ALASKA’S VANISHING CARE: How VA’s “Choice” program sabotaged a hard-earned network of local health care across the state’s vast and inaccessible wilds

By Ken Olsen

(Copyright 2016, All Rights Reserved)

Last fall, an Alaska veteran made the five-hour drive from Homer to Anchorage for macular degeneration treatment. But after eight phone calls to VA’s Veterans Choice program, Alaska Retinal Consultants couldn’t get authorization for an injection vital to maintaining his eyesight. Out of concern for the veteran’s health, the clinic provided the treatment free of charge – then told VA it was done with the Choice program.

“We were talking with people in five different states,” says Katie Reilly, former operations manager for Alaska Retinal Consultants. “It was not unusual to talk to four to eight people to get one thing authorized. There was no reliability, no consistency and conflicting information – things you fire people for in a normal business.”

That’s a common sentiment among veterans, families and health-care providers throughout Alaska who were suddenly forced to switch to Veterans Choice in mid-2015 after VA ran out of money in other programs. Advertised as a congressional solution for the patient backlog at Phoenix and other beleaguered VA medical centers, the Choice program sabotaged a successful multiyear effort to provide Alaska veterans access to health care close to home.

“All of the programs we were using to provide care to veterans in Alaska communities were gone,” says Verdie Bowen, director of the state’s Office of Veterans Affairs. “We were getting hundreds of complaints a day from veterans and family members.”

The ensuing health-care disaster was akin to a “five-alarm fire,” in the words of Marine Corps veteran and U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska. Surgeries were canceled. Everything from chemotherapy to colonoscopies was delayed for weeks, if not months. Veterans were then forced to start from scratch, enrolling in a new VA health-care program and finding doctors and clinics willing to jump through the hoops to qualify as Choice providers. (The private contractor for Choice failed to sign up any Alaska physicians before it rolled out the program.) Not to mention enduring an onerous new process for getting approval for even the most routine medical care.

“Veterans Choice is like laying out the carpet,” says Frank Lazo, commander of Prince of Wales Post 26 in Craig, “and then jerking it out from 
under you.”

“This was a knee-jerk reaction by Congress to the Phoenix problem,” Bowen adds, referring to the patient backlog scandal that cost VA Secretary Eric Shinseki his job in 2014. “They completely misunderstood how this would affect care in Alaska.”

BUREAUCRATIC BLUNDER

Alaska has long recognized the challenges of caring for veterans in a state more than twice the size of Texas but equipped with just five VA clinics and no VA hospital. Because roughly half of Alaska communities are not on a road system, seeing a VA doctor means traveling by airplane, boat or both. “It’s quite the traveling ordeal if you are going to have an appointment with VA,” Lazo says. And veterans with less than a 30 percent VA disability have to pay for that travel out of their own pocket.

In 2010, Alaska began working with DoD, VA, private medical providers and Native health centers to give veterans access to VA-reimbursed medical care in their local communities, Bowen says. The result was a trio of programs that made the best of what was available in different parts of the state: 
the DoD/VA Joint Venture agreement at the state’s military hospitals and clinics, the Care Closer to Home initiative – VA-reimbursed medical treatment from private physicians – and the VA/Alaska Native Healthcare program. The latter alone, brought to fruition by years of negotiation and 26 separate agreements, made VA-reimbursed care available 
to native and non-native veterans in 122 clinics across the state.

Volunteers coaxed reluctant former servicemembers into enrolling in the rural health programs, resulting in many Vietnam War veterans getting medical care for the first time, says Jan Storbakken, veterans service officer for Post 26. The Alaska VA worked with veterans to find the most logical way to see a doctor.

“It was fabulous,” Storbakken says. “If it was cheaper and easier, Southeast Alaska veterans could go to Seattle for care.”

Getting that approval was comparatively easy. 
“I could make one phone call and get an appointment quick,” says Korean War Navy veteran Budd Burnett, who lives on Prince of Wales Island in southeastern Alaska.

Veterans Choice turned all that on its head. A private contractor took over scheduling, and routed Alaska veterans’ requests for medical appointments first to a call center in Louisiana and later to one in Washington state. What once took a phone call became weeks-long scheduling marathons.

“They are completely ignorant of Alaska cities and distances,” Burnett says. “They think the Alaska Marine Highway System is a road you can drive on, not a ferry you take.”

Under Veterans Choice, Alaska veterans wait far longer for medical appointments and pay more out of pocket for that care. Take Burnett. After weeks of phone calls, Veterans Choice finally approved his finger surgery and gave him a date to have the operation at a civilian hospital in Ketchikan. He made the three-hour, $210 ferry ride from his home on Prince of Wales Island to Ketchikan, only to discover that the Veterans Choice call center had given him the wrong surgery date. By the time Veterans Choice straightened out the mess, the surgeon Burnett requested had retired and moved out of state.

It then took more than three months for the program to arrange for Burnett to get a colonoscopy after a clinic on Prince of Wales found evidence of bleeding in his lower intestinal tract. “It was ridiculous,” he says. “A person could have died if it had been more serious.”

“This new program is waste, fraud and abuse for Alaska,” Storbakken adds. “Millions of dollars that were going to care for veterans is now going to administration.”

PROTESTS AND PROMISES

Complaints from the governor, state officials and Alaska’s congressional delegation were so persistent that David Shulkin, VA undersecretary for health, restored funding to the VA/Alaska Native Healthcare program within days. But the Care Closer to Home program – which gave veterans VA-reimbursed access to private clinics – has been revived only on a case-by-case basis.

