As a reporter, you meet people whose stories make you stop and think about what is just and unjust. If you tell their story, what will be the outcome? That’s how I felt when I met Lesli Moore Dahlke for this story I wrote (Daily News, August 2010), who volunteered with the USO in 1970 to meet and greet soldiers in Vietnam. Twenty years after her visit, she was struck with a rare form of cancer, the kind suffered by veterans exposed to Agent Orange. She fought that cancer, and is now battling a new disease. Will the government, which has admitted to more than a dozen illnesses related to Agent Orange, compensate her? For civilians who voluntarily went to Vietnam during the war, the answer is almost always no. But Dahlke, who runs the website A Loss of Innocence said she will keep trying.
From my story:
Before the cancer settled into her blood and stole parts of her stomach, spleen, and pancreas, the photographs and diary Lesli Moore Dahlke saved from her time in war-torn Vietnam symbolized only her Valley Girl innocence.
She was 18 then, a tall, blonde, blue-eyed beauty from Encino with high cheekbones and an easy smile.
Grieving the recent death of her father, comedian Del Moore, and touched by the televised images of young soldiers fighting an unpopular war, Dahlke volunteered for the USO’s Handshaking Christmas Tour in 1970.
During the 18-day trip with legendary entertainer Johnny Grant and three other “handshake girls,” she flew by helicopter over thick jungles from Saigon to Quang Tri, swooping in for morale-boosting visits with soldiers at field and evacuation hospitals and fire-support bases.
Carrying along a small, white leather diary, she wrote about what she saw and the young men she met:
“December 14th, 3:00. Went to 3rd Division Evacuation Hospital. Visited three wards and emergency area. The men were all very friendly and glad to see smiling faces from home. They were shy at first but were grateful to be remembered. They talked mostly about their hometowns and about going home.
“Everyone here is very warm but the sadness and loneliness in their eyes is heartbreaking.”
She walked where the soldiers walked, breathed in their air, drank their water and bathed in their showers.
She almost felt like one of them.
After 18 memorable days, she returned home to her mother in Encino. She earned a degree in psychology, worked as a television producer, got married and settled in Granada Hills.
But traces of her time in Vietnam stayed within her, latent and still, like a well-hidden enemy. Two decades later, when she was 38, the enemy revealed itself.