Thomas Furst shipped out in 1967 to Vietnam, where he served in the U.S. Army for 415 days. He never thought much of the dead brown terrain that often pockmarked the otherwise verdant countryside where he fought.
Until 2009, when Furst was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer associated with Agent Orange. He had been repeatedly exposed to the chemical defoliant widely used by the U.S. military in Vietnam to flush out and starve enemy combatants.
Furst, of Eden Prairie, died from multiple myeloma Sept. 18 at age 70.
Furst grew up in the northwestern Minnesota town of Barnesville, where as a teenager he played bass guitar in a local band called the Caterpillers. He graduated from high school in 1966 and in November of the following year, he and three buddies from Barnesville enlisted in the Army, knowing they soon would be drafted.
Furst was a radio operator in the 23rd Artillery group. As a forward observer, he’d call in coordinates for artillery strikes. Furst and two of his three Barnesville friends did their tours and went home. One died in combat.
Back in Minnesota, Furst worked as a barber in Moorhead, and then owned a small bar for a while in Barnesville. He moved to the Twin Cities in 1974, where he worked as bartender for 25 years — though he personally quit drinking for good around 1980 due to alcohol addiction.
“He was good at bartending,” said his wife, Joan Furst, who met Tom in 1977 when they both worked in the bar at Hotel Sofitel in Bloomington. “He was fast and efficient, and he just enjoyed people. He had the gift of gab.”
In the decade before retiring in 2010, Furst switched occupations, working in shipping and receiving at two Bloomington companies. But a year before retiring, he began suffering from severe back pain and weight loss.
Furst was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of white blood cells that accumulate in bone marrow. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recognizes multiple myeloma as one of several “presumptive diseases” associated with Agent Orange exposure.
While Furst was pleased with his care from the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center and proud of his service in Vietnam, he was bitter that soldiers were never told about possible ill effects from Agent Orange, Joan Furst said.
“He could never believe the government could treat its soldiers this way,” she said.
In 2012, Tom and Joan took a 15-day trip to Vietnam with Steve Christianson, a lifelong friend from Barnesville, and his wife. Christianson was one of the four Barnesville buddies — including Furst — who packed off at the same time to fight in Vietnam.
The 2012 return trip “softened” Tom’s anger about being exposed to Agent Orange, Joan said. “I think it gave him some peace.”
The tour was customized for veterans: Furst and Christianson were transported to sites where they fought. Furst visited a battlefield where he witnessed the death of a soldier he’d befriended during the war.
A short ceremony was held, and Furst laid a bouquet of flowers.
“It was very emotional and very moving, and I think it gave him some closure,” Christianson said.
Besides his wife, Furst is survived by a daughter, Nicole Larson; a son, Benjamin Furst; six grandchildren, and siblings Marlys Bernier, Vernon Desing and Gerald Furst. Services will be held at 11 a.m. Monday at Pax Christi in Eden Prairie.