September 11, 2017, my wife, Patti, and several family members attended the 2017 Veterans’ Voices Award ceremony at University of St. Thomas. The Minnesota Humanities Center started the program in 2013 to recognize Minnesota Veterans who quietly work with the underserved members of our state. I was deeply honored to be selected.
The evening had an air of celebration yet the sixteenth anniversary of 9-11-2001 hung like a pall over the ceremonies. After the White Earth Veterans Association Honor Guard posted colors, Bemidji’s own, Joe Vene, sang the National Anthem. After the Anthem, a moment of silence was observed for those lost on 9/11.
During that moment, as the White Earth Honor Guard marched slowly away, their dance bells rang mournfully, like chimes in the night calling the lost. As I accepted my award, I thought about what one of my old riverboat crewmates wrote to me a few weeks earlier when I questioned why we are still here after so many others of our Vietnam Brothers had been lost.
Brian wrote, “You and I are still here because it’s not our time yet. Someone watches over us, just the way they did when Tango 7 and Tango 11 got switched on the Cua Viet at Dong Ha. The 18th has become a day for me to remember and reflect. The Travelling Wall was in my area over the July 4 weekend, I made a point of going there to honor the men we lost those days.”
I too, remember the Marine Corps and Navy Memorial Services held on the sandy banks of the Cua Viet River and the Army/Navy Memorial Services held on a pontoon barge in the Mekong River. Fifty years later the faces blur but like chimes in the night, they echo in my memory.
In helping others, I honor the memory of those who never had a chance to grow old. Perhaps Brian is right. Our work isn’t finished yet.
I recently reconnected with Beverly Dawson, the lady I met at Glenview History Center in 2007. This Starlifter picture is from her book, Images of America, Glenview Naval Air Station. (Page 108).
Note the bus with the red cross backed up to the back of the medevac aircraft; that’s what we were loaded on to, to be transported to Great Lakes Naval Hospital on Aug 29,1968.
Beverly presented my Muddy Jungle Rivers memoir to a Navy League group in Glenview. Here is a message she sent me.
I think it’s fair to say everyone at last night’s meeting was mesmerized by your story — to a person, all asked how they might purchase a copy — I think your publisher will be hearing from Glenview!
I’m not quite sure where to begin to tell you about my reaction to the book — maybe best to just plunge in…
Your writing is terrific! I felt as if I was right there — you’ve a gift for making the story come alive.
Did I mention previously that I was in Vietnam about 15 years ago? Your descriptions of the river currents and jungle were so vivid — I was right back there as I read. Although my visit was limited to the area surrounding Ho Chi Minh City [Saigon] (and its harbor) and the Mekong Delta (and under completely different circumstances from yours), I recall thinking the environment was totally inhospitable — and what it must have been like for those in combat during the war. I realize full well my concept pales by comparison to the real thing.
Your description of those horrific wounds captured me — both as a nurse and as a fellow human being. And your accounts of the delivery of medical care were beyond anything I’d previously read.
The mob action as your bus left NASG has haunted me all these years since our meeting at the History Center — and more so now that I’ve read the details.
We lived in Chicago in 1968 and saw firsthand the disaster that was the Democratic Convention. As I look back on that time, it’s hard to comprehend that Americans are even capable of the kind of actions we saw back then.
The issues you raise regarding our treatment of veterans resonates even now. While our veterans today by and large have the support of the people, our government still is not doing right by those who’ve put their lives on the line for our country.
As an “old” psychiatric nurse, I’m particularly captivated by the success of your journey with PTSD. There’s so much I’d like to discuss with you — but that’s probably best saved for another day. The fact that you’ve come to terms with so many demons is huge!
My wife and I plan to visit Beverly at Glenview History Center either on the way down or upon our return from the Mobile Riverine Force Reunion in Indianapolis late this summer.
Have you ever been troubled by an event in your past? Troubled enough to revisit it? I did. I needed to make sense of why antiwar protestors would attack a hospital bus carrying wounded troops. The discoveries I made have had far-reaching effects. Here is the story, published in Vietnam magazine about my 2007 visit. Tomorrow I will post a recent development as a result of that 2007 visit.
