A ceremony to mark the 30th anniversary of California’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial will include the unveiling of a new name added to the memorial: James E. Williams, an Arvin High alumnus — and later a minister — who died 50 years after his tour of duty in Vietnam from complications believed to be connected to exposure to Agent Orange.
It's extraordinary when you think about it, said Larry Bramblett, president of the Sonora chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America, where Williams was a remote member. Williams didn't die of conventional wounds on the battlefield, Bramblett noted. He died slowly, over a period of decades, from a constellation of health problems that didn't leave bullet wounds, but were just as deadly.
"There should be a new Purple Heart just for the Agent Orange guys," Bramblett said.
The event, scheduled Saturday in Sacramento, will unveil three new names on the Memorial, including Williams, who grew up in Lamont and joined the Army in June 1966 at age 19. Spec. Williams, an infantryman, served all of 1967 and the beginning of 1968 in Vietnam, where he was awarded two Purple Hearts and numerous other citations for his service.
His wife of nearly five decades will attend Saturday's ceremony in the state capital.
"Finally, someone is acknowledging that Vietnam still causes death," said Nancy Lambert Williams, who met and was engaged to Jim Williams barely three weeks after he returned from Southeast Asia.
"It was love at first sight," she remembered. "He died four months short of our 50th wedding anniversary."
The end for Jim Williams came April 18 at a hospital in Bakersfield, after years of renal failure, dialysis, heart problems, the loss of part of his pancreas, diabetes, and the continuing and agonizing amputation of his left foot.
"My husband used to say, 'Vietnam: the war that keeps on giving,'" Nancy said.
But don't get the impression that theirs was a joyless marriage. On the contrary, two sons, four grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, years of shepherding church flocks where Williams ministered.
"I would never call him back," Nancy Williams said of her late husband. "But I'm so lonely without him."
The California Vietnam Veterans Memorial was first dedicated on December 10, 1988. It is one of the most visited of the 15 memorials in Capitol Park.
The names of 5,673 Californians are inscribed on the memorial’s granite walls. Of those, 120 were from Kern County, 55 from Bakersfield, according to Cathy Kenny, communications manager at the California Department of Veterans Affairs.
There is a list of conditions for inclusion on the Memorial, Kenny said.
One of them is a copy of the death certificate showing cause of death, which must be a result of injuries or illness suffered during military service in the Vietnam War, including those who have died as a result of exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange and not excluding those who have died due to PTSD.
"James Williams experienced a lot during his time in Vietnam," according to his obituary. "This double Purple Heart awardee had shrapnel wounds on several occasions and a deep injury from a punji pit," a booby trapped hole filled with sharpened bamboo sticks.
"He slept in monsoon rains with nothing but a poncho. He endured sweltering direct sun while creeping alongside endless fields of rice. He was pinned down and ate from a garbage dump; another time he ran out of water and drank rice paddy water. He had the emotional scars of being told non-stop he was to kill the enemy, then watched his comrades and the enemy fall on every side."
But all of those events led him to a life of service to God and to the communities in which he served.
"He was quite a guy," Bramblett said.
Unfortunately, he may have died from "friendly fire."
Millions of gallons of Agent Orange and similar defoliants were sprayed in Southeast Asia during the war.
"This isn't over," Bramblett said. "It's a long road ahead."