SPOKANE, Wash – Terry Siekerman just marked the eighth anniversary of her husband, Gary Gilbrech's death. While she's still trying to figure out how to live without him, she's also still waiting for validation over why she says he died.
"I'm surviving, I'm trying to get on with life like he asked me to, but there's an empty spot that will never be filled," Siekerman told KHQ.
Siekerman believes it was Gibrech's service in Vietnam as a young man that ultimately took his life decades later, through exposure to a chemical called Agent Orange. During the war, the United States military sprayed nearly 20 million gallons of chemicals on the ground to defoliate forested land and deprive enemy fighters of food and cover.
But Agent Orange was later discovered to be a cancer-causing poison.
"He had a complete physical in January, and 7 months later he got a death sentence," she explained.
Just before the couple's 21st wedding anniversary – and newly retired – Gilbrech developed a pain in his back and side. Doctors found a mass they believed was cancer and removed a kidney but it was too little, too late. Renal Cell Carcinoma had spread to his lungs, and doctors said he had months to live.
They were right.
Nine months later, he passed away at age 56.
"It's hard to fathom that 30, 40, 50, 60 years later, exposure to Agent Orange is still causing people to be sick or dying, but it is," Siekerman told KHQ.
She filed a benefits claim with the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, but it was denied. Now she's waiting to hear back on an appeal.
"Their findings are that Agent Orange doesn't cause Renal Cell Carcinoma," she added. "I don't believe it."
In 2005, a doctor in Missouri found another veteran's kidney cancer was "more likely than not caused by Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam."
A 2011 study from the American Urological Association reports a link exists between the two.
But on the Veteran Affairs website, while the list of diseases linked to exposure continues to grow as the years pass, for now Renal Cell Carcinoma isn't there.
"Until I take my last breath, I'm not giving up on this," Siekerman said, adding that she ultimately wants to see her husband's name added to the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. "He earned it."
Terry Siekerman hopes if you have a loved one who served in Vietnam and died of kidney cancer, that you report it so there's a more accurate picture of the lives lost after they left the battlefield.
KHQ's Kelsey Watts reached out several times to the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane to comment on Agent Orange and what Vietnam veterans need to know, but representatives decided not to be part of this story.