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  • Writer's picturePenny Hieb

Connecting over Cortez Coffee with my dad, SMSgt Larry Hieb

I could not have predicted the dizzying ways in which Covid 19 would impact my first "Connecting over Coffee" blog post. I had been planning to share the story of my dad, retired SMSgt Larry Hieb, and his health struggles as a Vietnam Veteran over a cup of Ron Cortez' expertly roasted specialty coffee. My initial plans for this piece were to interview my dad at Original Breakfast House in Phoenix where they have been proudly brewing up Cortez Coffee for years. With Original Breakfast House owner John Stidham, himself, a Vietnam Veteran and an advocate for veterans' causes, I couldn't imagine a more perfect setting. But just as I had cemented these plans with Ron Cortez and John Stidham, they began to unravel almost instantaneously. First, my mom called me quite panicked, worried about me taking my dad out in public with the growing concerns over the coronavirus and his compromised immune system. My early thoughts were that her fears were overblown. The tone from top American leadership appeared to signal less than dire predictions; surely we would all be fine and should go about living our normal lives and supporting the local economy. Carrying on like normal seemed like the patriotic thing to do despite the packages of toilet paper disappearing off shelves all around me. However, if I had been happily lulled into a sense of complacency in the beginning stages of the pandemic, that perspective dramatically changed in the course of the hour I spent pouring over the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's official website. In an hour's time, I went from skeptical to astounded that I could have been so naive in the face of a growing pandemic. I realized that taking my dad out at this time would, in fact, place him at unnecessary risk. He is in that category of individuals considered at high risk for contracting the virus. With his compromised health, he is also far less likely to to recover if he did encounter the coronavirus. Of course, events continued to evolve quickly and taking him out for a leisurely coffee over eggs and bacon was soon no longer an option by decree of the City of Phoenix and the wise actions of its Mayor, Kate Gallego. So we went with Plan B: I would brew up some Cortez Coffee and interview my dad in the relative safety of his Sun City West home.

Last Friday, after I completed my work day (back in the old days when we in dentistry were still seeing patients for elective procedures), I carefully packed my freshly ground Cortez Coffee Nepal Light Roast and headed to Sun City West to immerse myself in heavenly coffee flavors and hear the story my dad has been wanting to share for many years. As I was a bit rushed in the morning prior to work, I did not take the time to pack my kettle, clean and disassemble my French press, or even take along my Chemex for a pour over. I decided to brew up Ron Cortez' gorgeous and delicate Nepal Roast, a naturally washed coffee, in my parents' Hamilton Beach drip coffee maker. Apparently, the Hamilton Beach is fool proof and Cortez' Nepal roast is impossible to muck up, no matter the device. You can't go wrong any way you decide to brew it, as my first tasting sip proved. As I took in the complex flavors over my tongue, I discovered it to be incredibly delightful and unbelievably delicious. Satisfied, I poured my parents each a cup. My dad was instantly captivated, "This is the best cup of coffee I've ever had, " he immediately remarked. He held his mug, decorated with illustrations of the B 52 Stratofortress, up to his lips for another sip and considered the flavors for a moment. He was impressed by the fact that it did not seem to have an unpleasant lingering aftertaste. It was, in his words, "smooth with excellent flavor," and in some ways, "like a dessert" in, and of, itself. My mom, who often insists on having her coffee weakened with an additional cup of hot water whenever she orders it at a restaurant, did not make the same demands to alter this particular cup. For the first time in my memory, her coffee was perfect. "If coffee tastes like this, I want more. If it tastes like this, I'd go to the coffee shop for it," she said. As far as I'm concerned, there is no greater coffee endorsement than that moment. Say what you want about the expert and sophisticated taste analysis of specialty coffee's Q graders, but that assessment from my mom signals pure gold for Cortez Coffee's Nepal roast. I liken it to a 90+ score on a Q grader's specialty coffee scale.

