Were it not for the “Vietnam Veteran” hat he wore, I would have never known he was a vet. Having heard stories here and there about men who, even now, have yet to receive a genuine, unsolicited thank you for their service in Vietnam, I have made it my goal to do my part whenever I encounter one. It’s because I am thankful, and I wish to tell them that although many of their countrymen may have forgotten, we still remember them, and more than most, we know what they’ve endured and how truly devastating their return to the states proved to be. We still owe them for that, and just as many thank you’s as apologies. I walked over, greeted him, extended a hand, and thanked him for his service. He nodded solemnly.
“Were you in the service, too?”
I told him I was, and rattled off the units I served with over the years. He had been with Army Combat Engineers while in Vietnam.
“Actually,” he continued, “I just finished filing some more paperwork with the VA here recently. The local place isn’t helpful, so I went down to Albuquerque where they’re pretty nice. But I haven’t heard anything back since I went there in October. They did a bunch of tests on my knee, screened me for Agent Orange, and also for PSD or whatever they call it. I haven’t gotten the results, though.”
Nor is his case a unique one. By some estimates, the VA is backlogged on processing more than 512,000 veteran claims, many of them from older vets. Perhaps out of guilt for how poorly Vietnam veterans were treated, extensive media coverage of this new conflict, or an aggregation of reasons, OIF and OEF veterans are being pushed to the front of the line at VA facilities – often at the expense of those whose service, though years ago, far exceeded ours. Oddly, however, as he told me this, I caught no trace of anger or frustration in his voice. He seemed resigned to the extensive delays. He shrugged.
“I dunno. They don’t move quickly down there, I know. But I’ve had known a bunch of other guys that tried to get help and were turned away. A lot of them committed suicide. I joined the American Legion in town here to see if they would help me, but they only have about six guys at their post. And they just drink all the time.”
I suggested he join the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), since they had done wonders to expedite my VA filing process.
“I might try that. Maybe the VFW here will help me.” He shrugged again.
I told him how I was embarrassed that OIF/OEF veterans could get rapid claims processing but his generation could not. I also expressed some hope that the VA’s new director and larger budget would help speed up the process for everybody. He didn’t appear terribly hopeful, however. He slowly finished chewing, swallowed, and wiped his mouth.
“Son, I got out of the Army in ’74. We got shit on then, and we get shit on now. I don’t imagine any new director or budget is going to change that. After 35 years, you sorta get used to it.” He went back to his plate of pancakes…
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