A Grim Irony Links Adm. Elmo Zumwalt to His Son's Cancer, but They've Closed Ranks to Battle Adversity

updated 09/29/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/29/1986 01:00AM

They were called "swift boats," lightweight cutters that patrolled the narrow, muddy rivers of Vietnam. But they weren't fast enough to escape the Vietcong ambushers who hid in the dense jungle that grew right down to the water's edge. Casualties among the U.S. Navy crews were disturbingly high, and when Vice Adm. Elmo Zumwalt Jr. took command of naval forces in Vietnam, he was determined to reduce the death toll. In 1968 he ordered increased spraying of inland waterways with a dioxin-laced herbicide called Agent Orange. Soon, the thick foliage had receded from the river banks, which seemed a godsend to the men in action, among them Zumwalt's own son Elmo III, then a 23-year-old swift-boat commander on the embattled Ca Mau Peninsula. He recalls feeling "thankful" for the defoliation program.

The younger Zumwalt developed an irritating skin rash at one point but didn't give it much thought. It was only a minor annoyance compared to the killing heat, swarming mosquitoes, teeming wharf rats, severe diarrhea and sudden firefights that made river patrol such dirty and dangerous duty. "After more than nine months as a swift-boat operator," Elmo III would later write, "I found I could cope with everything that had been thrown at me and still perform."

It was a lesson he would need to remember. A few years later, evidence began to mount that Agent Orange might be a slow poison, threatening not only the health of the Vietnam veterans but also, through their genes, that of the children they fathered.

In 1983, Elmo III, who had survived both polio and open-heart surgery as a child, learned that he had cancer. Several years earlier, his son, Elmo IV, born in 1977, was found to have a grave learning disability that would markedly slow the development of the loving, sunny child, known in the family as Russell.

It was around that time that Kathy Counselman Zumwalt, now 37, Elmo III's wife of 16 years, began to question her husband about his exposure to Agent Orange. Elmo III, who went from the Navy to law school and practices in Fayetteville, N.C., now writes, "I do not think I could prove in court, by the weight of the existing scientific evidence, that Agent Orange is the cause of all these medical problems." Nevertheless, he is convinced that it is. So is his father, Elmo Jr., who ordered the spraying. And that is the peculiarly American tragedy that the two men spin out in their recently published book, My Father, My Son (Macmillan, $18.95), co-authored with John Pekkanen.

It is not a book that lays blame or begs pity. "There are thousands who suffered in Vietnam and have suffered since," says the admiral, who retired from the Navy in 1974. "We have not been singled out for pain." Neither have they been spared. The Zumwalts are warriors, and nothing has tested their combative spirit more severely than the long ordeal since Elmo III first learned he had cancer.

He'd been dogged by a nasty cough all through the 1982 Christmas holidays and finally agreed to see a doctor. Tests revealed a type of lymphoma, a slow-moving, usually fatal cancer for which Elmo was advised to "Watch and wait." He investigated an experimental technique that genetically alters a patient's cells to fight disease, but he wasn't a suitable candidate. Two years later a repeat biopsy revealed that Elmo had not one cancer but two. He had developed Hodgkin's disease, a different form of lymphoma that spreads rapidly throughout the lymphatic system and demands immediate treatment.

The redoubled misfortune devastated the Zumwalt family. "I thought, this is it, this is really it," says Kathy. Usually stoic, she broke down after Elmo told her the bad news, "screaming and crying and pounding my fists."

Zumwalt immediatedly began a grueling, eight-drug, six-month chemotherapy regime at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. He made the 347-mile trip from Fayetteville three times a month, and despite weight loss and nausea managed to keep his law practice going. Yet the drugs failed to kill the cancer. Time, and choices, were running out.

Once again, Zumwalt elected an experimental procedure—one that involved a one-in-five risk of dying from the procedure itself. It promised, moreover, a level of physical suffering that would easily exceed the rigors of the river patrol. He would receive a transplant of healthy bone marrow from his sister Mouzetta, 28—the only suitable donor among his three siblings.

The entire family joined in Zumwalt's fight for life, moving with him to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Wash, for three months. Kathy resettled the two kids, Russell, now 9, and Maya, 11, in a furnished apartment near the hospital. The elder Zumwalt also was there. Famous during his four-year tenure as chief of Naval operations for an energetic, crusading command style, the admiral was content simply to be present for his son throughout the excruciating process. "We went into the center together, and we left together," says Elmo III of his father. "He knows instinctively when I need him, and I needed him then."

For 42 days Elmo was confined to a sealed, germ-free 8-foot by 10-foot cubicle, hooked up to every conceivable type of tube and catheter. His body, which became bloated and inflamed during the procedure, struggled to accommodate the healthy cells, drawn from Mouzetta's marrow, that could beat back the cancer. It was, says Zumwalt, now 40, "the worst torture concocted by man for humane reasons."

Even now, though Elmo III has been cancer-free for seven months, his doctors are not yet ready to declare the regimen a success. Reliable survival statistics for someone with his medical profile simply do not exist. Even if the cancer does not reappear, he could develop a possibly fatal reaction to the donor marrow. "He is in a very tenuous position," says John Nanfro, his doctor at Bethesda. "I can't play down that fact, but each passing day that he remains cancer-free is encouraging."

"My hope is that I can fight it out," says Elmo, who is determined to live to "see my children become independent." The financial security of his family has been a constant worry. He pressed his wife to begin a new career as an interior designer, and has also taken out two $100,000 insurance plans for the terminally ill. One policy will become fully effective in November, the other in January; he hopes not only to outlive those dates but also to postpone collection indefinitely.

The admiral, who since retiring from the Navy has lived with his wife, Mouza, in Arlington, Va. and works as a corporate consultant, remains on constant call. (Mouza, emotionally spent by her son's illness, will not speak about it publicly.) According to co-author Pekkanen, the two men "have the closest, most reinforcing relationship I've ever seen."

Yet Mouzetta will tell you that this bond is one forged in a simple love, not in any remorse or recriminations about their shared history. "Elmo has never come out and blamed Dad in any way. Dad has never come out and said, 'I'm to blame for Elmo's illness or for Russell's disability.' "

On the contrary, the two men, warriors still, seem in perfect agreement on the decision that has so blighted their lives. "I'm not sure if Agent Orange hadn't been sprayed that Elmo would have ever come home," says his father, who remains convinced that the defoliation saved "thousands of lives." The decision was "realistic and pragmatic," adds Elmo III. "I would have done the same thing." Like father, like son.

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