I reached out to Ron Cortez for more insight on the Nepal roast. "The Nepalese coffee was my second collaboration of direct sourced coffee," he shared. "I feel very proud of being close to having a high percentage of this coffee available only to Cortez Coffee. It is the highest cost product in my line up," he explains. These increased costs are due in part to the logistics involved in bringing this prized coffee all the way from the high mountain regions of Nepal to the Cortez roastery in Tempe. "There is a lengthy process that involves moving a couple metric tons out of Nepal through Pakistan, India by land, until it reaches the Port of New York, and then to Phoenix," he carefully explains. Cortez' detailed narrative of the journey of this Nepal microlot brought me a new appreciation for the one pound bag in my possession. As Cortez shared, "Nepal is one of the least accessible and least known coffee growing regions on the planet. The coffee is amazing and the people who grow it are a joy to know and work with." Cortez goes on to describe the coffee from a more technical perspective. "There is something special about the beans, to a point that it tastes different in a positive way, different from any other coffee in my line up. As a light roast (11% weight loss during roasting), and brewed as a pour over or espresso, it doesn't have as much astringency as any of the other coffees we have." As for his suggestions for brewing the Nepal roast, he states that "we sell it for those two applications (pour over or espresso) and serve it side by side with our best seller (the Espresso Primo). Its taste is on the opposite spectrum of Primo. This is taking into consideration that according to my palate, espresso is a drink with inherited astringency," he states. "I say this with the most respect for any of my competitors that describe their espresso as 'sweet and round'. Opinions are all different," Cortez shares. He then concludes by promising to brew a side by side of Primo and Apex roasts the next time I am at the roastery's tasting room. I certainly am anxious for that day: a time somewhere in the future in which the Covid 19 virus is contained, we are all safe again, and can leisurely sit down for a lovely cup of coffee with our friends. While we can't linger over coffee right now in the Cortez tasting room, their creamy Nepal with its prominent notes of salty caramel and sugarcane is available for purchase through their website.

With Ron's assessment of the Nepal roast conveyed to us safely over text, my dad poured himself a second cup and praised it yet again, likening it to a luscious dessert. I was ready to turn our focus to my dad's story, but truth be told, I was feeling a bit concerned about my visit. In the days prior, I had developed a cough and raspy voice. Was I secretly harboring the coronavirus and putting my own parents at risk? I had sought the medical advice of trusted professionals, however, and had been assured that I was fine when I visited NextCare, an Urgent Care Center at 43rd Avenue and Peoria. After a cursory look into my left ear and a good listen to my lungs, the provider there had diagnosed me with the common cold. I asked her, through a few stifled coughs, if it would be best for me to remain home from work in light of all that was going on and due to the nature of my work as a dental hygienist. Her response, "my dental hygienist wears a mask, don't you?" I told her of course I did. "Well then," she assessed, "what if everybody who had a cold stayed home from work? America would shut down. But that's up to you. You decide." I reported this encounter to my dentist, Dr. Candace Gershkovich. She was unsatisfied with the evaluation I received, as there was no testing available to draw such certain conclusions. As an ambassador of dentistry and public health, she did not feel comfortable with what I had been told. I was beginning to feel just a mere hint of the frustration my dad had been experiencing with regard to the denial he has faced regarding his health issues as a Vietnam Veteran. Of course, in the days since this interview, my health has taken a turn for the better, and my company, Associated Dental, has suspended all elective treatment and is reserving limited hours for emergencies only. It is an effort to place public health at the forefront and keep patients who are experiencing dental pain out of emergency rooms during this time of limited resources. I credit Dr. Gershkovich, through her efforts to advocate for our company's patients and the overall good of public health, for the eventual stance Associated Dental decided to take in the face of this pandemic. While economically painful, it will be a decision looked upon in the future as the most prudent and important in the long history of the company's service to its patients. For further information about why now is the time to avoid elective dental procedures, please visit the American Dental Association's website. After a careful read, you will understand why dental offices should not be addressing the number one concern of many patients (whitening) in their offices at this time.

Health concerns regarding my intermittent coughing tossed aside, my dad and I proceeded to delve into his interview. My mom pulled up a seat and listened carefully, at times providing her own insights into the conversation. To begin, we must travel back to the year 1966 when my dad began his twenty year Air Force career. My dad graduated from Orem High School in Utah at the age of seventeen on May 27th of that year. By June 2nd, he was roused out of bed by the Air Force recruiter he had spoken to earlier in the year; the recruiter was beating on the front door of his family's home, with news that there was an immediate spot available for my dad. It was time to get onto a plane ASAP and head to basic training in San Antonio, TX. My dad had scored really high on the mechanical portion of his Air Force entrance exam, having taken auto mechanic courses available through a vocational program at his high school, and observing my grandfather, George Hieb, repair and maintain the family's vehicles throughout the years. Now was the moment, the recruiter admonished, "to serve the needs of the government." My dad quickly threw some basic items into a duffle bag, and kissed his mother, Lila Hieb, goodbye. My grandfather was at work that morning and wouldn't see him off until later that day at the Salt Lake City airport. My dad jumped into the recruiter's waiting car and drove to the induction center at Fort Douglas, Utah. A military physician there put my dad through a hasty physical, and, as my dad recalls, noted he was standing upright and appeared to be the picture of health. He was on a plane shortly after to Lackland Air Force Base for six weeks of intense basic training. That was my dad's first time to ever fly on an airplane. I asked him if he recalls his thoughts at the time or if the novelty of the events had left any lasting impressions on him. "Honestly, there was no time to think. All I had time to do was throw some stuff in a bag and leave in that recruiter's car," he remembers. It all became a blur of memories after that.

