United States Air Force
Long Beach, CA
When it comes to the VA, most the veterans I've talked to agree on two things. First, the VA can actually really help you. Second, you will probably die of old age before it happens. I guess this goes for any bureaucracy. After months of trying to get into the volunteer program at the VA Hospital in Long Beach without any luck, I randomly met Carlos at a leadership seminar my friend invited me to. Carlos told me about his friend who lived in the Residential Community at the VA, Rick, and how much he would appreciate a visitor. He agreed to meet me the next morning, show me around the VA, and introduce me to Rick.
The residential unit at the VA in Long Beach isn't exactly what I expected. It's very functional and clean in a very standard way (this is to say that it is obviously cleaned often, with functionality instead of comfort in mind), lit with blinking fluorescent lights and bustling with people who walk down the long corridors with a sense of purpose. The predominating color is gray, and most surfaces are flat and shiny. Polished gray walls, polished grey floors, hard plastic tables. Even though it's a residential unit, you get the feeling that no one plans on staying that long. It's clinical, and it's not quite that I'd like to spend the last days of my life. Unfortunately, sometimes there is not another option.
The residential unit is separated into two different "pods". The x-pod is an acute rehabilitation unit for patients who have multiple medical diagnoses. The z-pod is where Rick Arnold lives, and its' patients are mostly there for hospice care. Rick is staying there to be treated for diabetes and exposure to Agent Orange in the Vietnam War.
One of the first things I notice about the residential unit is that although the interior is bleak, the staff is friendly and good natured. Everyone is very nice to me. I wasn't expecting this. I was expecting a staff of rigid robots that acted as barricades for rooms which I wanted to enter. It not always that you find genuine smiles in stressful places, but I seem to find them everywhere.
When I meet Rick he is leaning back in his motorized wheel chair. Rick wears a a sturdy cowboy hat with a patch on the front reading "Vietnam Veteran". It is adorned with about 30 different pins, all highlighting a different place or time of the war. His white beard spills over his chin and chest. Black, thick-rimmed glasses frame two piercing eyes. Within the first few minutes of meeting Rick, he cracks a joke and laughs heartily, and I see that his smile is perfect. His teeth are two rows of white pearls and his high cheekbones lift into red apples with each peal of laughter.
It takes me a while to start asking Rick about his life, because I am a little afraid of what I will hear. I haven't really ever spoken at length with a Vietnam veteran before, and most of my conceptions about the war come from movies like Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. I have a very romanticized, very Hollywood version of the Vietnam War that exists in my head and I'm afraid to give up the steamy jungles, the tan lanky shirtless soliders, and mythology of that war that is so intriguing to me.
When I ask Rick about the war itself, he can't really tell me much. He worked in the Air Force "on a base that didn't exist" in an area of Vietnam next to the Chinese border where "the US didn't have any bases, by law." He cryptically tells me of things that never happened, since he's still not allowed to talk about them, and in doing so I am confused and intrigued. It sounds very exciting, and very covert. I want to know more, but when I push Rick to elaborate, he won't. One thing he does tell me about is Agent Orange.
Agent Orange was used by the US in Vietnam as a part of a chemical warfare program.The program's goal was to defoliate forested and rural land, and thereby deprive guerrillas of cover. It also destroyed the ability of peasants to support themselves in the countryside because all of their food supply was destroyed. They were forced to flee to the U.S. dominated cities, thus depriving the guerrillas of rural support. US military personnel responsible for loading and unloading the chemicals onto planes, as well as those who were responsible for spraying the perimeter of US military bases were the most heavily exposed. Rick did both of these things, and as a result has a condition called Neuropathy, which causes him relentless weakness, numbness, tingling and pain. According to Rick, because he is not able to prove that he was stationed at that base, because all the records have been blacked out, he is unable to get treatment for his exposure to Agent Orange because he is unable to prove that he was exposed to it.
When I ask Rick if he was ever warned about the debilating effects of Agent Orange, he tells me that his superiors persuaded him not to worry, and that it was harmless. I'm shocked at how emotionless and matter-of-fact he is as he states all these things. I guess it makes sense. Rick has been dealing with the fallout of war and his own disenchantment for decades. I am just being allowed to see it now.
The part of Rick's story that is the most disturbing to me is when he tells me what it was like coming back home from Vietnam. I have heard horror stories from others, and from Rambo, about the way that US veterans were treated after coming home from war. I always imagined that this kind of idiocy and cruelty happened only out in the sticks, where ignorant people resided. But, Rick came home to Long Beach, which is where I live. Rick says that he couldn't go anywhere in uniform. The first time he made this mistake he had people throw rocks at him and call him "baby-killer". Soliders were shunned, ostracized, and bullied by a public that did not want them.
I cannot wrap my brain around this. Peace activists stoning people to death. It's ludicrous. At first hearing Rick's first-hand account, I am furious. The most confounding aspect of this is that most of the soldiers in Vietnam did not choose to go there; they were drafted.
Rick tells me happy stories too. He tells me about his love for planes, about the camaraderie he felt with his follow soldiers, and about how much he loves his country. Despite all of the turmoil and devestation he has faced in his life, when I ask Rick if he would do it again, he does not hesitate before offering an enthusiastic yes.
On the third time I visit Rick, we decide to go for a walk. The sun is on it's descent in the sky and a golden glow permeates everything in sight. He shows me Bob Hope's old house, the golf course, the meditation garden, and a corridor of regal old oak trees that make a tunnel over a passage behind the parking lot. It's beautiful.
We pass through the lush vegetable and flower gardens that are maintained by VA patients, and I see that I needed this walk more than Rick did. He is kind to me, asking me about my life, and counseling me on problems that seem so small compared to his. He is patient with me and listens attentively. As we walk back, dappled sunlight filters though leafy treetops above our heads and the smell of the nightblooming jasmine is overwhelming enough to make us both stop and take notice. In that moment, I recognize that despite our myriad of differences, we are the same. We are both humans who need other humans, and we need each other.
"They'd try to run me over with their trucks. They'd throw rocks at me, trying to stone me to death. They would spit on me. They would sick their dogs on me. Just because I wore a military uniform.
Rick answers the question, "What can I, as a civilian, do to be there for you?"
"When you come home to nation that doesn't want you because of where you've been, that isn't helpful."
written by Anna Judd