A VA spokesman maintains that neither the Native Healthcare partnership nor Care Closer to Home ever lost VA funding. But the agency does acknowledge that using a private contractor to run Veterans Choice “created some challenges and confusion for veterans and community providers.”

The disruption in veterans’ health care was so serious that Sullivan organized a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee field hearing in Alaska last August. The testimony included 35 pages of complaints submitted by Alaska veterans left in pain and limbo by the sudden switch to Veterans Choice, an untested program designed for Arizona, not Alaska.

By then, Alaska Retinal Consultants had walked away from Veterans Choice.

“I can remember somewhere around that time telling the VA that if they weren’t going to fix it then we weren’t going to deal with them anymore,” says Dr. David Zumbro, who served 20 years in the Army before joining the office in Anchorage. The process was onerous. “It resulted in one of our employees dedicating the majority of her day helping veterans navigate the confusing bureaucratic morass known as Veterans Choice.”

Alaska Retinal Consultants and its veteran patients – who are dealing with everything from diabetic retinopathy to macular degeneration – were fortunate. VA dropped the mandate that they use the Choice program.

“Since then, my staff has been dealing directly with the VA in Alaska and we have not had a problem taking care of Alaska veterans,” Zumbro says. That’s the kind of local control that makes VA health care work for Alaska veterans.

But Alaska Retinal Consultants has clout other physicians might not be able to wield, with the only fellowship-trained retinal surgeons in the state. Other medical practices are still struggling, particularly to get reimbursed under the Veterans Choice program, Storbakken says.

And veterans continue to fight to see the physician of their choosing. “There is often no choice in Veterans Choice,” says Dan Kosterman, a disabled veteran and Eagle River optometrist who has endured long delays getting treatment for everything from spinal pain to sleep problems. “It seems like it takes an act of Congress to get an appointment with my provider. It’s like they are trying to shove veterans out the door.”

At Sullivan’s urging, VA agreed to pilot a Veterans Choice call center in Alaska in an attempt to have people who are knowledgeable about the state coordinate Alaska veterans’ care. “He was originally told by multiple VA officials that the program would be rolled out in two or three phases,” says Mike Anderson, Sullivan’s press secretary.

That pilot program is still pending, VA says. Meanwhile, the private contractor running Veterans Choice has hired Alaska staff to make it easier for veterans to get authorization for care and improve the process for paying medical providers.

The combination of Veterans Choice and the Affordable Care Act has also created problems for veterans with private insurance. Veterans Choice makes VA the “payer of last resort” instead of the primary insurer. So veterans have to pay their entire private insurance deductible before VA coverage kicks in if they are being treated for an issue that isn’t connected to their military service.

“Most people can’t afford a good insurance plan, so they get stuck with high deductibles,” Bowen says. He and the National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs are lobbying Congress to eliminate the payer-of-last-resort provision from Veterans Choice throughout the United States.

With this and other fixes, Bowen is optimistic that Veterans Choice can be salvaged.

“I think it will grow into something we can live with,” he says. “Is it better for the vet? I don’t think so. The networks we have in Alaska are great. I wish we could go back in time.”

Plenty of Alaska veterans think that’s the answer. “They should just eliminate the Choice program,” Burnett says, “and go back to the way it was – when we could just call VA and get an appointment.”

This story originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of The American Legion Magazine.

 

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Wrongful discharge? Board that corrects military records ‘stacked against servicemembers’ critics charge

By Ken Olsen

(Copyright 2016, All rights reserved)

Want to correct an unfair discharge or remove an erroneous mental health diagnosis from your service record? The Army or Navy board of last resort will spend five minutes on your case. Maybe less.

“The deck is really stacked against servicemembers at these boards,” says Thomas Moore, manager of the Lawyers Serving Warriors project at the National Veterans Legal Services Program and a former Army JAG officer.

“They go to great lengths to deny meritorious claims,” adds Raymond Toney, a former Army reservist and private attorney who specializes in these cases. “They see their role as defending the government.”

In other words, if a combat veteran with PTSD is wrongly discharged for a personality disorder, he or she has almost no chance of setting the record straight – a record that makes all the difference as to whether they receive medical care and retirement benefits or are able to make a career outside the military.

A personality disorder discharge is often also a significant blow to a servicemember’s personal pride.  “They feel like they have served honorably, gone to war, and then have been improperly booted without acknowledging the wounds they received as a result of combat,” Moore says. “They feel like it’s an indelible stain on their military record.”

A Board for Correction of Military Records was established for each service branch following World War II. Board members are civilian volunteers who also often work full-time jobs. They consider a wide range of issues, from promotion and pay to whether a servicemember should have received a particular commendation such as a Purple Heart. The boards also decide whether a servicemember should have been medically retired for combat injuries such as PTSD and TBI, rather than simply declared unfit for duty due to developmental issues such as personality disorders and adjustment disorders and cut from the ranks. They are the board of last resort for discharge upgrades.

However, the correction boards are overwhelmed with cases and do not have the resources to do the job Congress charged them to do. Toney analyzed the work of three boards after noticing that the Army and Navy boards often avoided addressing potentially meritorious claims, or simply dismissed such claims on the grounds that “the applicant has presented no evidence” when it was clear the applicant had, he says. He discovered that the Army board spent fewer than five minutes reviewing each case. The Navy board, which also considers Marine Corps issues, spent an average of two minutes. Only members of the Air Force board take cases home a week in advance so they have ample time to review the record.

In other words, “these cases are predetermined by staff,” and board members are simply signing off on those decisions, Moore says.