As basic training drew to a close, my dad found out that he had been selected to go to the Air Force's technical school in Chunute, Illinois, and assigned to learn maintenance on jets with more than two engines. Contemplating his future success in that field of study brought him some initial stress. He was nervous about his ability to grasp the highly technical information and perform what he learned while under pressure. Turns out, he need not to have worried. The instructors at Chunute had his undivided attention and he aced his course work and assessments. He was quickly assigned to an Air Force base in Amarillo, Texas where he participated in field maintenance operations, performing the heavy maintenance duties of a B 52 mechanic.

It wasn't long after that, when my dad was called upon to serve overseas on Guam and then later in Thailand. Ultimately, my dad served roughly three years through different rotations at U-Tapao Air Base in Thailand. I asked for his initial impression as a young man in Thailand, a place so foreign from his average American upbringing. "It was total bewilderment. Everything was so different: the language, the landscape. Everything was so lush and green. It rained all the time. It could rain three to four times a day," he recalls. "Everything grew so quickly," he remembers, which made the appearance of the area of land just beside the perimeter of the flight line at U-Tapao so stark and eerie. All around it, the jungle grew lush, thick, and incredibly fecund. The particular area where my dad and his crew mates worked for twelve to fourteen hour periods, six days a week,

this area where they rode in open bed trucks kicking up dust around the perimeter, looked in his words "like Beirut." There was nothing growing there. The Air Force had started spraying the perimeter of U-Tapao's flight line with the herbicide Agent Orange, a few years prior to my dad's arrival at the base, possibly as far back as 1967. There wasn't even a sprout of elephant grass to be seen. My dad can recall heavy rainfalls while he was on duty. Rainwater would flow through ditches past my dad routinely. He would notice an odd sheen on that water, once, it almost appeared purple, he says. He knows he walked through the herbicide, and breathed it regularly whenever the wind would kick up or aircraft turbulence would lift it from the ground and seed the surrounding air with its mist.

My dad had also been part of a repair and reclamation team that would recover airplanes that crashed into the jungle on the outskirts of the air base. He recalls a KC-135 that took off from U-Tapao only to crash just outside the perimeter of the base. In order for strobe lights to be seen by flying aircraft, the lush jungle areas needed to be sprayed regularly with Agent Orange. My dad and his team were dispatched to recover whatever they could of the plane shortly afterward, working multiple hours in the recently sprayed jungle areas. "It was a KC-135 that was taking off, heavily weighted with fuel," he remembers. "It was from Robbins Air Force Base, Georgia. 2 Oct 1968. Tail number 55-3138," he then shows me articles and photographs he carefully saved about the crash. Everyone on board was killed, he shows me. My dad keeps methodical records and has everything from commodation letters he received while in the Air Force, to articles about base commanders wrangling up 13 foot cobras at U-Tapao, to performance evaluations which describe his whereabouts and activities during his service in Thailand. After several attempts to spell out his case to the Department of Veteran's Affairs, my dad has resorted to compiling a long list of evidence, including the first hand eye witness accounts of his fellow airmen.