(double click on page to enlarge)
“If it will save one widow from going through what I have experienced,” Angie told me recently, “People need to know.” Angie is a tiny, reserved lady. She speaks Ojibwa as a second language. Her goal is to pass traditional values on to her children and grandchildren.
I first met Angie’s husband, Deland, in 1992 at a post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) veteran’s group meeting. Trust came slowly. About a year after we met, Deland asked if I could help him butcher a deer. That evening in my farm butcher shop we visited as we worked. I learned that Deland had been raised in Ponemah, Minnesota, on the Red Lake Indian Reservation. I had been raised on a small farm just south of the reservation boundary.
Deland was a Marine Corps Veteran. He served in Vietnam December 1969-December 1970. Upon returning home he started a family and as with so many of us, he struggled with the ghosts of Vietnam. In 1998 Deland was awarded 100% permanent and total disability for PTSD. He successfully completed an inpatient PTSD treatment program at the Veterans Administration (VA) hospital in Topeka, Kansas.
On August 27, 1999, Deland died from massive heart failure. He was forty seven years old. His Certificate of Death states that he died of natural causes. In honoring Deland’s wishes, he had a traditional burial in the Ojibwa Custom.
Shortly after Deland’s death Angie filed for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) through our local Veteran’s Service Office (VSO). For those readers unfamiliar with DIC, it is basically a widow’s pension from the Veterans Administration. The first VA denial Angie received states, “During the lifetime of your husband he did not submit a claim for ischemic heart disease—.” Ischemic heart disease is a presumptive service-connected disease linked to Agent Orange exposure and can be verified through autopsy. In honoring the Ojibwa custom, there had been no autopsy.
About six months after Deland died Angie came out to our farm with her two daughters and her grandchildren. They were homeless and hungry. So began a fourteen year odyssey. My wife, Patti, and I did what we could to help. To be homeless is a dreadful condition—more so for women because they are so vulnerable to exploitation.
For Angie and her family, a chronic cycle of transient housing developed: Living with friends until the welcome wore out; low income housing until rent or utility bills became too delinquent; staying at homeless shelters until time expired. The family disintegrated. Angie’s daughters ran afoul of the law and the children were placed in foster homes.
In the beginning, I helped Angie and her family because I felt terribly guilty that Deland was dead and I was alive. Over the years, as I watched the family struggle, the guilt evolved into a mission of helping because it was the right thing to do.
If I were to put a date on that realization I would place it on a bitter January morning about nine years ago. I brought a box of meat to the little efficiency apartment Angie was living in. When she opened the door I was shocked to see six men sitting at her kitchen table, hands wrapped around steaming mugs of coffee. I carried the box to the counter and whispered, “Ang, who are these guys?”
“They’re from the shelter across the street,” she told me. “They get locked out during the day and have nowhere to go.” Perhaps one could call it an epiphany; in that moment I realized, here is this lady, with so little, sharing with others.
Our local VSO and representatives from the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), Deland’s power of attorney for VA claims, continued to work on Angie’s appeal. Sometime during those years Angie asked if I could help with her claim. She signed a Release of Information so I could access information about Deland’s case. I obtained a copy of his records. Our VSO explained that without an autopsy or some new information the VA would never approve the claim. The appeal-denial cycle continued up the VA appeals ladder. On March 20, 2013, I helped Angie fill out the “Appeal To Board Of Veterans’ Appeals.” It was the top rung on the VA appeals ladder.
I took the form home, spread Deland’s file on my desk, and again read through almost fourteen years of denials, knowing something was terribly wrong that our government should be denying this widow because of her husband’s religious values. As I combed through the documents I made an interesting discovery; I knew the coroner who had written “natural causes” on Deland’s death certificate. Over the years his wife and mine have attended bible study groups together.
I contacted the coroner, explained the situation, and asked if he might review the case. After reading Deland’s VA records and revisiting his own files from 1999 when Deland was brought into the local hospital the day of his fatal heart attack, the coroner wrote the following statement.
