The tearful confession came as a complete surprise.
Dawn Piercy opened her door to find her father, Don Piercy, waiting for her. He told her he needed to speak to her — that he was dying from two types of heart disease. Doctors suspected his exposure to Agent Orange while serving in Vietnam was the reason.
“He dropped to his knees, and he had a tear in his eyes, and he kept repeating ‘I’m so sorry,’” Piercy said. “I couldn’t figure out why.”
The poison had altered his genes and was likely the cause of all of Dawn Piercy’s myriad health problems. She’s been diagnosed with congenital scoliosis in her neck that has manifested in her spine and had reconstructive surgery on her ankles, hands and back. Though she can walk with a cane, most of the time she uses a motorized chair.
She suffers mini-strokes that incapacitate her for days, among the more than 200 afflictions doctors have identified.
Now she’s learned that she has passed the mutated gene on to her son, Armondo. Though only 5 years old, Armondo already suffers from autism, asthma and convulsive fevers.
To help Dawn Piercy and her son get to the near-daily doctors appointments they need, the Greenwood Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5864 is hoping to raise $25,000 so they can purchase a wheelchair-accessible van.
If you go
What: An event to raise $25,000 for Greenwood resident Dawn Piercy and her son, Armondo. The hope is to help the family buy a wheelchair-accessible van.
When: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday
Where: Greenwood VFW Post 5864, 333 S. Washington St.
To honor the Piercy family’s Native American heritage, Eiteljorg Museum storyteller Teresa Webb will perform.
Stone and bone carvings, plus jewelry by artist Michael Sturgis
An American Indian Center booth
A display of military awards and recognitions for Donald Piercy, Dawn’s father and a longtime member of the Greenwood VFW.
Arts and crafts, games, food and face painting
How to help: Donations can be made at the Greenwood VFW c/o Dawn Piercy.
“She’s not that bitter type of person. It’s happened to her, and she has to deal with it, but she’s not going to let it hold her or her son back,” said Joan Clarey, who helped organize the fundraiser.
Throughout Piercy’s Greenwood apartment are reminders of her father’s service. A letter from President Obama awarding Don Piercy with a Bronze Star is framed and hanging on the wall.
She keeps a letter from Richard Nixon that came from his original Bronze Star in a scrapbook. An American flag, preserved in a triangular case, rests on her writing desk.
Photographs and mementos line the walls.
“This man taught me how to crack walnuts with my bare hands, in case I was ever stuck in the brush,” Dawn Piercy said, laughing. “He was awesome. He was fun.”
While she was growing up, Don Piercy never spoke about his service. She never knew about his awards and commendations.
The fact that he refused to discuss certain times of his life perplexed his family.
“To me, he was just my dad. I had no idea why I couldn’t talk about this or that,” Dawn Piercy said.
Don Piercy was a commanding officer in Vietnam, responsible for laying communication lines through the jungle. The job put him in the direct path of crop dusting planes that dropped loads of Agent Orange on the vegetation below.
Often, he would inhale the herbicide as he worked in a cloud of poison.
“Agent Orange was a chemical weapon. It’s noted as such in the 1969 Congressional papers,” said Kelly Derricks, co-founder of Children of Vietnam Veterans Health Alliance.
The group works nationwide to bring awareness and justice to the children of Vietnam veterans who have been affected by exposure to Agent Orange.
The military used the powerful herbicide during nine years in Southeast Asia, clearing the forests of cover for the enemy. Only toward the end of the U.S. involvement in the war did concerns arise about the danger of the herbicide in humans.
The chemical is stored in fatty tissue and mutates the sperm of those exposed to it.
Researchers have found nearly 800 medical conditions that result from the exposure to Agent Orange, Derricks said. Those effects were passed down to the children of soldiers, and new studies show that it carries over to the third generation.
“We’re 50 years into our fathers being exposed. Every day we have people dying,” Derricks said. “Our bodies are so much more, at such a greater risk, because our immune systems are basically dead.”
Piercy’s dermatologist, Dr. Ryan Brashear, confirmed that she had a gene mutation. It was discovered after Piercy exhibited signs that her own body was producing toxins that decayed the skin in her legs.
She suffers from osteoporosis and has broken nearly every bone from her toes to fingers to collarbones, according to Dr. Richard Jackson, her orthopedic surgeon at Greenwood Orthopaedics. Apnea prevents her from sleeping normally. At night, she sleeps with a device that forces air into her lungs.
A condition called cataplexy inflames her nerves and causes muscle spasms. The spasms are intense enough to pull the discs of her back out of place.
Her legs started giving out on her, causing her to fall down stairs or collapse while working. At 14, she had to have reconstructive surgery on her knees and ankles.
Congenital deformity in her legs causes her knees to be off center and on the outsides of each leg. Her femur bones are twisted and curved, almost like a cats.
No one else in her family has been sick, besides she and her father.
“I’ve been in and out of traction since I was 9 years old,” she said. “This is all I’ve ever known.”
Piercy was told that she would never be able to have children, so that fact that Armondo was even born she considers a miracle. Only after his birth did she learn that she carried a mutated gene caused by Agent Orange, and that gene has been passed on to Armondo.
She has since had a tubal ligation to prevent further pregnancies.
An entire room in Dawn Piercy’s apartment has been set aside as a medical room. It holds braces for her legs and feet, a device to keep her hip in place, and another to stretch her ribs and back correctly.
A whole cabinet is filled with medications. One side is for her. The other is for Armondo.
“This is what’s keeping me alive,” she said, tearing up. “This is what’s keeping my son alive. This is what war does.”
Though autistic, Armondo has shown advanced intelligence for his age. He’s been accepted to the program at Cornerstone Autism Center in Greenwood, which can help him cope with his disabilities and learn more effectively.
In order to get him there, though, Piercy needs a handicap-accessible van so she can take them both.
“This is a do or don’t thing. I want my son to grow up to be a functioning, successful member of society. It has to start now,” she said.
Don Piercy died in 2012. At the time of his death, he suffered from several tumors throughout his body, prostate cancer, Parkinson’s disease, type II diabetes, kidney failure and heart disease.
He was a longtime member of the Greenwood VFW, so it made sense for the group to assist in a fundraiser to help his daughter and grandson.
Clarey, a Medicare insurance agent, met Dawn Piercy two years ago as a client. But soon, they forged a friendship.
“You know how people come into your lives and you can’t get them out of your mind? She was one of them,” Clarey said.
They stayed in regular contact, and as Clarey heard about the difficulty she was having simply getting to the doctor, proposed a fundraiser to help her buy a wheelchair-accessible van.
They approached the VFW, who agreed to help.
“That’s the biggest thing that she needs, a way to get around. She’s slowly losing the ability to do that, so I want to let her do that while she still can,” Clarey said.
Despite the hardships she had dealt with in her life, Piercy has tried to wring as much fulfillment from her life as she can. For more than 20 years, she has been a poet. She used to have a daily blog, but the deformity of her hands means she can’t type anymore.
She has an idea for a science fiction series. The main character would be a woman such as herself who doubles as a super hero.
“I try to capture the beauty in life,” she said. “I want to show (Armondo) that no matter what we go through, that’s not what matters. What matters is to find the beauty in the world around you.”