In 2012, my dad had the foresight to print out a page from the Veteran's Administration's official website. During our interview, he handed it to me to read. The VA's words at the time stated, "The following veterans may have been exposed to herbicides: US Air Force veterans who served at Royal Thai Air Force bases at U-Tapao, Ubon, Nakluon, Phanom, Udorn, Takhli, Korat, and Don Muang, near the air base perimeter anytime between February 28, 1961, and May 7, 1975." The VA website further states: "A recently declassified Department of Defense report written in 1973, 'Project CHECO Southeast Asia Report: Base Defense in Thailand 1968-1972' contains evidence that there was significant use of herbicides on the fenced perimeter of military bases in Thailand to remove foliage that provided cover for enemy forces," the report stated. That was on the VA's website in 2012 and has been significantly edited since that time. When I checked the website today, the passage reads, "veterans at US military bases in Thailand 'may have had contact with Agent Orange'." The paragraph goes on to state, "The US military used this herbicide to clear trees and plants during the Vietnam War. Find out if you can get disability compensation and other benefits for illnesses you believe are caused by contact with Agent Orange." In the decades following the Vietnam War, the VA began to acknowledge that a long list of ailments were likely caused by exposure to Agent Orange. These include, but are not limited to, leukemia, diabetes mellitus type 2, prostate cancer, ischemic heart disease, and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

In addition to the countless hours my dad spent working around the heavily sprayed perimeter of that flight line at U-Tapao, he also remembers Airmen preparing for a Bob Hope show on the base. "Where all the barracks were, there was a big open field and they went in there and sprayed with Agent Orange to clear foliage," he remembers. A stage was built to accommodate the show and a sound system was set up in the immediate area where Agent Orange had been sprayed. It was Christmas time and Bob Hope wanted to spread some good cheer. On the day of his show, the troops assembled on the freshly sprayed open field for at least three hours and cheered on the merriment. I remember looking through one of my dad's old photo albums and seeing black and white pictures of his young looking uniformed buddies with two and three stripes affixed to their sleeves, all watching the performance with rapt attention. About thirty years after that performance, it was revealed the Airmen who had spent significant hours preparing for the event were beginning to suffer serious health complications.

Less than ten years after serving in Thailand, my dad was stationed at Fairchild Air Force base outside of Spokane, Washington. He recalls working with a fellow Airman who seemed unusually prone to sickness much of the time. "I used to think, 'this guy is really unlucky, his family line must be sickly', because as soon as he would recover from one illness he'd have another. He'd have one surgery and then as soon as that was done, pretty soon, he'd have another." My dad later learned that this gentleman had served on a C123 cargo plane, mixing 55 gallon barrels of Agent Orange in the cargo compartment, essentially swimming in vats of the herbicide, and then helping spray it as they flew over the lush jungles of Vietnam. At the time, my dad never equated the exposure to Agent Orange to his crew mate's perpetual poor health. After all, at that time, my dad had no signs or symptoms of his exposure. That wouldn't occur until many years later.

By 2011, my dad was working in building and equipment maintenance for the U.S. Post Office in Fort Worth, Texas. One night, a fellow coworker looked at the right side of his neck and asked, "what's going on with your neck?" My dad was incredulous, never even noticing the newly growing lump that seemed to appear out of no where on the right side of his neck. He looked in the mirror, touched the lump, and inspected it closely. It wasn't hurting. Everything was probably fine. However, at the same time the lump appeared, my mom began noticing that my dad would have drenching sweats in the middle of the night. She remembers my dad waking up during the night and changing his t shirt on multiple occasions. It would be wringing with sweat. Not much later, my dad would have a biopsy taken of the lump on his neck. The physician sat him down and explained the diagnosis. The results had come back positive for "malignant lymphoma involving lymph nodes of the head, neck, and face." It was a definitive diagnosis of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a condition that had never presented in his immediate family previously. Cancer of any kind was one of those conditions that miraculously seemed to pass over the Hieb family in years prior. He began to research why he was suddenly the first in his family to be subjected to such an unusual diagnosis. Was he an outlier? That's when he stumbled upon article after article detailing the non-Hodgkin's lymphoma cases that had afflicted fellow veterans who had served in Thailand at the same time. After gathering what he felt was a strong mountain of evidence, he contacted the VA later in 2011 to file his first claim with regard to his health complications due to exposure to Agent Orange.

In a letter dated November 15, 2011, the VA wrote my dad the following: "We did not find a link between non-Hodgkin's lymphoma associated with herbicide exposure and military service." His claim was effectively denied. Case closed according to the VA. My dad was crushed to receive the letter and disheartened to learn that the VA did not consider his claim to be legitimate. Though he felt defeated by the their initial response, he summoned the fortitude to petition the VA again in 2014. Once again, he received a similar response. The VA's letter reads, "The evidence does not show the location of your military service, or the events you experienced there in, qualify for the presumption of service connection for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma associated with herbicide exposure." There it was in black and white, once again. A blatant denial by the VA, this time dated three years later.

