Organization helps Vietnam veterans navigate the system
Editor’s note: This is the last installment of a three-part series profiling those who either served in Vietnam or whose names are featured on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. A traveling version of the memorial arrived in Pickerington Nov. 10 and will continue to be on display through Nov. 15 at the David Johnston Post of the American Legion, 7725 Refugee Road.
Imagine waking up one morning and finding your son, a veteran of the Vietnam War, sound asleep in the floor of your garage.
Unbeknownst to you, he has been sneaking in there to sleep for weeks because he is homeless, cold and has nowhere else to turn – and the only reason you found him there was because he slept through his alarm clock.
It’s a true story that happened right here in central Ohio. And thanks to the Columbus chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America, it has a happy ending.
Joseph Jennings III, executive director of the organization, recalled how he worked with the veteran and his family to identify how the man suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of his service in the Vietnam War, and was eligible for full government benefits.
When the veteran initially applied for assistance, he was denied compensation for PTSD because his military file did not include a listing of his medals or badges of merit, which are required for PTSD claims. It turned out that the “onion skin” thin copy of his records was stuck to the back of another paper in his file, and the Columbus Chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America uncovered the mistake.
“He got a $125,000 lump sum payment and he’s getting something like $2,000 a month for the rest of his life,” he said. “It got him off the street. He’s not a burden on society any longer.”
That’s the type of thing that keeps Jennings, who served in the U.S. Army from 1967-70 and did a one-year tour of duty in Vietnam, plugging away for the good of all veterans.
“His family was just so grateful,” he said. “Those are the type of things that make you feel good about yourself and what you are doing.”
About the VVA
Founded in 1978, the Vietnam Veterans of America is the only national Vietnam veterans’ organization congressionally chartered and exclusively dedicated to Vietnam-era veterans and their families. The founding principle of the non-profit organization is “Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another.”
Jennings said the organization’s goals are to promote and support the full range of issues important to Vietnam veterans, to create a new identity for this generation of veterans, and to change public perception of Vietnam veterans.
The organization aims to aggressively advocate on issues important to veterans, particularly by seeking full access to quality health care for veterans and identifying the full range of disabling injuries and illnesses incurred during military service.
“Eighty percent of the people who served in the military have no idea of the benefits available to them,” Jennings estimated.
Suffering the effects of Agent Orange
Much of Jenning’s work is done in connection with Agent Orange, a code name for one of the herbicides and defoliants used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War from 1962-71.
The product was used with the goal of defoliating forested and rural land, depriving guerrillas of cover, Jennings explained. In addition, it was intended to destroy the ability of peasants to support themselves in the countryside, forcing them to flee to the U.S. dominated cities and depriving the guerrillas of their rural support base and food supply.
“It has a half-life of 250 years, which means 250 years from the day it was sprayed it will be half as strong,” he said. “There are still places in Vietnam where no vegetation is growing. This stuff can’t be recaptured. Once it is out there, it can’t be taken back.”
While in Vietnam, the soldiers were told not to worry about their exposure to it, and were persuaded that the chemical was harmless, Jennings said.
However, once returning home, Vietnam veterans began to suspect that their ill health or the instances of their wives having miscarriages or children born with birth defects may be related to Agent Orange and other toxic herbicides they were exposed to in Vietnam.
Dioxin, one of the ingredients in Agent Orange, is believed to be a carcinogen. Jennings said every two years the Center for Disease Control updates its recommendations for types of cancers that could have been caused by exposure to Agent Orange, and the list grows each time.
However, just because a veteran was exposed to Agent Orange does not mean that the government seeks them out.
“The veteran has to apply for assistance,” he said. “It is never automatically given to them.”
In addition, the veteran has to prove the disability is related to their time in service.
“It is a system that works but you have to be very diligent in its workings,” Jennings continued, noting that it takes eight to 14 months for a claim to move within the system.
Reaching out to today’s veterans
Part of the work of the Vietnam Veterans of America is to support the next generation of America’s war veterans – the ones who are serving in the Middle East today.
In fact, the organization is so passionate about providing support to these new veterans that it is considering changing its name.
“They’re battling many of the same things we did when we came back,” Jennings said.
Today’s soldiers in the Middle East are serving five or six tours of duty, compared to the two or three served in Vietnam, Jennings noted. Like Vietnam veterans, they are coming home with high rates of PTSD.
“Wives are the first ones to tell you, ‘He’s not the same person,’” Jennings said. “It’s all because they have gone through a combat situation. It’s a whole different ball game when other people’s lives are at stake. We’re all raised with the Judeo-Christian belief that though shall not kill. In a combat zone, that all gets thrown out the window.”
Many of the soldiers returning today are suffering from a traumatic brain injury as the result of shock waves from an explosion. Jennings compared it to a football concussion at 900 miles per hour.
“There’s no apparent physical damage, but there are parts of the brain that have been bruised and jostled,” he said. It can cause hearing or sight problems, short-term memory loss, or affect taste and smell.
Because of today’s technology, more soldiers are surviving combat than ever before, Jennings added.
“Ninety percent of the people wounded in combat today will survive if they can be seen by a medical professional within 20 minutes,” he said.
A visit to the Walter Reed military hospital is an eye-opening experience, he continued.
He said, “You will see things there that will make you think ‘How in the world did you survive?’”
Like the long-running war in Vietnam, Jennings fears today’s soldiers in the Middle East are fighting a battle that can’t be won.
“It is basically the same type of war as Vietnam, just over there they have mountains and caves – not jungles,” Jennings said. “History has a way of repeating itself.”
And perhaps more than anything, Jennings said, our experience in Vietnam should have taught our government, “You can’t go into another country and impose your will.”
For more information on Vietnam Veterans of America and how the organization can assist veterans, visit www.vva.org or call the Columbus chapter at (614) 228-0188.
To read the second story in the series about a Pickerington police officer who shares his stories about his time in Vietnam, click here.
To read the first story in the series about the namesake of the David Johnston Memorial Post 283, click here.