Mistakes are common. If key documents are missing from the applicant’s military personnel file, the boards assume that the service branches properly followed procedures and did the right thing. In situations where a servicemember was discharged for a personality disorder, for example, the National Veterans Legal Services Program often discovers that the mental status evaluation was not done properly, or the document that shows the doctor actually diagnosed PTSD instead of a personality disorder is missing from the file.

Veterans can appeal corrections board decisions to the Court of Federal Claims or a U.S. district court. Yet only a small percentage of cases reach the federal courts – most former servicemembers don’t have the means to appeal, Toney says. And while the court has severely chastised the boards, little has changed.

What’s the solution? A 1996 DoD report to Congress outlined recommended that all service branches follow the example set by the Air Force corrections board, Toney says. “Twenty years later, none of the recommendations have been implemented.”

The boards also need more resources in order to be able to take the time to make thoughtful decisions, as well as more oversight.

“There’s no consequences to the board or the board staff for these decisions,” Toney says. “You have a system of impunity for bad decision-making. It’s going to take (action by) Congress and the secretary of defense. It’s going to take people getting pissed off about it.”

This story originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of The American Legion Magazine. Check out this related story on involuntary discharges: Booted After Battle: Thousands of combat veterans have been kicked out of the military for misconduct without regard for PTSD, TBI or their right to medical retirement

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BOOTED AFTER BATTLE Thousands of combat veterans have been kicked out of the military for misconduct without regard to PTSD, TBI or their right to medical retirement

By Ken Olsen

(Copyright 2016, All Rights Reserved)

 Max Fernandez was arrested for a bar fight the first weekend after he came home from Iraq. The Marine Corps machine gunner didn’t think twice about the altercation.”Coming back, my mindset was so aggressive,” he says. “I thought it was funny.”

Max Fernandez in uniform for blog

Max Fernandez

No one pressed charges and Fernandez’s commanders ignored the incident, he says. He and his buddies continued partying and fighting until Fernandez was booted out of the military, without getting treatment for an IED blast that damaged his vision and hearing – or the nightmares that followed him home from combat.

Today Fernandez is living in a homeless shelter in Los Angeles, undergoing treatment for addiction, pursuing a VA claim for PTSD and TBI, and trying to rebuild his life under the shadow of a bad discharge. It’s the story of thousands of former servicemembers who don’t get help when their combat injuries fuel misconduct. Instead, they are discarded with involuntary discharges that prevent them from receiving military retirement, medical care, disability and GI Bill benefits – all in the interest of speed and cost savings.

“According to current DoD and service branch regulations, it’s permissible to separate servicemembers who have committed misconduct, even if they are suffering from a mental disorder that makes them unfit to serve,” says Thomas Moore, manager of the Lawyers Serving Warriors project at the National Veterans Legal Services Program. “I believe this is a big problem.”

There’s a cultural issue at work, too, says Kathleen Gilberd, executive director of the Military Law Task Force. Sick or injured troops are considered troublemakers simply because they are not fit to deploy. “That means getting rid of them, usually without medical benefits, for misconduct or other designated mental and physical conditions,” she says.

LIFE SENTENCE

Being dismissed from the military leaves an indelible stain on a veteran’s pride – and his or her future. “An other-than-honorable discharge usually means something went awry with you in the service,” says Waldo Tapia, an attorney who recently left the Inner City Law Center on Skid Row in Los Angeles — which is representing Fernandez. “It’s a difficult stigma to overcome, particularly if it’s tied to PTSD.”

Civilian jobs are often unavailable once a prospective employer sees a problem discharge on a veteran’s DD-214. “If you get caught using drugs at a warehouse job, you might get fired,” Tapia says. “If you get caught using marijuana in the military, the other-than-honorable discharge follows you forever.”

Many of these veterans end up homeless. Many have no access to health care even though VA has the discretion to provide medical benefits on a case-by-case basis. Veterans who are kicked out of the military for misconduct related to PTSD, TBI and other invisible wounds are also excluded from receiving help from many nonprofits, says Kristina Kaufmann, executive director of the Code of Support Foundation.

In other words, the people who most need help often are the least likely to receive it.

HISTORIC PRACTICE

Involuntary discharges have been a volatile issue since at least the Vietnam War. A 1980 Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation recommended that servicemembers have the right to a hearing before being tossed out of the military. But the boards that review these cases are usually sympathetic to the wishes of commanders eager to get rid of servicemembers, and the servicemembers are often convinced that they are better off if they waive their right to a hearing, Gilberd says. There is also a persistent myth that other-than-honorable discharges are automatically upgraded if servicemembers stay out of trouble for six months after leaving the military, which may give them an incentive not to pursue a hearing that would help their case.

It’s unfair to just blame commanders, who are dealing with the realities of fighting long wars with an all-volunteer force.

“I get it,” Kaufmann says. “I was a commander’s wife during the surge from 2006 to 2008. I remember the pressure on my husband to have a battalion that is at full strength and ready to deploy.” And similar pressure to get rid of people who aren’t.

Involuntary discharges again became an issue during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A litany of negative media prompted Congress to order the military to carefully review the combat experiences of servicemembers before discharging them for misconduct. Yet another 22,000 soldiers have been involuntarily discharged since that 2008 legislation was passed, according to an investigation by National Public Radio.  Today the Army Inspector General is conducting its own investigation, again under pressure from Congress.

Involuntary discharges for misconduct are only part of the problem. A significant number of U.S. servicemembers who are discharged for personality disorders or adjustment disorders are also diagnosed with combat-related mental health issues such as PTSD during military medical exams.

“We’ve reviewed cases where servicemembers have been consistently diagnosed with PTSD, yet one diagnosis of personality disorder results in their administrative separation,” Moore says. “Many are then consistently diagnosed with PTSD by VA examiners after discharge from service.”

