the Department of Veterans Affairs says about 700 cholangiocarcinoma patients have passed through the agency's medical system in the past 15 years.
In some instances, the government has acknowledged the illness is "as likely as not" connected to veterans' time in service, which, by VA standards, is enough to make them eligible for benefits. Less than half of those 700 submitted claims, however, in part because they were unaware of any possible link to service. Of the claims submitted, 3 out of 4 have been rejected, according to data obtained by the AP. VA officials say while they're sympathetic, it's up to the men to prove the connection to their time in service. And so some veterans are spending their final days fighting the VA, saying they were never told they could be at risk, even though they were deployed to a region where the worms are endemic. "Hard to believe," says one 64-year-old veteran. "I dodged all those bullets, then get killed by a fish."