I came to realize a very important thing about our Veterans—that without an understanding of who these great men and women are and the story of their lives that is the essence of who they are, how can we help them? As with any great character in a book, the sum of who they are is greater than any individual characteristic.
We know them by name and the last four digits of their social security number. We know them by face, by diagnosis and by the recent ailments that bring them here. But do we really know them? Who are these people, these Veterans, who sacrificed so much for our freedom? Who are they really?
At 94 he lives alone and cooks all of his own meals. The aroma of chicken and cornbread baking in the oven permeates the air of his spotless mobile home. He walks with a cane and the arthritis in his legs, from a previous war injury, requires him to take frequent rest breaks. I marvel at how independent he is for his age and he tells me that longevity is in his genes. His grandfather was a slave on one of the old plantations and ran off to fight in the Civil War. He lived to 104 years of age. His grandmother lived to the age of 107.
He was born and raised on the family farm and worked the farm until the U.S. became involved in WWII. Then, like many others he was required to do his part in support of the war and was sent to the Naval Shipyard to work. It was there that he enlisted in the Army.
He was a private first class in the 3222nd Quartermaster Service Company responsible for transporting supplies and laying cable. He traveled to France, Holland, Belgium and Berlin, crossing the Rhine. While transporting supplies in the Battle of the Bulge, his division came under fire and he was wounded. He was transported back to the United States where he was eventually discharged from the hospital and the Army on November 15, 1945.
He revealed that, back then, black soldiers were not rendered the same respect as their white counterparts. They were rarely recognized for their efforts on the battlefield and when it came time to be discharged they were just sent home. They did not receive the medals that they had earned. He shows me a neatly folded, old, yellowed, DD-214 that he has kept in his wallet all these years.
Through the efforts of the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center’s Home Based Primary Care Team and the VA chaplain, during a special ceremony at the VA hospital, he was presented with a shadowbox containing the medals and awards that he had earned over 60 years ago. His family traveled from all over South Carolina, New York and Pennsylvania to be present for the ceremony. The local Live 5 News filmed the presentation, inducted him into the Live 5 News Hall of Fame, and aired the event on the news that night. The shadowbox is now proudly displayed on his living room wall.
There are patients who are Veterans and Veterans who are employees but there exists yet another group at the VA who are neither. They continue to serve not only as employees but in the military reserve as well. One day they are performing their usual jobs while the next they may be called upon to fulfill a mission in a distant land. It might be the soft spoken chaplain who provides comfort and spiritual guidance to patients and their families; the nurse who compassionately cares for veterans who are at the end of their journey on the nursing home unit; the police chief who exchanges his police blues for that of an Air Force Colonel, or perhaps, the ER physician. It might just be the girl in the office across the hall.
A stylish, lovely young lady with a captivating smile and effervescent personality keeps our department running like a well oiled machine. Her expertise and versatility soars her through the day’s routine duties with ease in comparison to her other duty as a Senior Master Sergeant in the Air Force Reserve. The haute couture, comforts of home, and her young son and daughter are left behind as she traverses the skies to the forsaken lands of Afghanistan. There, as part of the aerial support division, she manages the transport of soldiers across the desert and mountainous region. She shares a “plywood hut” with seven other girls, emerging each day with the captivating smile, an M16 slung over her shoulder and heads for her makeshift office in a warehouse style building. Through “care packages” from home, the plywood hut becomes transformed into a home for the holidays, but only returning home after her second tour, could abate the intense, intolerable summer heat of Afghanistan.
Her office chair remained vacant during each of the four month tours in Afghanistan, the first in Bagram and the second in Kandahar, anxiously awaiting her return to once again engage the wheels of the well oiled machine.
When you learn to listen as well as you hear, you will obtain a new understanding of the Veteran, his current issues and act to resolve them quickly.
Carol Latus, RN, is a former Navy nurse and Vietnam Veteran who is married to a retired soldier. She worked with the Charleston VA Home Based Primary Care Program for 15 years and is currently the coordinator of the VA Home Based Primary Care Program in Conway, South Carolina.