Servicemembers separated for personality disorders may receive honorable discharges, but they do not have access to key benefits associated with medical retirement.

“The most valuable retirement benefit is access to the military’s health-care program, TRICARE, which provides medical care for the veteran and the veteran’s dependents,” Moore says.

ATTITUDE PROBLEM

Servicemembers are reluctant to seek help, even when they know they’ve been injured – particularly when it comes to mental health issues. “There’s a kind of attitude that PTSD is a weakness – that a good soldier, a strong soldier, just works through it,” Gilberd says.

Max Fernandez headshot for blog

Max Fernandez

Fernandez is but one example of that attitude. The physician who examined his squad after their armored cargo carrier was hit by an IED near Fallujah in February 2006 recommended they spend a week on light duty as part of their recovery. They refused. “None of the Marines I was with or knew wanted to leave the field,” Fernandez says. “Any injury I had, I had to push out of my mind.”

That attitude is pervasive, Tapia says. “A lot of guys don’t want to report an illness or injury because they worry they will be viewed as holding their unit back.”

As a result, many aren’t diagnosed until they get out of the service, Kaufmann says.

Once back in the United States, Fernandez continued to deny he’d been injured. “I was having nightmares and intrusive thoughts,” he says. “I had the option of seeing people (medical staff), but that would have been frowned upon.”

Instead, Fernandez self-medicated. He and his buddies “drank day and night.” He flunked a random drug test and was stripped of a promotion. But the Marines allowed him to stay after he pleaded his case to a non-judicial punishment board. That is, until he got in yet another fight that left one man in a coma. He went from proud Marine to homeless addict with an other-than-honorable discharge in a matter of months.

“I was bitter,” he says. “Instead of looking at the paperwork – drug abuse – what about the two years that I served? They need to reform the rules and regulations to deal with the epidemic of psychological issues people are coming back with.”

Society shares the blame for the military’s attitude. “I think it’s a complete misunderstanding of PTSD and TBI,” Kaufmann says. “But it’s not just the military. We’re terrible with mental health in this country. We have such a lack of understanding and fear any anything mental health-related.”

HAZING THE INJURED

Fernandez might not have fared any better if he had sought help for his injuries. Servicemembers who seek treatment for PTSD and other mental health issues are often harassed to the point of career-ending misconduct, Gilberd says.

Michael Wells knows this territory firsthand. He says he encountered hostility at Fort Gordon, Ga., when he sought help for PTSD and TBI following his second tour in Iraq in 2008. His acting first sergeant tried to prevent him from getting mental health treatment; he sneaked off to his psychiatric appointments anyway, he adds. The repercussions escalated.

“He tried to take away my security clearance,” Wells says of the first sergeant. “He threatened me with physical harm.”

Amber Wells, who met her future husband at Fort Gordon during this ordeal, worried Michael would kill himself. “They wouldn’t let him go to the hospital,” she says. “They would say, ‘Real men don’t get PTSD.'”

The first sergeant also blocked his attempts to apply for medical retirement, Wells says. He reported the harassment to a command sergeant major from another unit and the Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID) without result, he says. Then, finally, he just left Fort Gordon.

“He had actually gone to his psychiatrist – it’s in his records – and said, ‘If you don’t help me, I’m going AWOL,'” Amber says. “His psychiatrist basically laughed at him.'”

Fort Gordon referred questions about Wells’ case to U.S. Army Medical Command, which did not respond. However, the office of Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., confirmed that it is working on the case.

DISAPPEARING ACT

Once he reached the point that he couldn’t look at his uniform, Wells left Fort Gordon and traveled the country until he was certain his unit had dropped him from the rolls. He then turned himself in at Fort Knox, Ky., where he was given an other-than-honorable discharge. He spent the next three years scraping by with Social Security disability and low-income housing while fighting to get help for PTSD, TBI, and neck, back and hip injuries. An Idaho employer fired him when it discovered he had PTSD, on his third day on the job. Other help was off-limits. “There were a lot of outreach programs and veterans services I couldn’t use because I had an other-than-honorable discharge,” Wells says. “We survived on just over $1,000 a month for a couple of years.”

Amber filed VA disability claims on his behalf and scoured the Internet for help. She connected with Reno, Nev., radio host Boone Cutler and his wife, who raised the money to bring the Wells family and their two children to Reno. There, Michael finally got his first treatment at the local VA, but only after threatening to kill himself.

“It took me getting hospitalized for PTSD, survivor’s guilt and suicidal thoughts,” he says.

Cutler also connected Michael with Heller, whose staff was instrumental in getting his discharge upgraded to general under honorable conditions because of his PTSD. And VA eventually granted Wells a 90 percent disability rating for PTSD and hip problems. Today, he and his family are living in Texas, where he is undergoing a series of hip surgeries. Heller’s office is helping him pursue a 100-percent disability rating.

It’s been an arduous and dispiriting journey, Amber says. “Even after you fight for your country, you have to come home and fight for your benefits,” she says. But they believe Michael’s case shows that with persistence and the right advocate, other servicemembers can overcome a bad discharge.

“It took five years,” he says. “But I want other soldiers to know that it’s possible. No matter what, keep trying.”

This story originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of The American Legion Magazine.

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Bogus Benefit: USAJOBS.gov frustrates military veterans as downsizing sends thousands into the civilian workforce

By Ken Olsen

(Copyright 2016, All Rights Reserved) 

Before John Spanogle left the Army in the fall of 2014, he enrolled in a weeklong transition course at Fort Knox, Ky., and hired a professional résumé service to translate two and a half decades of leadership, training and distinguished service into civilian terms. A career officer with a top-secret security clearance and six combat tours that culminated in responsibility for U.S. Special Forces worldwide for the Pentagon, he had plenty to offer almost any employer, particularly the federal government.

