His 90-year-old, grey eyes were looking out the kitchen window as if searching for something. On the wall was a picture of him proudly wearing his Air Force flight suit. He was handsome, distinguished and had an inviting smile that probably drove the girls crazy. Now, some 70 years later, his cockpit has turned into a wheelchair and his uniform includes diapers. Sadly, that’s not the worst of it.
I glanced down at his DD-214 on the kitchen table. It stated he enlisted in the Air Force in 1951 at the age of 22, having just graduated from college with a degree in electrical engineering. He became a pilot with the Strategic Air Command (SAC) when their mission was to have aircraft flying 24/7 ready to drop atomic bombs on Russian targets at a moment’s notice. He probably started out flying the B-47s, then moved to B-52s when they first arrived in 1955. These “Stratofortress” and their crews were critical to protecting the United States, halting Russian world aggression and eventually winning the Cold War.
I had a million questions for this amazing warrior, but Alzheimer’s and a stroke had forever silenced any answers. His wife said that he never talked about his time in the service except once when he mentioned while in the Reserves, he ferried supplies to Vietnam and hauled caskets back to the United States. His memories are an important part of American history that will never be learned or shared. His grandchildren and their grandchildren won’t know how this brave hero once flew perilous skies protecting their inherent freedoms. We were too late.
I wish I could say he was the only veteran I’ve found in this condition, but just in the past couple months I’ve met three. They were all looking out windows, their minds now forever guests of a universe known only to them. I like to think they have found a gentle time and place that gives them joy and peace.
The people who are suffering the most are their loving and dedicated wives – heroines all. Daily they feed, bathe and dress these men all by themselves. When they need to take them to the doctors, they usually have to hire someone to help load them into their car. All these women are of an age where their bones are frail, muscles are weak and each had a long list of ailments of their own. In all three cases, they scrape by on social security and little else.
The DAV was there helping the wives with the paperwork to get their husbands into the VA healthcare system that will hopefully provide some home-care support for these forgotten veterans.
This problem is only going to get much worse as Vietnam era veterans start reaching their 80s and 90s. NOW is the time to prepare for that by doing two critical things. First, make sure your veteran is immediately enrolled in the VA healthcare and benefits programs. Maybe they can help prevent a stroke, delay the onset of dementia and get them some money to help in their retirement. Not every veteran qualifies, but it cost nothing to find out. Contact your Country Service Officer or the DAV who can help with the paperwork.
Secondly, take your smart-phone or iPad and set it to video record. Ask questions, starting with their memories about their parents, grandparents, school and what they did for fun as kids. This conversation will lead to them going into the military. Don’t ask about war, but about their job, their buddies and where they were stationed. Before long, the stories will start flowing. If done right, there will be laughter and tears. Send the file to the Library of Congress or your local library where it will be preserved and treasured for eternity. Think how much it would mean to you to see a video of your World War II grandfather talking about his childhood, life and service to our country.
Do it now – before it is too late.
Matt Russell is a USMC Vietnam combat veteran and Commander of the Boone County DAV. The opinions expressed in this column are his alone and do not represent the position of this newspaper, the Disabled American Veterans or any other organization.