“The Veterans Administration review states that “the cause of death was suspected cardiac condition; however natural cause was indicated on the death certificate.” I would like to emphasis that when I do not have autopsy proof of cause of death I always sign the death certificate as “natural causes” unless other evidence indicates that the death was accidental, homicidal, or suicidal. Consequently the death certificate notation of “natural causes” does not mean that the patient did not have a cardiac condition.
On the contrary the history in this case suggests to me that most likely this man did in fact die of a cardiac condition, namely ischemic heart disease.”
On May 29, 2013, I hand-delivered the statement to our VSO officer. She faxed it to the DAV Regional Office in Fargo, North Dakota. The DAV requested that the information be expedited because of Angie’s situation.
On June 17, 2013, I was informed that Angie’s claim had been approved, retroactive to August 1999. With no address and no telephone she could not be contacted. I will not forget that day. Late in the afternoon her daughter called me, collect, and asked if I could help. She and Angie were hitchhiking and stuck at the edge of a small town. Nobody would stop to pick them up and Angie was sitting in the ditch, too tired to go any farther.
Today Angie owns a five bedroom home—mortgage free—and is reunited with her daughters. They are in the process of reintegrating the children from foster homes back into the family.
I stop by and visit Angie and her family once or twice a week. The last time I visited she asked me to tell her story. Over a year has gone by since she moved into her new home and I think she’s had time to reflect. Several times over the past year she has provided shelter to homeless friends. I still bring meat occasionally—it’s gotten to be a habit. She and I recently visited an attorney and created an irrevocable trust, twilighted when her last grandchild dies. Never will they be homeless.
Fifteen years ago when this journey began, I told Angie that what my wife and I shared with her was a gift. Today I feel that what Angie has shared with us is a greater gift than she can ever realize.
This past weekend I had the opportunity to do a book signing at the American Legion State Convention held in Rochester, MN. After Governor Dayton spoke to the Ladies Auxiliary members he stopped at my booth. We visited for a few minutes and I presented him with a copy of my memoir. He thanked me and said he would cherish it.
(Written by Patt Rall, Bemidji Pioneer Previews, published Sunday, April 20, 2014.)
•Northern Exposure to Lifelong Learning continues their spring season of talks with “A Healing Journey with Wendell Affield,” who is the author of “Muddy Jungle Rivers.” Affield will talk about his life after publication of his book, and his speaking engagements when he listened to hundreds of veterans and witnessed the devastating long-term effects of posttraumatic stress disorder. The program will begin at 9:30 a.m. at the Gonvick Community Center. This NELL program is offered free of charge, however, donations are gratefully accepted as is membership in the organization.
David Quam, a local Bemidji, MN, resident, has a mission: to document on film World War II veteran’s stories. David’s home page: http://www.ww2bji.org/
I felt honored when he asked to record my Muddy Jungle Rivers experience.
David recently learned of my plan to bring our Mobile Riverine Force Museum to Beltrami County Fair. He has filmed this 2 minute video.
Northern Exposure to Lifelong Learning (NELL)
Program will be in Gonvick Community Center:
Coffee at 9am, program at 9:30 and wrap up around 11 or so. depending on questions.
Open to the public
(From NELL Newsletter)
In January 1968 Wendell Affield went to Vietnam as the cox’n of Armor Troop Carrier 112-11 with the Mobile Riverine Force. Part of his tour of duty was in the Mekong Delta with the Army 9th Infantry Division and, for four months, with the 3rd Marine Division on the Cua Viet River. He was wounded in an ambush and medevac’d home in August 1968.
Forty-five years later he reconnected with four of the ambush survivors after one of them discovered his book on Amazon. Affield will talk about his journey since Muddy Jungle Rivers was published in 2012. During book signings and speaking engagements he has listened to hundreds of veterans and witnessed the devastating long-term effects of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“As we age, we hope to make peace with the past; to make sense of long ago traumas. PTSD is not unique to Vietnam Veterans,” Affield says. “World War Two Veterans have broken down when they shared their story with me. We need to educate the public. PTSD is a normal human reaction to violence. And it’s normal not to burden loved ones with those memories. With this new generation of young men and women returning from combat zones it is our responsibility to listen to them and not judge. It is our responsibility to help them reintegrate into the community they left.”
