Through poetry and pictures, sharing stories and giving back they heal. Inside the Deer Creek conference room of Building 16 at the Salt Lake City VA Health Care System sit two World War II Veterans and two Korean War Veterans. Combined they share 352 years of wisdom, strength and courage. This group of combat Veterans meets every Wednesday, and while their numbers fluctuate from week to week there is a core group that keeps coming, year after year.
They are family.
“We have similar experiences and it does us good to tell our stories. We help someone else through our stories and it gives us strength. It helps us remember, stuff we don’t want to remember but need to in order to make sense of what’s going on in our brain,” said Floyd Bekins, a 94 year old Army Veteran who served in the South Pacific. “I entered basic training in September of 1943. Back then there were no tours of duty. You went in and you were in until the war was over.”
Joe Russell is an 83-year old Korean War Veteran. He says he realized after coming to VA that he’s only been “existing” for the last 57 years. He calls it defensive living.
“I was escaping, I was avoiding. I was focused on working hard and getting educated but I was not really living or loving,” Russell said. “I couldn’t trust anyone to open up and I was really angry.”
Russell served in the United States Navy aboard the USS White River. As a ship serviceman he operated a 40 MM off the coast of Incheon, South Korea. He leveled miles of beach head and in the process saw things one doesn’t ever forget. Divorce, addiction and two suicide attempts later, he found himself at VA. He has been a part of this group for seven years now.
“I feel human again and like I belong,” he said wiping away tears. “I have found peace and a brotherhood in here and I have let the anger go
This group also wants to make sure younger Veterans are far savvier than they were when just getting out. They work to educate, raise money and honor young Veteran families. Over the past several years their generosity has funded Honor Flights for World War II Veterans, and facilitated medal boxes for other disabled Veterans. They sit on panels, and share their feedback with VA providers from all disciplines and skill level and with physicians in the community. Group facilitator Jared Martineau says they learn so much from these brave men and through their words and observations we all become better healers.
They agreed to this story in the hope that other Veterans will reach out for support if they need it. They do it out of love and appreciation for service. They do it to make themselves whole again.
About the author: Jill Atwood is the chief communications officer at the Salt Lake City VA Health Care System.