If he could only have gotten its attention.

In the past year, Spanogle has applied for everything from entry-level work at VA to airport security supervisor for the Department of Homeland Security, through USAJOBS.gov. It has taken months to get a response from any of the federal agencies to which he applied. A simple acknowledgment of his application was rare. He landed not a single interview.

“It’s a sham,” says Spanogle, a retired lieutenant colonel with a master’s degree in business and a 60 percent disability rating. “The Army just riffed a bunch of guys. If it’s this hard for me, imagine what it’s like for the young enlisted soldiers. Can you see the hopelessness?”

Despite presidential proclamations, an overhaul of the USAJOBS website and federal agencies’ sloganeering about their desire to hire former servicemembers, veterans still find applying for a federal job arduous and – because the odds of success are so low – a waste of time.

“It’s ridiculous,” says Casey Curry, who served 26 years with the Oregon Army National Guard and has had much experience with  USAJOBS.gov. Curry spent a year looking for work through USAJOBS when she got out in 2007, without success. Then she interned with the Oregon employment office in 2012 and 2013, helping other veterans trying to negotiate the federal job application process. It was as frustrating as it was fruitless.

“I don’t know of one person who got a job using that website,” says Curry, who is now outreach coordinator for the Returning Veterans Project, which helps connect veterans and families in northwest Oregon and southwest Washington to free counseling and other health services.

Roger Peterman, who helps veterans find jobs as transition assistance adviser for the Indiana National Guard, cites equally bleak numbers. “In eight years of working with USAJOBS, I only know of two people who got jobs applying through the website. And either they knew somebody or we were able to connect them with somebody in the federal agency who could pull them along.”

The problems with USAJOBS are well known. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) stopped using a contractor to administer the website in 2011, brought it in-house and made several improvements, a spokesman says.

The relaunch of what was called USAJOBS 3.0 was fraught with problems, however, and quickly became the object of ridicule on social media. Even today, the agency acknowledges that USAJOBS needs more work, including making the online application process more user-friendly.

“Veterans are not alone in expressing frustration with the federal hiring process, including USAJOBS.gov,” an agency spokesman says.

But the website is unavoidable. USAJOBS is the single gateway for a multitude of civil service jobs. That alone is an issue. “There are tens of thousands of résumés on USAJOBS,” Peterman says.

Federal statistics show just how competitive it is. Veterans initiated nearly 7.5 million applications through USAJOBS in fiscal 2015, an increase of 2.4 million compared to fiscal 2013.

Veterans also suspect that many positions are posted to comply with legal requirements by agencies that have already decided who they want to hire. And there are complaints that some job listings aren’t current.”They don’t keep it updated,” Curry says. “People are filling out applications for jobs that are already closed.”

There’s also a sense that applications go into a black hole where veterans preference isn’t considered. “There’s no accountability on the federal agency side,” Curry adds. “You don’t know if they are looking at (veterans preference) or not.”

OPM disagrees. “USAJOBS.gov is the means by which veterans can find information about many job vacancies,” an agency spokesman says. “In this context, USAJOBS.gov helps veterans use the hiring preference to which they are entitled by making them aware of job openings they might not otherwise know are available.”

But there’s evidence that some federal agencies purposefully circumvent veterans preference laws and discriminate against veteran applicants who successfully negotiate USAJOBS. The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), an arm of the Department of Energy, manipulated the qualification ratings of at least 117 veteran applicants from 2010 to 2012, according to an investigation by the Energy Department’s inspector general. That amounted to nearly half the applicants for BPA jobs.

In at least one case, a BPA administrator closed the hiring process after learning that a veteran was the most qualified applicant – and then rewrote the job description to include criteria the veteran couldn’t meet. BPA’s human resources department was ultimately blamed for the agency’s discrimination, and vowed reform after its hiring practices were exposed in 2013.

Vietnam War veteran Rick Shuart had a notably better experience with USAJOBS. While it took him a while to master the website, he learned to tailor his résumé for each job he applied for and write a cover letter to the hiring manager indicated in the job posting, he says. Shuart also became selective about the positions he pursued.

“I rarely applied for a job where there was one slot open,” he says. Still, it took him a year to find a job even though he has a master’s degree in business administration. VA even turned down his application for a file clerk’s job in Baltimore.

Today, Shuart helps fellow veterans find work as an employment development manager at Services for the UnderServed in New York City. But his organization rarely steers former servicemembers toward USAJOBS because most cannot afford the time it takes to secure federal employment. Instead, Shuart’s organization focuses on private employers with whom it has a relationship – the sorts of places it can call and encourage a hiring manager to review a veteran’s application.

Likewise, Peterman also encourages veterans to look beyond the federal government for work.

“There’s a lot of great civilian companies looking for veterans,” Peterman says. He works with an organization called Operation: Job Ready Veterans, which claims a 70 percent success rate in helping former servicemembers find work. But even then, it takes time. “You’ve got to be patient,” Peterman advises. “You’ve got to be able to sell your skills from the military. Get somebody who can help you.” Develop an elevator speech. Be willing to take an entry-level job to get a foot in the door.

In the end, Spanogle finally landed a job as vice president of a nonprofit organization where he will help former National Guardsmen find jobs. He’s looking forward to making differences for his fellow veterans. “This is everybody – not only the unemployed, but the underemployed as well,” he says.

