Fringe Benefits: paying the price of activism | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Fringe Benefits: paying the price of activism 

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Back in the late 1970s Channel Two's Bill Kurtis won several awards for a series of documentaries he did on Agent Orange. The story was brought to his attention by Maude De Victor, a Veterans Administration counselor who noticed a pattern of illnesses in the vets she saw returning from Vietnam. "Combat vets would come into the office to change an address or get an application to go to school or add a kid to their entitlement," she says. "After I completed the paperwork, I would ask them about their experience in Vietnam and about their health. They'd say what they were suffering from and that no one would believe them. They were being told that it was combat fatigue, but the veterans knew it wasn't. That wasn't connected to skin rashes or children being born deformed or cancer." De Victor handed Kurtis a study she'd conducted, complete with names, phone numbers, symptoms, tours of duty, and other information about the vets, and agreed to be interviewed on camera.

After the story aired, Agent Orange was given a name and a cause. De Victor, an outspoken union leader, was fired by the VA in 1984 after an investigation and hearing, which she believes were instigated partially in retaliation for exposing Agent Orange. When the Navy veteran applied for a permanent job with the U.S. Census Bureau in 1990, she found that her VA termination status prohibited her from ever being a full-time employee of the U.S. government.

"After being fired I couldn't find any job, not even dogcatcher," she recalls. She found work telemarketing the "Vietnam Veteran Experience" series for Time/Life Books. "I lasted about three weeks. It was just too much, too close."

She spent a few months in Nicaragua and then played a bit part in Unnatural Causes, a TV movie about Agent Orange that starred John Ritter. He convinced her to move to California, where she found a job in the San Mateo public guardian's office. She stayed for four years, returning to Chicago in 1986 when her mother became ill with Alzheimer's disease. She's held a string of jobs ever since.

"Every time I get a job I have to come in at entry level," she says. "People are standoffish. They think, "If she finds something wrong, she'll tell it.' It gets to the point where I represent an image that the system doesn't tolerate well. They can tell I have expertise, but because I'm coming in at entry level I automatically generate suspicion."

De Victor currently manages a CHA building near IIT. Almost a year ago abdominal surgeries kept her out of work and without an income for several months. She survived on food stamps and the kindness of relatives and has yet to receive disability pay. At 56, an age when most people are planning their retirement, De Victor is again looking for work; she just received notice that she'll be laid off next month.

In light of all that has happened De Victor still says she made the right decision in going public. "Sixteen years ago I would have said yes, yes, yes, I'd do it again. Even if you would have told me, you'll have to start five or six jobs at entry level and you will be fired and never be able to work for the government again, I would still do it. It was part of my work. I had a duty to do what I did."

Friends of De Victor's have started a petition drive to get the U.S. government to change her termination status. (They called Kurtis, hoping he'd be the first to sign, but he hasn't returned their calls.) In the meantime De Victor hopes to work toward a master's degree in library science.

"I don't want to be the old lady at the nursing home, gumming my teeth and talking about past glories," she says. "I want to be at the library, actively encouraging other researchers."

A benefit party for De Victor, with food and entertainment, will take place Sunday from 1 to 6 PM at the New Warrior Center in the Mural Building, 1735 N. Ashland. Tickets are $10. Call 276-3776 for more.

--Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Armando Villa.

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