Paying respects to a Limerick-born Irishman who lived the American dream in New York and was struck down by Agent Orange while serving his new country

Kevin Minihan was a Limerick-born Irishman who emigrated across the Atlantic Ocean to find a new life in New York City. His story is more than a typical yarn filled with blarney, fortitude, and faith! Besides being a US Marine Vietnam Vet, a husband, a father, a grandfather, a business owner, a building superintendent, a union member, a devout Roman Catholic – he was also my friend. He was a friend to many other people from all walks of life in New York City!

His life in New York City meanders between triumph and tragedy. He fulfilled the American Dream of being a successful and happy family man. At the same time, he paid the price of serving a tour of duty in Vietnam by contracting the dangerous herbicide Agent Orange, which gradually led to his early death at age 73.

In June 2019, I visited Kevin’s birthplace in Janesboro, Limerick City.

 He was born on December 22, 1945. I visited his childhood home on Clark Street, the church of his Baptism and his Christian Brothers School, which is still teaching young people today. Kevin grew up in post-World War II Ireland and his family was ready for a change. Limerick was going through a tough time and earned the name “Stab City” due to severe socio-economic problems. In 1954, at the age of nine,

 Kevin and his siblings migrated with their father to the United States for a new life. Kevin often returned to his beloved Limerick and witnessed how the City has evolved into a thriving metropolis with a sound economy, sporting events, and outstanding educational institutions.

Kevin and his family had humble beginnings when they arrived in the Big Apple. The Minihans moved to the Fordham section of the Bronx and quickly adjusted to the rough urban environment. Although there were many Irish who lived in the neighborhood, Kevin and his family began to interact with other ethnic groups and nationalities in New York City. His sisters and brothers gradually acclimated to the opportunities and demands of this city with its rich immigrant heritage!

After graduating from high school in 1963, Kevin enlisted in the US Marines as a green card holder (lawful permanent resident). After completing basic training and a special course in sharpshooting, he was assigned to active combat with a tour of duty in the Vietnam War. He served with the 1st Battalion 1st Marines attached to the 9th Brigade from August 17, 1965, to August 28, 1966. During his tour of duty, Kevin, together with many other US armed forces personnel, were unintentionally infected with a dangerous chemical called Agent Orange.

Agent Orange was originally devised by the US Department of Defense to spray the forest canopy and thick foliage in rural South Vietnam to defoliate the jungle and so deprive the Vietcong of hiding places from which to shoot our own US and Allied armed forces.

Unfortunately, this misguided scientific experiment greatly backfired on these brave US and Allied armed forces. Years later, a thorough medical investigation revealed that Agent Orange caused certain medical defects in them. After his honorable discharge from the US Marines, Kevin discovered that he had been exposed to Agent Orange, which remained in his body the rest of his life.

After his honorable discharge in 1967, Kevin returned to his old neighborhood in the Bronx. People noticed a positive change in him. Due to his experience in the US Marines, he seemed calmer and more at peace with himself. He was proud to have served his new homeland. In addition, since the US Marines were racially diverse, he sustained lifelong friendships with people of color and those of other ethnic groups. Every other year, he dutifully attended reunions with fellow members of the 1st Marines.

Kevin took initiative and applied himself to learning the basic trades of plumbing, electricity, cement work and stationary operating engineer. He was certified by New York State to practice these trades. He joined the building superintendents union through Local 32BJ and became a proud member. His level of expertise gave him the confidence to succeed in the business world.

However, what is life without a family? He met a lovely woman named Martina at an Irish dance and months later proposed marriage to this fine lass from County Sligo. They married and cooperated with God’s creation by having four lovely, healthy children. They produced wonderful grandchildren. Kevin always had a fond place in his heart for the Bronx. He laughed out loud when I told him once that there are only five places in the world that begin with “The.” They are the Vatican, the Hague, the Philippines, the Kremlin, and the Bronx!

With children on the way together with a new position as a building superintendent on the Eastside of Manhattan, Kevin and his family moved into the super’s apartment. Kevin and Martina lived there for 44 years.

Kevin joined me on 12 medical missions of mercy where we brought up young children and their mothers from South and Central America for life-saving surgeries or other medical procedures that prolonged the children’s lives.

 All the surgery and medical care were done pro bono by New York-area hospitals. Kevin always gave from his generous heart and ever-present smile.

Kevin regularly visited the Veterans Administration (VA) in Manhattan for checkups. In the fall of 2014, he complained of chronic knee pain due to all his work fixing the repairing buildings for over 40 years. Although some friends recommended he go to the Hospital for Special Surgery, he elected to have the knee replacement done by the surgical staff at the VA hospital in Manhattan.

Kevin received the knee replacement in the fall of 2014. Within weeks Martina and the children noticed a psychological difference in Kevin. Both Stanislaw and I also noticed a massive difference in his attention span and speech patterns.

After a series of tests at both the VA hospital and the Neurological Staff at New York University Hospital, it became clear that Kevin had a very bad reaction to the anesthesia administered during his knee replacement surgery. 

This bad reaction affected his brain and preceded by ten years of dementia that Kevin would suffer later in life due to Agent Orange. Kevin was no longer the happy-go-lucky, well-organized guy attentive to details.

He required a home health care attendant to look after him and to monitor his progress. His mind gradually diminished and later he was forced to go into the VA Hospital in Westchester County. There he received loving and personal care. However, after a nearly five-year battle for his mind and body, he was pronounced terminal in mid-January. 

Two days before he died on January 15, 2019, I went to visit Kevin in the hospital and anointed him with the sacrament of the sick. His eyes were closed and his body was semi-rigid. For some inexplicable reason, I remembered Kevin sharing a story with me when he was a young child in Limerick of his mother singing him the lullaby “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ra” in his home on Clark Street. It gave him great comfort and put a smile on his face. All of a sudden, I began to sing the same lullaby to Kevin on his deathbed. Immediately his eyes opened and there was a smile on his face. With his lips moving, he attempted to sing along with me. I blessed him again. I recalled how much he loved that song his mom sang to him as a young child. Now his priest sang the same familiar song to comfort him and place that signature smile on his face!

On my way home I cried, knowing I would never see Kevin alive again. However, he was still very much alive during his funeral Mass when at the end of my homily, I sang “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ra” joined by the moving chorus of the entire assembly.

Farewell, my great friend Kevin! I miss you!

Damn you, Agent Orange! You have lessened the lives of many good men and women who served in Vietnam whether they be Irish immigrants like Kevin or people of color who were born in the United States.

* Father Brian Jordan, OFM, Church of St. Francis of Assisi, Manhattan.