by Deborah Morris, Newsday
Michael Ryan says his daughter Kerry is a Vietnam veteran, just like him.
“She belongs on the wall in Washington, D.C.,” he said yesterday. “She is a casualty of Vietnam the same as any man on there.” Kerry Ryan, 35, died Monday morning in her home in Boca Raton, Fla., of kidney failure after a life spent dealing with 22 major birth defects her family attributes to Agent Orange, a chemical used to defoliate the jungles of South Vietnam and Cambodia during the war. Kerry stood as an example of the herbicide’s alleged harm to veterans’ children.
The Ryan family became part of the national consciousness when they were the named party in a 1979 class-action lawsuit against Dow Chemical, a maker of Agent Orange.
“Kerry died because of my service to Vietnam, but it took her 35 years to die of her wounds,” said Ryan, who said he was exposed to dioxin, the contaminant in Agent Orange, during a 13-month tour in Vietnam starting in August 1966.
Ryan’s wife, Maureen, had an uneventful first pregnancy. But when Kerry was born in Brooklyn in 1971, she had a hole in her heart, two cervixes, no anus, a deformed right arm and spina bifida.
Maureen and Michael Ryan, then a new officer with the Suffolk County Police Department, took their newborn home to Kings Park, began a 35-year fight for truth and came to embody the open wounds of the Vietnam War after they went public with Kerry’s plight.
What had happened, according to Ryan and thousands of other veterans, was exposure to Agent Orange, which was used from 1961 to 1971.
“If you could prevent just one Kerry from being born, prevent some child from how she suffered, it was a success,” Ryan said. “It was important to stop it. It was wrong, what the government was doing. We had to get the message out.”
In 1982, Kerry’s parents wrote a book, “Kerry: Agent Orange and an American Family.”
The suit was settled in 1984 for $180 million, which funded support services for veterans’ offspring, but didn’t provide financial compensation. The Ryan family didn’t directly benefit from the accord.
Maureen Ryan, 55, died of pancreatic cancer in 2003.
Despite Kerry’s medical challenges – she also suffered brain damage as a 1-year-old after being overanesthetized during corrective surgery – Michael Ryan and Kerry’s aunt, Patty Stransky, said she was full of energy and taught them many lessons.
“She woke up every day happy to be alive,” said Ryan, who moved his family to Boca Raton, Fla., 11 years ago. “She touched thousands of people.”
Stransky added, “She knew she was shortchanged on life, yet this kid kept going and had a zest for life that was admirable.”
In addition to her father and aunt, Kerry is survived by a brother, Michael Ryan, of Boca Raton. Kerry will be cremated. A memorial will be held Sept. 23 at 1 p.m. at St. Joseph’s Church in Kings Park.