My dad was growing increasingly frustrated by these continued denials, but it did not stop him from reaching out later in 2014 to Arizona Senator Jeff Flake. Senator Flake routinely sent out a representative out to meet with citizens with government related issues in Sun City West. My dad brought along his briefcase of documents to a meeting with the representative and felt optimistic about the level of interest she showed in his story. Shortly after, Jeff Flake wrote my dad a letter on official stationary from his senatorial office in Washington, DC. "Thank you for contacting my office about the problem you are having with the Department of Veteran's Affairs," it read. "I have been in contact with the agency regarding your situation and will let you know as soon as I obtain a response." That letter was dated October 9, 2014. Shortly after, my dad would receive his third denial for his claim from the VA.

Despite this series of disappointments, my dad remains somewhat hopeful. He points to the fact that Navy veterans have recently received acknowledgment for their health claims relating to their exposure to Agent Orange in the territorial waters off the coast of Vietnam. The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veteran's Act of 2019 ensures that tens of thousands Vietnam Veterans will finally get the benefits they've earned and deserve. My dad emphasizes that he, in no way, "wants to rag on Navy vets. Absolutely not. They've suffered, too," he says. Veterans who served in Vietnam itself and were exposed to Agent Orange have also been granted benefits by the VA. My dad just can't fathom why veterans who served on the ground in Thailand are the only ones who have been overlooked at this point. It is truly an unjustifiable oversight at this juncture, to say the least.

My dad has endured through all of this, despite the toll it has taken on his health, something he attributes to the watchful eye of my mom, Sirinee, whom he met in Thailand in October of 1971. My mom remembers the exact date: October 16, 1971. She was working as a beautician for the equivalent of $25 a month, five miles from the base. A friend of hers worked on the base at U-Tapao at the NCO club and was acquainted with several of the charming GIs who frequented the club. One night they all threw a house party and she invited my mom to come along for the festivities. Her friend excitedly grabbed her hand and said to my mom, "come here, I want you to meet someone." That someone was, of course, my dad. They were married not long after. I was born late in 1972, about a year and a half before they left Thailand for my dad's next assignment at Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth, Texas.

My mom has always cooked up amazing Thai meals and has gone above and beyond in her efforts over the years to make them healthy, especially now, given my dad's ongoing health battles. He has been through rounds of IV chemotherapy treatments with the powerful anti cancer drug Rituxan. These three to six hour sessions occurred twice weekly for three weeks at a time. He has repeated these treatment rounds twice since 2011. The treatments are keeping the cancer at bay, but have left him quite fatigued and in a perpetual "chemo fog", as he describes it. He has found that he has lingering cognitive and memory problems that persist to this day. I asked my mom to elaborate about this and share her observations. "He is slow and tired," she tells me. She then turns to my dad and says, "when I ask you something it takes you a long time." She then turns back to me, and explains. "Before, I could speak Thai and he knew what I was saying right away," she says. She feels his ability to remember isn't quite the same anymore. "It affects me, too," she says, wiping away tears. "I have to adapt myself, get along, and take care of him," she explains. "Before, he was ahead of me, now I have to tell him what to do. I have to remind him all of the time," my mom continues. My dad interjects, "she forgets that I'm not what I used to be," he explains. My mom wipes away more tears. "I just want my old Larry back," she laments. Also, she doesn't understand why the VA fails to recognize that my dad's struggles are linked to his service time in Thailand. "How can they deny it?" she asks. "It's the truth."

Despite the immense health burden he bears as a result of his faithful service to our country, my dad has no regrets. "I don't remember bad times in the Air Force, just the good times," he says. He has a lifetime of what he describes as "pleasant memories of camaraderie. Those friends you made overseas. You can't believe what great friends they were," he smiles. These days you'll often find my dad wearing one of the many Air Force hats my mom buys him when they shop at Luke Air Force Base. He likes to don one of those hats when he goes out and about in the community (prior to Covid 19, of course). He says he gets at least three "thank yous" daily for his service. Recently, a young woman who spotted him wearing one of his hats handed him a thoughtfully written card with an American flag on it. He loves wearing those sharp looking hats and connecting with people who approach him and strike up conversations. For now, their gratitude is all the acknowledgement he may receive for his ongoing sacrifices on behalf of his nation.

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