Vietnam War Still Taking a Toll On Aging Veterans

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Vietnam War Still Taking a Toll On Aging Veterans
by Pamela Varkony

Charles W. speaks clearly but with little emotion as he recounts his military experience. ”In May 1966, we retook Danang. In February 1967, I was in War Zone C, Operation Junction City and in April 1968, I was” his voice trails off ”There were thousands of Vietcong casualties. I really don’t like to talk about it.” But he does; the stories pour out. Images, whether real or a composite of the horror, stalk through the dense jungle of his memories; never knowing where the enemy might be or who they might be. ”It was an orphanage. The kids came running out the door holding hand grenades and bombs. We killed 50 to 60 kids that day.”

Did such an atrocity really occur? Was a young American soldier forced to shoot children to save his own life? After 40 years, it’s hard to know. To Charles, it did, and he did. ”I came home and they called me a baby killer,” he says. ”The first 20 years after the war were pretty good. But I knew something was wrong with me. No one else knew. I drank. I went through three marriages. I ended up homeless.”

This survivor of some of Vietnam’s worst battles adds quietly, ”The streets will kill you.”

Calling it ”dumb luck,” Charles made his way to a homeless shelter in Reading where he finally found the help he needed. A representative of the Veterans Administration who visited the shelter regularly got Charles into the system. In 2000, he was diagnosed with PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder…

     

Today, Charles is sober and a resident of the Southeastern Veterans Center in Spring City, Chester County. The father of six daughters and grandfather of eight, he says being in Southeastern allows him to be closer to his family, both physically and emotionally.

Southeastern Veterans Center is one of six such facilities across Pennsylvania. Part residence, part hospital and rehabilitation center, the large brick building set on a hillside could easily be mistaken for a hotel. Walking into the lobby you are greeted by the friendly staff who asks you to sign the guest book.

”We’re one of Pennsylvania’s best-kept secrets,” says Lloyd Davis, deputy commandant and business manager of Southeastern. Bruce Grissom, its social work director, agrees: ”You’d be amazed at how few people are aware of the scope of services that are available to veterans and their spouses throughout our network.” One other thing the commandant at the center is Rebecca Kesselring of Bethlehem.

This network also is in Erie, Hollidaysburg, Pittsburgh; Scranton, and Philadelphia. According to the Bureau of Veterans Affairs, the homes are true communities, specifically for the commonwealth’s men and women. As the World War II generation passes away, the Baby Boomer Vietnam veterans are taking their place. Their exposure to defoliants, combined with the psychological trauma of fighting a guerrilla war, will require expanded capacity and innovative services, straining budgets even farther.

We have three sources of revenue, says Davis state funding, a federal per diem allowance for each veteran and the veteran’s ability to pay. The Veterans Home Network does not receive Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement. No one is ever turned away for inability to pay. There is a waiting list of eight to 12 months. Veterans or spouses must also be residents of the commonwealth or have been a resident upon entry into the service. Current residents are given priority.

After falling and breaking her arm at the personal care facility in which she was living, Linda M., 59, a former Army medic, had no place to turn. ”My mother has Alzheimer’s, and my daughter passed away.” Linda served from 1965-67 in the hospital at Fort Gordon, Ga. Although she did not see combat, she still talks about the fear. ”The patients kept asking me for help. I didn’t have any answers,” she said. ”Army doctors back then didn’t believe in using a lot of pain medication. One guy came in from Vietnam. He was a mess, shaking all over. I looked at him; he was my neighbor from Pennsylvania a great guy, lots of fun, never afraid of anything. But it wasn’t him at all.”

”I’m up in the mods,” she says. ”Mods” are modular units, like efficiency apartments, and they offer independence and privacy. ”I’ve got my own room with a bath. I’ve been other places, but this is the place where I’m most happy.”

Veterans Day shouldn’t be the only day we remember those who protect and defend us. ”The war was 40 years ago,” says Charles W., ”But to me, it’s like yesterday.”

Well, not quite. Search the Internet under the keyword Danang and what you’ll find there are Five Star resorts touting spa services on the white sands of China Beach. Perhaps the resorts owners would like to send Charles a thank you note. His address is Southeastern Veterans Home, Spring City, Pa., 19475, U.S.A.

Pamela Varkony is a writer and commentator living in Allentown. She is a former member of city council. Her blog, ”Perspectives … public and private,” can be found on-line at mcall.com

”Their exposure to defoliants, combined with the psychological trauma of fighting a guerrilla war, will require expanded capacity and innovative services…”


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