John Cory: October Veterans
By John Cory
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Saturday 16 October 2004
Warren Zevon’s ''Keep Me In Your Heart'' plays in the background. The long row of poplar trees that line the gravel drive shed their harvest gold leaves in the breeze; a fluttering October dance on a warm day. One of my neighbors, an eagle, is perched on the edge of the bluff overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca, watching the afternoon drift in on the current. A few deer graze their way across the lawn then on to the field next door. Autumn days are good for remembering.
This morning I was remembering a high school friend, while surfing through Operation Truth (www.optruth.org) and Soldiers For The Truth (www.sftt.org) where I spend time browsing and learning things we should never forget.
Operation Truth (www.optruth.org) is a site by and about Iraq War veterans. It is especially for the rest of us. And you really have to go watch the ad with veteran Robert Acosta.
Soldiers For The Truth (www.sftt.org) is the site run by Col. David Hackworth, and if you want to know about Generals putting themselves in for unearned medals, or civilian contract abuse, or just plain poor leadership and support of our active duty troops; this is a must. It is a site dedicated to supporting the troops beyond just slogans.
My friend, Jim, was a very talented artist. On occasion, Jim would show up at the local beatnik/coffee house or the university Commons where our little jazz combo played on Sunday nights, and dash off a charcoal sketch of all of us hep-cats in our navy blue turtlenecks and extra-cool shades, while we jammed and dreamed of becoming the next Miles or Bird. Jim’s drawings always made us look so much more hip and cool then teenagers could ever be.
Not long after I returned from Vietnam, I found Jim at the nearby VA hospital. He had gone to war and come home changed. That’s what war does. Just how it is. Besides losing a leg, Jim suffered from schizophrenia after his tour. His ward was a warehouse of Korean War vets and WWII vets who never made it all the way home. He called it, “The House of Medication -- home to the Stelazine shuffle.”
In those days, the VA and government bureaucracies were pretty much the same as they are now. Vietnam vets were barely tolerated, labeled as slackers and whiners, and PTSD was years away from official medical recognition. And a one-legged longhaired veteran ranting on a street corner was just another sign of the deterioration of America.
During the last of his few lucid days, Jim talked about his plight, and that of others. He said he was one of the “unremembered,” a shadow of the returned. “It’s easier to honor the dead, than to deal with the survivors of war,” he said.
Brian Ross of ABC’s PrimeTime did a story on Spc. Tyson Johnson, Sgt. Ryan Kelly, and Sgt. Peter Damon, and Sgt. Larry Gill; all disabled and stuck in the limbo of government bureaucracy. Go to the ABC website and read their stories, then ask yourself, what more can we do to support the troops?
Spc. Johnson lives out of his car and is dunned by the government for the repayment of his re-enlistment bonus. He cannot fulfill his re-enlistment contract because he was disabled in the war. Sgt. Gill used to be a policeman, but with a damaged and useless leg, he can no longer be a cop. There is no program or plan for how he can transition and make a living in civilian life. Sgt. Damon was a mechanic and electrician before losing both his arms in Iraq. Unlike Harold Russell of “The Best Years of Our Lives,” there is no movie role for Sgt. Damon. And Sgt. Kelly, who lost a leg, talked about how injured soldiers at Walter Reed, had to borrow money or beg from charities to raise cash for their families to come visit.
Whether indifference or incompetence, too many veterans are becoming the “unremembered.” The best health and rehab care keeps the wounded alive and repaired. The problem is no one seems prepared for the survival and transition back to everyday life. And the Bush/GOP administration doesn’t appear to care, now that they have the war they wanted. Plenty of money for tax cuts for the wealthy, but veteran support programs just make for bigger government and entitlement addiction, I guess.
It seems to me, a government that can afford billions of dollars for no-bid contracts to companies like Halliburton, ought to be able to fund veteran transition programs and financial support aid to those who have given their all for duty, honor and country.
I know it is election season, but here is what I ask you to do: take the political donation you are considering giving to your political party and cut it in half. Split that half and give to Operation Truth (www.optruth.org) and Soldiers For The Truth (www.sftt.org). Vote for the candidate of your choice, but support our troops over there and back here, in a meaningful way.
The schizophrenia eventually took control of Jim, and one night he ended his life in a rundown boarding house. Thirty-some years have passed and I still remember my friend.
And now another generation of October veterans return, and all we have to do is listen to what their service to America asks of us: “Keep me in your heart for awhile.”