Military veterans marched down Needham Avenue, in step and proud, and into Graceada Park on Wednesday morning.
Paradegoers lined the route and applauded in a collective show of honor, love and respect.
Yet a few miles away, at the Veterans Affairs Clinic on Oakdale Road, there’s a three-month wait for a medical appointment – once vets can prove to the bureaucrats they qualify for care. Other veterans know the streets and parks all too well because they call them home. The homeless count in January 2015 recorded 101 veterans in Stanislaus County, with 55 not staying temporarily in shelters.
Indeed, the treatment of veterans is inconsistent at best.
Over the past 15 years, I’ve met and written columns about scores of veterans who told their stories, almost all of them compelling. One, 84 years old when we spoke, came to tears talking about his days as a military escort taking soldiers’ remains home for burial after World War II and before he went to Korea. Nearly six decades later, and after retiring from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the weight of what he experienced at home and overseas came crashing down upon him, and he came to Modesto for counseling at the Vet Center.
Mike Stavrakakis, meanwhile, served in the Navy during the Korean War, was recalled to active duty during the Cold War and in between became one of those chosen to witness thermonuclear testing on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean. He continues to fight the cancer he got from radiation exposure, but at 87 marched in Wednesday’s parade and continues to collect books, blankets, movies and magazines he delivers to the waiting rooms at Veterans Affairs clinics and hospitals throughout Northern California.
I wrote about Ronn Cossey, a Vietnam vet from Turlock who befriended a troubled Iraq War veteran from Ohio. Together, they wrote a book titled “NamRaq” comparing their horrific experiences in their respective wars. And I wrote about an Iraq War veteran who hired on with the Ceres Police Department, but quit after a couple of months on the job because he couldn’t shake the memories of fierce fighting in Fallujah, and feared it might impact his decision-making abilities at home.
What you’ll notice when you get to know veterans from these wars is that they came home to different social, family and economic circumstances. The return to civilian life for some came easily. The World War II vets collectively enjoyed an accepting and adoring public because the Allies won the war. But those returning from the Korean and Vietnam wars – referred to at the time as “conflicts” or “police actions” – came home to dramatically different conditions. The Vietnam vets got the worst of it because they served during the socially and politically turbulent 1960s and early 1970s in a war that drew protests across the nation. Only in recent years, many tell me, have they felt accepted and appreciated for their service.
So what can people do to aid veterans and show their respect year-round? Support the organizations including the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars posts, the American GI Forum and others locally. Support the Modesto Gospel Mission, the Salvation Army and other shelters throughout the county where homeless veterans are likely to go. Write your congressional representative and U.S. senators to demand the government do a better job of caring for and restoring those who served through medical care, housing and employment opportunities.
There also are ways to support those who aren’t struggling. Turlock’s Sons In Retirement organization succeeded in getting medals from the Korean government for 113 veterans of the Korean War and Cold War.
Honor Flight is a nonprofit organization that flies World War II veterans back to Washington, D.C. to see the World War II Memorial on the Capitol Mall. It relies on private donations to ensure the veterans go for free. As the number of World War II vets able to make the grueling three-day cross-continental trip dwindles, Honor Flight chapters in Northern and Central California want to transition the program to enable Korean War and eventually Vietnam War vets to see their monuments as well.
Wednesday’s parade included veterans from the World War II through the Afghanistan and Iraq wars soaking up the love. It shouldn’t be a one-day-a-year feeling.