Books will be available for sale at the NELL gathering
Tamara Edevold, NELL coordinator
Northern Exposure to Lifelong Learning (NELL) is a 501(c) (3)non-profit organization, created to enrich the quality of life in our local communities through lifelong learning and the arts. Our goal is to inspire people to learn, to grow, and to give to their communities.
Northern Exposure to Lifelong Learning provides programs in humanities and the arts, including a series of lectures in the spring and fall that are free and open to the public. NELL also offers performing arts and intergenerational programs in local schools, the Evergreen Reader program in area assisted-care facilities and special cultural events.
Minnesota’s Historic Northwest
March 26, 8 PM
Mobile Riverine Force Vietnam
For those of you who have read Muddy Jungle Rivers, or are interested in the river war in Vietnam, this History Special will add a new layer of understanding. See the trailer at: http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/channel/episodes/brothers-in-war/
Through gripping first-person accounts and digitally remastered archival footage, including the soldiers’ own home movies and personal audio tapes, Brothers in War recounts the harrowing combat experiences of the men of Charlie Company one of the last American combat infantry companies to be drafted, trained and sent to fight together in Vietnam. The two-hour special is fittingly narrated by Charlie Sheen, who rose to stardom after his 1986 performance as a Vietnam soldier in Platoon.
I’ve been busy working on my next book and neglecting my web site blog. I hope to get more active again.
(To put this blog post in context, please read the August 18 post.)
Reunions can be poignant, frightening, illuminating. This past week my wife, Patti, and I attended the 2013 Mobile Riverine Force Association Reunion held in Indianapolis. I was saddened to see how age and Agent Orange illnesses have ravaged our ranks. One of the founding members of the MRFA stoically told me, “The doctors give me about twelve months.”
But there were moments of disbelief, too. About a year ago, Larry Reid, Nashville, Tennessee, an army veteran who had been riding our boat when we were ambushed on August 18, 1968, discovered “Muddy jungle Rivers” on Amazon and purchased it. Over the past twelve months we’ve been in touch. On the first day of the reunion he introduced himself. We compared notes on how our lives have evolved over the past four decades. The second day of the reunion Larry came up to me and said, “I found three guys who were in the well deck on August 18.”
It was an intense experience.
Larry R. McCormick, Amarillo, Texas, looked at me, frowned, and shook his head. “I thought you were dead these past forty-five years.”
“Why would you think that?” I said
“Because of all the blood dripping down from your cox’n flat above me. And the boat kept running into things.”
“Each time rockets hit my armor plating I kept getting knocked down,” I told him.
He asked an unusual question then—one I’ve never thought about. “How many times were you hit?” I have always considered the ambush one action—not multiple injuries. I thought back for a time and told him, “Four, I suppose.”
We all visited then and recalled that hot Sunday afternoon and I thought again how each of us remembered differently yet there were some memories held by all. David L. Cowley, from “The Great State of Texas” brought up what we all remembered most vividly.Blood splattered everywhere. Blood trickling across the welldeck deck. Heroism of already wounded men, cradling smoldering crates as they struggled across the slick deck to throw grenades and ammo overboard before it exploded.
I brought up the black army sergeant who had come up to man our abandoned .50 caliber machine gun. I told again how he had been severely maimed when a B-40 rocket burned through the armor and he took a direct hit. Cleve Chick, Elkridge, Maryland, recalled that he was a career man who had recently joined the platoon. Most of the men didn’t know him. “Thomas,” Cleve said. “His last name was Thomas.”
Larry gave me a list of twenty-three army men who were on ATC 112-11 who received a Purple Heart for wounds received on August 18. Two names are missing: Hector Lugo-Mojica who was Killed in Action, and the black sergeant named Thomas.
I wonder if Sergeant Thomas was the senior man on board ATC 112-11 on August 18. I believe in the chaos of the day his act of heroism went unnoticed and unrecorded. I would very much like to identify the sergeant. If he did not survive his wounds, his family deserves to know of his actions. If he did survive, and is still alive, I would very much like to meet him.
I am humbled that “Muddy Jungle Rivers” was the catalyst that brought us together. Each of these men has a story of that afternoon and if they would like to write it, I will post it on this blog.