‘Classic and beautiful until the end’

Obituary by Natalie Storey at the Santa Fe New Mexican

Even as she lay on her deathbed, Joan Duffy Newberry, who was a nurse during the Vietnam War, plotted to help those whose lives were hurt by the chemical that ultimately took her life.

She wanted to get on the Oprah Winfrey Show, she told friends just before she died Friday. Her plan was to get the talk-show diva to help her raise money for deformed children she met during her travels back in Vietnam earlier this year. The children’s parents had been exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange during the war.

“She was a woman who saw a problem and never went away from it,” said Dotty Beatty, a longtime friend who, like Duffy, was a nurse in Vietnam. “She faced problems head-on.”

Duffy died at age 60 from cancer. Friends say the multiple cancers she had were caused by her exposure to Agent Orange more than 35 years ago.

Agent Orange, which got its name from the orange stripes on the barrels it was stored in, was used in Vietnam between 1961 and 1971, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. More than 19 million gallons were used during the war to kill vegetation around U.S. military bases, because the foliage provided cover for the North Vietnamese Army. The hospital where Duffy and Beatty were stationed from 1969 to 1970, Cam Ranh Bay, was sprayed twice a day with Agent Orange, Beatty said.

In a speech in 2004, Duffy recalled, “While I was (in Vietnam) I was too busy to notice that I never heard a bird sing. And, in fact, the only living things I remember seeing (other than people) were roaches.”

In 1978, after the VA established that a dioxin found in Agent Orange caused deformities in lab animals, it set up a health registry for veterans who had been exposed to the chemical. Agent Orange was subsequently linked to a number of cancers in humans, including those that affect the reproductive organs and soft tissues, and birth defects among children of those who had been exposed to the chemical. Liver and kidney damage, a painful skin condition called cloracne and sensory impairment disorders are considered to be linked to Agent Orange exposure by the VA.

Duffy fought a long fight to get Agent Orange recognized as a poison, and during her 25 years of activism she testified in front of Congress and spoke across the United States. She was also a member of the Santa Fe Chapter of Veterans for Peace, which is now named in her honor.

Three of Duffy’s closest friends in Vietnam, also nurses, have been diagnosed with cancers linked to Agent Orange, Beatty said. Duffy’s grandson was born with an intestinal birth defect that is also linked to the chemical.

Duffy was diagnosed with breast cancer eight years ago and most recently battled ovarian cancer. She continued to argue that the United States should clean up the mess it left in Vietnam.

“Her biggest concern was that this not be passed onto others,” Beatty said. “That there is a way to clean it up, that it is not that expensive. I think she felt that it was very inhumane, that we had the technology to clean it up but not the will.”

Tim Origer, a Vietnam veteran who knew Duffy, said her speeches about Agent Orange often moved audiences to tears. “Her concern for other people — it never stopped,” he said. “She was classic and beautiful until the end. She was incredible.”

Featured image photos: LEFT: Joan Duffy at home in Santa Fe with four of her five dogs, one of which she says is a “foster dog.” Duffy returned to Vietnam to speak about Agent Orange at a conference at the end of March. Duffy served as a military nurse for one year in Vietnam during the war there. RIGHT: Joan Duffy, a National Board member of VAORRC, received the Medal of Friendship from Vietnam, presented by Do Le Chau (back left), of the Vietnam-USA Society, and a book of messages and pictures from friends in Vietnam and the U.S. by Merle Ratner (right) on October 30, 2006 in Santa Fe. Front left is her daughter Claire.