Some of you may remember a post I wrote right before Memorial Day titled "How Things Work." In order to get the full gist of this post, I recommend you read it before continuing on. This will serve to refresh your memory because I have a few things to say as a postscript. No, this doesn't have to do with gold mining, but it needs to be said just the same.
In that earlier post I mentioned that the Veterans Administration (V.A.) had denied me any medical care despite the fact I served two combat tours (1966, 1968) in Vietnam during that long and bloody war. I, along with a handful of buddies, was fortunate enough to return home mostly intact but with a heavy heart and with a mind and soul that were tormented. Ditto for my surviving friends, each in his own way. I won't go into the details but suffice it to say that all of us who returned from that awful place suffered. That's the simple but ugly truth. I'm not whining here nor seeking sympathy. You should all know by now that I'm not that way. I'm simply stating the facts as they were...and are.
Those were very difficult times for me (and those friends I'll mention). I went to Vietnam at the ripe old age of 18 the first time as an idealistic kid who had never been out of my home state of California nor more that 500 miles from my home town. My head was filled with the religious and patriotic ideals that had been drilled into me as a child coming up in the 1950s and early 1960s. My father and my uncles had all fought the good fight during World War II. I had no idea what it meant to be a warrior or to go to war, but I'd seen plenty of John Wayne war movies growing up and thought I did. So off to war I went...young, dumb, and dreaming of being a hero. It sounds ludicrous in hindsight, but that was who I was at the time.
Well, there were certainly some heroes in Vietnam and I witnessed a few selfless acts myself. But the truth is I wasn't one of them. I wasn't a hero. I never wavered in my duty to my friends though. I was simply a survivor. A scared, exhausted, and terribly homesick kid who just wanted to go home again. I'd had enough of the military and of war. During my 1968 tour my unit was involved in combat operations during some of the heaviest fighting of the Vietnam War, in the worst region of northern South Vietnam, and during a year in which the United States had more killed and wounded than any other during the war. By the time I rotated out in the late summer of 1968 I was done. The young, idealistic kid was gone forever to be replaced by someone who looked quite the same but was a total stranger to all when he returned "back to the world" as we called home in those days. I was angry and bitter with a simmering rage inside me that refused to die, always ready to explode at the slightest provocation, cynical and disbelieving. Any faith in religion or mankind I'd had before was shattered and my behavior at the time reflected all of this.
I also carried a heavy burden of survivor's guilt. Why did I return home when so many others did not? I felt I hadn't done enough, that I could have done more. I couldn't face my demons very well and went through three jobs in my first four months, backed up by drinking binges nearly every night of the week. The drug use (and abuse) would come later. One Sunday afternoon I threw my few simple possessions and a sleeping bag into the back of my van and drove off, not telling anyone and without any idea of where I was going. I ended up in remote campgrounds in the Sierra Nevada and in other states, always alone and avoiding people when and where I could. I worked odd jobs now and then to keep me in coffee, beans, and gasoline. Then I'd disappear back into the mountains to camp and fish, the latter the love of my life since childhood. It was good and it wasn't so good because the more I tried to run the more my demons tormented me. In truth, I was a very sick puppy at the time.
Eventually I returned to the world. Mostly at the urging of my sister whose love for me and my only brother was boundless. He was a year younger than I and when he wrote me during my '68 tour that he'd joined the Marines and was headed for Vietnam too I was heartsick. He eventually died at the age of 42, a troubled but essentially good man addicted to opiates and alcohol and in and out of jail or prison most of his adult life. Did Vietnam hasten his death? You damn well bet it did, just as it did for so many others who returned home to insults and neglect, and tagged as scapegoats by the ruthless politicians who sent us to war in the first place and by the members of our generation who never served or sacrificed but had the astounding arrogance to pass judgment on those of us who had. Where was the V.A. back then? Nowhere, as far as I can remember. There was no counseling, little in the way of benefits, and the V.A. hospitals were filled with broken and battered young men who were often treated with less than dignity. Those were very tough times for all of us.
Without any support or help from the government I eventually turned my life around, despite the terrible angst inside me, the anger and rage, the night terrors and dreams, the erratic behavior at times, and the drinking and drugging for self-medication. I went to college and got two degrees, I started a career, got married, raised a child and did my best to forget. But the demons were always there, whispering or mocking me. I stayed away from anything to do with the V.A. and even dropped all contact with my buddies who'd survived along with me. I held an immense distrust for authority of any sort and often found myself arguing and yelling at anyone who tried to tell me what to do. I was still a mess, but a functioning mess. Eventually the substance abuse caught up with me and I was forced to choose between life or death. I chose life. Ultimately, I couldn't dishonor those who died in Vietnam by throwing my life away. For whatever reason or reasons it had been given back to me and I had to do something with it.
In May when I wrote "How Things Work" I still retained much of that anger and bitterness I spoke of. Mainly against the "system" as it were, good...bad...and indifferent. About 18 months ago, I started seeing a counselor, a fine man and veteran named Robert Eisenberg at the Santa Fe, New Mexico Veterans Center. Robert's the guy who got me on the final path to understanding and healing...the rest I'd done myself through sheer hard work and soul searching. He's the person who suggested I apply for V.A. benefits despite my utter reluctance to do so. He said that I'd earned those benefits, despite the fact I distrusted the V.A. and the system as a whole. After all, what had they ever done for me? Then when I received word from the V.A. that I'd been denied any sort of medical benefits or health care, my anger and resentment surged again. I'd fought for this country and had endured, and now they were kicking me in the rear once more. I was angry at myself for opening those doors yet again and getting short shrift...again. But Robert counseled patience and said that no matter what, he'd have my back. If we needed to file the paperwork a dozen times we'd do it and he'd help me along the way.
The upshot? The V.A.and the government finally recognized my service, what I and so many others (including my buddies) had gone through as teenagers and young men. I'm now considered by the V.A. to be disabled and entitled to full medical care and a small monthly payment. It may be nearly 50 years after the fact, but that doesn't matter nor does the money or even the medical care. What matters is that this government has finally recognized my service so long ago. That's what really matters to me. True. I can finally close that door thanks to Robert, the Santa Fe Vet Center, the V.A. doctor who evaluated me, and my state veterans representative. I can rest easy now. Things have come full circle for me, just as they are starting to do for Denni, De La Cruz, Gene, and Doc, my buddies.
So it's all good.
(c) Jim Rocha (J.R.) 2016