George C. Duggins, the first African American president of the Vietnam Veterans of America, has died. He was 61.
Duggins died Monday in Chesapeake, Va., of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, said Thomas H. Corey, the group's current president, Tuesday. Corey said the disease was caused by Duggins' exposure to the toxic herbicide Agent Orange during two tours of duty in Vietnam.
Active in Vietnam Veterans since 1985, Duggins served as president from 1997 to 2001, after stints as vice president, on the board of directors and as national chairman of the membership, credentials, convention, scholarship and minority affairs committees.
He appeared before Congress as head of the organization to seek improved healthcare for veterans and oppose spending cuts for smoking-related illnesses, noting: "The military did much more than tolerate smoking among its ranks -- it irrefutably encouraged and subsidized smoking."
Duggins also worked to alleviate homelessness among veterans and to recruit more African Americans into the organization's predominantly white membership. At the time of his first election in 1997, membership was 99% white.
He also took his regular turn in the Saturday washing of the Vietnam War Memorial, known as "The Wall," on the Mall in Washington, D.C., noting that the task always made him cry.
In 1996, Duggins served in a delegation appointed by President Bill Clinton to go to Vietnam and investigate the POW/MIA issue. In 2000, Clinton appointed him to the National Veterans Business Development Corp., which helps provide technical assistance to veterans who want to start businesses.
Although Duggins became a major spokesman for Vietnam veterans, it was many years before he was able to talk about his own experiences. He waited 15 years after his marriage to tell his wife he had served in the controversial war.
Duggins joined the Army in 1965 and spent four years in intelligence, serving in Vietnam from May 1966 to December 1967 and from April 1968 to April 1969.
"Americans don't like losers, and Vietnam veterans were seen as losers," Duggins told The Times in 2001, explaining why he refused to discuss the war for so long. "You just stayed to yourself."
But one night, driving home from work, he heard a radio announcement for a local veterans meeting -- and went.
He found himself among men who understood his quirks -- like his hatred for walking in the rain after all those months in soggy Southeast Asia.
He went home and told his wife about his military service, then became active in veterans' organizations.
Educated at Tidewater Community College in Norfolk, Va., Duggins worked as a computer systems engineer for a managed healthcare organization.
He is survived by his wife, Blanche; his father, James; two daughters, Shana Duggins and Stacey Ellis; and one granddaughter.