Almost twenty years ago when I retired I knew I had stories to tell. I began studying the writing craft at Bemidji State University. Muddy Jungle Rivers, A Vietnam War Memoir, was published in 2012. Since then I have spoken at dozens of book signings and other events. The most humbling experience is to listen to the stories and read the messages veterans and veteran’s families share with me. This next Tuesday evening I am scheduled to speak at the Annual Volunteer Dinner for Sanford Bemidji Home Care and Hospice about issues older veterans face as they approach End of Life. I will put to use lessons I’ve learned listening to those veterans over the past several years. My topic, “Making Peace with the Past.”
This print book includes the first singles catalogue that my stepfather ordered after he returned to his farm from World War Two in October 1945 and began his search for a wife. The $2.99 PDF download includes the compete book plus all the singles publications he ordered and a preview of Pawns (The Farm, 1950s), Chickenhouse Chronicles, Book II.
About six months after my friend, Deland, died in 1999, his widow and her family came to our farm, homeless and hungry. Angie is a proud lady and offered to repay our help. I told her that anything we shared with her was a gift. So began a journey that continues today.
Deland and I first met in a therapy group. We had been diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a result of combat in Vietnam. Too often, PTSD sufferers go through life battling depression, reliving traumas, and feeling they are victims. There is another way for some.
Posttraumatic growth is a relatively new concept. UNC Charlotte, Dept of Psychology, describes it this way, “It [posttraumatic growth] is positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or a traumatic event.” When Angie and her family arrived at our farm 17 years ago, she unwittingly became an instrument of healing for me.
Today, when I do readings and talks about my Vietnam memoir, Muddy Jungle Rivers, I discuss PTSD and how my journey with Angie and her family has been rewarding.
I am deeply honored to have Laura Schroff include Angie’s story, “Six cups of Coffee” in Angels on Earth.
Miigwech [thank you], Angie and Laura.
These recent protests against the Trump rally and the media’s obsession comparing it to the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests have triggered memories of my 1968 confrontation with the anti-war protestors. While serving with the Brown Water Navy in Vietnam I was wounded in an ambush and medevac’d home.
On August 29, 1968, our C-141 Starlifter landed at Glenview Naval Air Station. We were transferred from the Starlifter to hospital buses for transport to Great Lakes Naval Hospital. When the buses pulled off the base we were surrounded and attacked by the protestors. For several decades I was troubled by why protestors would attack bus loads of wounded troops traveling.
(This Starlifter picture is from Beverly Dawson’s book, Images of America, Glenview Naval Air Station. (Page 108).)
This Vietnam magazine article I wrote several years ago details the event. https://www.wendellaffield.com/uncategorized/22-august-2007-revisiting-the-past
I recently read Thomas Childers Soldier From The War Returning (2009) in which he explores the lives of three Second World War veterans and their families. The book documents a part of our collective past—an inconvenient truth—that has been airbrushed from our national memory. Yet millions of Baby Boomers grew up in the shadow of that history.
By the spring of 1964 I was tired of my mother and stepfather’s constant feuding. As soon as school was out I left our farm in northern Minnesota and spent much of the summer riding freight cars and living in hobo camps—jungles—across the Northwest. I look back from more than fifty years out and try to recall the men I met. They’re faceless now but I remember a story passed around in the Wenatchee jungle that prompted many of them to hop a freight car. Witnessing the way this story spread like wildfire, even through the prism of a sixteen-year-old worldview, I realized it was somehow unusual.
The tale circulated that there was a state program in the South—I don’t recall what state—that was giving every homeless veteran fifty dollars, no residency requirement necessary; all one had to do is show up at the disbursement office. Younger men gave older and crippled men a boost up into slow-rolling freights. I realize now those old men were probably First World War veterans—possibly a Spanish American War veteran or two. The helpers, the majority of the hobos, were Second World War veterans. How I wish I had known to take notes; to visit with those men.
Statistics in the “Introduction” of Childers’ book are what first grabbed my attention. For example, he writes, “By 1943 the U. S. Army was discharging ten thousand men each month for psychiatric reasons, and the numbers increased as the war dragged on. During the Battle of Okinawa…the Marines suffered twenty thousand psychiatric casualties. …Veterans Administration (VA) hospitals were swamped with “psychoneurotic” cases, and two years after the war’s end, half the patients in the VA medical facilities were men suffering from “invisible wounds.” Post traumatic stress disorder was not diagnosed until 1980….” (page8)
My stepfather was one of those men who was discharged early but slipped through the cracks when he did seek help in 1948 from an overwhelmed VA system.
The majority of those hobos I lived with the summer of 1964 were no doubt a remnant of the legions of rootless veterans from those earlier conflicts. It was that summer I met my first Vietnam Veteran—of him my strongest memory is his drunken, unpredictable rages.
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.
I’ve prayed so much that her life would straighten itself out – the more I think of it the more I feel it is possible her war experience unconsciously to her was eating out her vitals – how tragic life is for the world.
Henry O. Philips, January 23, 1943
Written by my grandfather, a World War I veteran. He recognized post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) forty years before the world put a label it.
Folded in half, tucked inside a scrap book I salvaged from the chickenhouse, I discovered this seventeen year old girl. She’s standing on the weather deck of SS American Farmer, lifeboat resting in the davits behind her, in New York Harbor. PROOF, NEWS EVENTS PHOTO SERVICE, PULITZER BUILDING, stamped across, dated September 24, 1937.
I studied my future mother, Barbara’s, face for the longest time trying to imagine what might be going through her mind. She is four months beyond high school graduation; less than two months beyond her first suicide attempt. Two years later, to the day in 1939, she will return to New York on this same ship, carrying memories that will impact her for life.
A month earlier, my grandmother wrote in her diary, “August 26, 1939: A frightful shock this a.m. in the air mail, mailed by Bar [Barbara] from Poland enclosing a letter from a young Polish Engineer asking us for permission to marry Bar—apparently immediately. We are simply stunned. We don’t know what to do—of course our inclination would be to cable to wait until xmas. Think of her beautiful talent being stored away in Poland, the tension spot of the world.”
(I believe they did get married. In a 1960 psychiatric report my mother speaks of a fourth husband.)
On the same day Elsie received that stunning letter, Saturday, August 26, 1939, Eva’s (Barbara’s friend) father put Barbara on a train in Nowy Sacz, Poland, warning her she must flee. She must have been frantic with worry about her new husband, Kristaw.
There is no record of her saying goodbye to him. He was probably bivouacked in the Gliwice area, less than one hundred miles from Nowy Sacz where the opening shots of WWII would be fired, one week later, on the night of August 31, 1939.
My researcher discovered that he was a Major in the Polish Army.
For that full story go to: https://www.wendellaffield.com/war/chickenhouse-chronicleskatyn-forest-massacre
As many of you who follow my posts know, after Barbara died in 2010 I discovered a treasure trove, our family history—thousands of pages and documents—locked in the chickenhouse on the old farm homestead in northern Minnesota.
These documents are the foundation for “Chickenhouse Chronicles” a nonfiction book series in progress.
“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.
I was honored to be guest speaker.
I was surprised at the large crowd on such an overcast windy morning. It was refreshing to see youth groups participating in the memorial service.
Bagley residents should be proud of the tribute they pay their veterans.
Click on the title and listen to the 11 minute talk.
I am humbled by the comments I received after the ceremony.