But he won’t be looking to USAJOBS for help. “I’m done with it,” he says. “It’s a ridiculous waste of time.”

This story originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of The American Legion Magazine.

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Green River Gamble: A group of post-9/11 veterans set out to create a Legion post for a new generation — and it’s paying off

 By Ken Olsen

(Copyright 2015, All Rights Reserved)

Critics predicted total failure.

A handful of veterans were attempting to revive an American Legion post in Green River, Wyo., that was so far gone almost no one knew it had ever existed. Tom Whitmore Post 28 never even had its own building, and its ceremonial rifles and scrambled archives were donated to a museum nearly 50 years ago. Even more challenging, this new crew planned a nonsmoking post with a family section twice as big as the bar area and a community center open to public use.

“Right up to the soft opening, we got a lot of criticism,” says Marshall Burt, a post-9/11 Marine Corps combat veteran who helped transform the run-down bingo hall into a vibrant Legion post that is buzzing with patrons on a weekday night – some shooting the breeze, some watching a ball game on TV, while a couple of kids play pool upstairs and another works on math homework downstairs. “They told us we weren’t going to be able to make it because people like to have a drink and a smoke. I’m hoping to say we proved them wrong.”

And how.

Wyoming veterans license plate croppedIn less than 18 months, Post 28 went from 18 to 183 Legion members, purchased and renovated a defunct VFW-turned-bingo hall, and started an American Legion Auxiliary unit, a Sons of the American Legion squadron and what is now the third largest American Legion Riders chapter in Wyoming. The post is sponsoring a baseball team, working with a local Boy Scout troop, starting a Junior Shooting Sports group and supporting the high school rodeo program – a hallmark of the Department of Wyoming. As impressive: 45 percent of Post 28’s members are post-9/11 veterans.

“We average one new Legion Family member a day, whether it’s Legion, Sons or Auxiliary,” says Post Commander Tony Niemiec, who returned to his hometown of Green River after retiring from the Marine Corps.

“Nationwide, we are struggling to get younger veterans involved,” says Doug Hensala, adjutant for the Department of Wyoming. “They’ve cracked the code as to how to get them involved – Desert Storm, Desert Shield, Afghanistan and Iraq veterans – by being very family-oriented.”

Lee Bartolotta, judge advocate for Post 28, adds, “This post took it to a different level. I don’t feel like I’m a woman in The American Legion. I feel like I’m a person.”

An Original

Toll Gate croppedToll Gate American Legion Post 28 was chartered Dec. 23, 1919, and named after the iconic 6,440-foot butte on the western edge of the small railroad and mining town. That followed an early-day tradition of naming Wyoming Legion posts after rock formations, says Tom Niemiec, post adjutant and retired Navy veteran. Like his brother Tony, Tom returned to Green River after his military career.

In 1924, the post was renamed for Tom Whitmore, a Civil War veteran who enlisted in the Union Army at age 15 and came to Sweetwater County after his discharge as a second lieutenant. He worked as a liquor merchant, deputy sheriff, Sweetwater County sheriff and clerk of the district court before his death in 1923.

“Basically, he had a whole lifetime of public service,” Tony Niemiec says. “I’m a Sweetwater County deputy sheriff, so his story is kind of near and dear to my heart.”

Much of Post 28’s subsequent history is lost. There is evidence that an Auxiliary unit was started in 1926 and the post once had a female drum and bugle corps, Tom says. Rumor has it that Legion meetings were conducted at a building across from the Union Pacific Railroad depot. But Post 28 never had a home of its own. Most people who grew up here had no idea Green River ever had an American Legion presence.

Some veterans, including the Niemiec brothers, joined Post 24 in Rock Springs but didn’t participate much because the neighboring town is about 12 miles away. The handful of Legion officers who knew about Post 28 made several attempts to get it restarted. “Every time I lined someone up, it fell apart,” State Commander Tom Dean says.

Then District 1 Commander Richard Dansereau challenged Tony Niemiec to take on the project.  “I was asking him why Green River didn’t have a post,” Tony says, recalling a conversation with Dansereau in which he lamented the lack of Legion presence in his hometown. “He said, ‘They do – it’s just not active. Why don’t you quit complaining and do something about it?'” Tony drafted his brother and they went to work.

Revival

Post 28 began conducting regular meetings in the Sweetwater County Library in late 2013. The members launched a rifle raffle that raised more than $30,000. With that money, a $5,000 grant from the Home Depot Foundation, $1,000 from Walmart and non-interest-bearing bond sales to members and families, they came up with a down payment for a one-story white building at 38 North Center Street in Green River.

Post 28 closed on the purchase of the building on June 2, 2014, and demolition started the next day. “We put elbows to it,” says Burt, who went directly to the run-down building after work each evening and often stayed past midnight. “We wanted a place for veterans to call home and it didn’t exist in this town.”

As volunteers tore out water-stained Sheetrock and framed new walls, Tony tracked down the post flag, original charter and other material, including the .30-40 Krag rifles the Army gave to the original post for ceremonial use. An anonymous individual gave the guns and archives to the Sweetwater County Museum in 1968, presumably when interest in the post faded. One of the rifles was sold to a collector; the museum was not eager to return the others. A lengthy battle ensued. Post 28 finally prevailed after Legion members secured a majority of the positions on the museum board and voted to return the six remaining rifles to their rightful owner.

“That was very satisfying,” Tony says.

Post 28 held its soft opening Labor Day weekend. That transformation, less than 90 days in the making, came with plenty of the unpleasant surprises endemic to old buildings. “The first time I saw it, I thought, ‘What a rat hole. I can’t believe we’re buying this building,'” says Marine Corps veteran Jere Goodrick.

