Steve Fiscus spent his last years scouring medical research, visiting congressional offices and posting in online forums, urging anyone to listen to his concern: He and others who had served in Vietnam were coming down with Parkinson’s disease.
Fiscus, who died Nov. 7 at age 69, wasn’t a doctor. But he knew something was wrong — and he ended up being instrumental in getting the federal government to realize it and provide benefits to thousands of veterans.
He was a north Minneapolis kid who married his high school sweetheart, found work as a machinist and got his draft notice the day before his wedding. He spent a year in the jungles of Vietnam, where the U.S. military poured a chemical known as Agent Orange out of planes to kill off the heavy foliage. Three decades after he came home, he started dragging his feet when he walked. His body shook. A doctor only had to spend a few minutes with him to come up with a diagnosis.
Fiscus filed a claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs, which had acknowledged that other health conditions could be linked to Agent Orange. It was denied. Frustrated, he took to the Internet to reach out to his fellow veterans.
“He was determined he was going to find out why he got Parkinson’s,” said his wife of 50 years, Patricia Fiscus. “When he got it, he started researching and found out why, and he put out a feeler for other veterans to come and help him.”
On website after website, Fiscus posted the same message: “To date, the VA fails to recognize Parkinson’s as a military service-connected disability resulting from Agent Orange exposure. There, however, appears to be a substantial number of Vietnam vets who have early-onset Parkinson’s disease and the percentage affected appears higher than the percentage of the general population at large.”
E-mails and calls began flowing in from Vietnam veterans across the country, including Alan Oates, who lives in Virginia. They collected names, ages and dates of service, and quickly discovered a pattern: most of the veterans had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s about 32 years after coming home.
A doctor got in touch and pointed the veterans to a Stanford University researcher who had studied the issue but hadn’t yet published any findings. They formed a new organization — Military Veterans with Parkinson’s disease — and decided to take the issue to legislators. Oates said group members knew they’d face an uphill battle, but they were convinced of Parkinson’s links to Agent Orange and the need to help affected veterans get medical coverage.
Fiscus’ dedication, he said, was rock solid. He made multiple trips to Washington, D.C., often accompanied by his wife.
Back in Minnesota, Fiscus continued as a machinist at Mereen-Johnson until his hands shook too much to work. At home, he’d spend hours sending out e-mails and posting messages for his new organization.
“He’d say: ‘I’m not doing this for myself. I’m doing this for all veterans,’ ” Patricia Fiscus said.
When things got tough, Fiscus often used a phrase favored by Marines and popularized in a Clint Eastwood movie: “adapt, improvise and overcome.”
“That was sort of the motto for the group and something that Steve brought to the table,” Oates said. “He was a don’t-give-up kind of guy.”
In 2010, a decade after Fiscus was diagnosed, the VA added Parkinson’s to its list of conditions for which Vietnam veterans are entitled to benefits.
Fiscus is survived by his wife, Patricia; children, Stephanie and Patrick, and four grandchildren.
Services have been held.