“There were a lot of times I thought we were going to fail,” Tony adds. “Every time we’d repair something, we find three more things that failed. But every time we turned around, we found somebody who knew how to fix it.”

Almost always.

The day before the opening, the beer cooler failed. Tony made the six-hour round trip drive to Salt Lake City the morning of opening day to buy a replacement. He returned two hours after the festivities started, and a group of volunteers stepped up to lift the cooler over the bar and set it into place.

Smoke-free vision

From the beginning, the Green River Legionnaires knew they had to create a different kind of post if they hoped to attract younger veterans. “We didn’t want to have the same old mentality where it’s a bar,” Burt says. “We wanted it to be family-friendly, non-smoking and a warm, welcoming, friendly atmosphere.”

“You are going to attract more people by not smoking,” Tom adds. “A lot of younger veterans don’t like to expose their kids to it.”

Post 28 has received lots of positive feedback on its no-smoking approach, and attracted plenty of smoking members who are willing to step outside before lighting up.

Outside of materials for the sleek black concrete bar, everything from plumbing to painting was donated, including the section of railroad track that serves as the bar footrest.  The bar offers USB charging outlets and free Wi-Fi to keep smartphone users happy, and the adjoining family area has lots of amenities for kids. That includes electronic darts and pool tables. Air hockey and an Xbox are on the way. “Post-9/11 veterans have young families, so you have to evolve the post to support their needs,” Tom says.

Post 28 also offers a pizza night and a nacho night. Members are welcome to host birthday parties and wedding celebrations here. Other events, like a pancake breakfast co-hosted by one of the local Boy Scout troops, are open to the public. “If you get people in here, some of them will become members,” Tom says.

Creating a sustainable Legion also means including post-9/11 veterans in every aspect of the post. “When you walk into a post that’s struggling, what do you see? The people who are running it have been there a long time and they won’t let go,” Tom says. “Give the younger veterans the reins and let them move The American Legion forward.”

Future Outreach 

Although half of the Legion building in Green River has yet to be remodeled, everyone associated with the project radiates pride and ownership. They point to a bar stool or chair they sponsored – each comes with a brass plate honoring a loved one – or the original charter hanging on the wall that proves this is one of the original 1919 American Legion posts. Volunteer bartenders keep the place running from noon to close seven days a week. Goodrick sponsors a poker night to help raise money. Burt, director of the American Legion Riders, is planning the group’s first rally for Sept. 12. It takes all of this and more to make the mortgage and keep the lights on. But it’s worth it.

“It’s important to have an American Legion building because veterans don’t want to belong to something they can’t touch and feel,” Goodrick says. “Once this building materialized, our membership went through the roof.”

Families are actively engaged. “This is something we can do together,” says Auxiliary President Tammy Harris, whose husband, Shane, is a Marine Corps veteran and stalwart Post 28 volunteer. And the renovated building is a nice boost for a part of Green River that has struggled for years.

“It’s probably the most active place in this part of the community on a social level,” says artist and Auxiliary member Kaye Tyler, who painted “Welcome Home” in red, white and blue letters in the post entryway and put together the color scheme for the interior of the post.

As the post grows, members focus on doing more for the community. Post 28 has already distributed more than $3,000 in financial assistance to everyone from a stranded trucker to a veteran’s family who was $250 short of replacing a broken hot-water heater. It also offers two college scholarships to high school seniors who have a family member associated with the Legion.

The best part, though, is hearing the reaction of people who discover Post 28 for the first time.  “People come in here every day and say, ‘I belong here,'” Tony says. “That’s the greatest accomplishment.”

This story first appeared in the August 2014 issue of The American Legion Magazine.

 

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More than Names: Janie Schaut hopes her personal histories of veterans from her community will inspire similar work nationwide

By Ken Olsen

(Copyright 2015, All Rights Reserved)

She is known for walking the county cemeteries – Emmett, Ola, Sweet-Montour and Bramwell – on even the coldest days, kneeling at headstones, taking careful notes and sometimes talking to the departed.

She retrieves lost stories of veterans, giving families a part of a loved one they never knew.

She is Janie Dresser Schaut, a Vietnam War Army nurse who has persuaded 500 veterans to tell their stories, and the families and friends of another 1,500 deceased servicemembers to turn over letters, photos and diaries that detail what it was like to kill a first enemy soldier, miss home and worry about a brother missing in action. At more than 2,000 biographies and counting, she no longer has time for the piano and hopes to get back to the harp, but she knows there are hundreds of other Gem County, Idaho, veterans’ stories waiting.

“This is like a calling to her,” says Cindy Gorino, who came to know her father through Schaut’s work. “Everybody has come alive because of what she’s doing.”

BORN HISTORIAN

Schaut’s curiosity about veterans was sparked by childhood visits to the grave of her second cousin, Lawrence Dresser, the first man from Emmett, Idaho, to die in World War I and the namesake of American Legion Post 49. “It first kind of struck me when I was 6,” Schaut says. “I wondered where France was. I wondered how many other veterans were buried out there.”

She gave up playing cowboys and Indians, dug foxholes in the field behind her house and recruited neighborhood friends for summer war games. “We packed our lunches and went to the trenches,” Schaut says. “Mostly we threw mud and rocks at each other.” Much to the children’s disappointment, her father filled the holes after school resumed one fall because he worried a neighbor’s cow or horse would get injured.

But her father – a game warden, farmer and mill worker – gave her an appreciation for the musical side of war. “My dad would sing when I went out in his truck with him,” Schaut says. “I learned all the old World War I and World War II songs.”

Her father, known as “Babe” Dresser, also taught young Janie to use firearms. By the time she was in high school she was proficient with everything from a .45-caliber revolver to a .30-06 rifle. “I was ready to go into the Army,” she says. “After I got home from Vietnam, I never touched a gun again.”

Janie Schaut nurses uniform for blogAt 16, Schaut was immersed in military history and asking for Samuel Morison’s account of the Battle of Guadalcanal for Christmas. Once she discovered the story of U.S. nurses captured when Japanese troops invaded the Philippines, she knew she’d found her calling. Understanding what they endured kept her going through the Saint Alphonsus Hospital School of Nursing in Boise, where all but 14 of 43 students washed out.

“Every time I thought about quitting, I thought of those nurses on Bataan,” she says. “I knew nothing could be as bad as what they went through.”

 

Every branch of the military Janie Schaut in Army uniform for blogcame calling; Schaut chose the Army because it offered the best pay and sharpest dress blues. She went through basic at Fort Sam Houston in Texas and was posted to Letterman General Hospital in San Francisco, where she did postgraduate work in surgical nursing. After a short stint at Fort Lewis, she pushed for an assignment to Vietnam. “I went down to Personnel and said, ‘I don’t care who you send me with. I want to go.'”

CAMP ARMPIT

The Army wasn’t ready for the 93rd Evacuation Hospital group when it arrived at a decimated patch of jungle north of Saigon in October 1965, which Schaut’s group dubbed Camp Armpit. For nearly three months they lived in tents, fought mud and monsoons, pooled their gelatinous cans of disintegrating C-rations and waited for the Army to build Quonset huts to house the hospital. The first mass casualties arrived on Christmas: 150 men from the 25th Infantry the nurses had exchanged gifts with earlier in the day. “We grew up quickly – and we sort of grew old quickly,” Schaut says. “You can’t see so many wounded guys and not think about your own mortality.”

She also gained an unflappable confidence that propelled her through a career as a surgical nurse. But her return to the United States was difficult. She was sent to DeWitt Army Hospital at Fort Belvoir, Va., where she helped treat soldiers injured by antiwar protesters in October 1967.

“It was a strange experience to be in America,” Schaut says. “I don’t resent the people who were antiwar. I just didn’t understand them.”

With some matchmaking helpPaul Schaut photo for blog from their fathers, she ran into a high school classmate named Paul Schaut while home for Christmas a couple of months later. Paul was stationed in Boston after a tour with the Brown Water Navy in Vietnam, and Janie was headed to Florida when she got out of the Army. They dated “up and down the East Coast for the next two years” and married at her parents’ home in Emmett in 1969.

The couple migrated to the Seattle area, where Paul became a software engineer and Janie continued her nursing career.

HOMECOMING

About 2004, the late Jim Olson, then commander of the Emmett American Legion post, called seeking information about its World War I namesake. Schaut turned to her father to refresh the stories she’d heard about Lawrence Dresser as a child. A volunteer with the Idaho National Guard, Dresser was nicknamed “Taps” because of his ability to play the bugle more beautifully than anyone else, according to news accounts. He served along the Mexican border with Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing’s expeditionary force in 1916. Dresser then went to France in World War I and drowned in the Lille River in August 1918. His headstone in Emmett Cemetery, where he was re-interred in 1921, has an engraving of a bugle.

Olson’s call prompted Schaut to put aside a memoir she was writing about her own service in Vietnam to compile a biography of Dresser for Post 49. That led her to update the records of veterans buried in Emmett Cemetery when she moved back in 2007.

“The American Legion gave me a list of 942 veterans,” Schaut says. “I started walking all the rows of the cemetery – there’s 9,400 and some people buried there – and I knew there were many more veterans not on the list.” For the next year, she read every available Gem County obituary from 1873 forward and discovered another 350 veterans buried in Emmett alone.

Word of Schaut’s expertise got around. Soon people were stopping her at the grocery store or catching her at the museum to ask her to write about the uncle who died on Iwo Jima or the brother who was killed in Korea. Olson was an instigator, cheerleader and advocate as the number of biographies grew.

“I’ve tried to get the hometown kids,” Schaut explains. “As long as they have lived in Gem County. As long as they served on active duty.”

Schaut’s subjects include veterans from the Civil War to the post-9/11 era. There’s a circa-1900s governor of Idaho and a colonel whose Air Force career spanned propeller-driven airplanes to nuclear missiles. Glen Newell was one of the longest-held prisoners in World War II. The Hosoda brothers served with the highly decorated 442nd Infantry Regiment, one killed in Germany and the other in Italy.

Then there are Schaut’s miracle men – guys like Fred Ashley whose stories barely amount to a hard-earned page of information until a stranger or distant relative contacts her out of the blue with a trove of letters, including one Ashley wrote to reassure his mother he was fine shortly before he was killed by Nazis in Czechoslovakia. Schaut even received a footlocker of memorabilia about one veteran from an anonymous donor.

Schaut compiles a family album that tells the story of each generation’s veterans. The Grattons’ story includes 15 family members who served from World War I to the war on terrorism. The Forrester family covers seven veterans, including the father who went to World War I with the Army and then advised his sons to join the Navy and avoid the horrors of trench warfare.

The biographies average 150 pages and are sweeping in detail and depth. Often working until 2 or 3 in the morning, Schaut includes photos, a detailed history of the veteran’s military unit, maps of the major battles in which they fought, letters home and, where appropriate, a copy of the telegram from the War Department with news of the missing or dead. When Schaut gets stuck for a photo, she often heads down to a breakfast place called The Rumor Mill, where owner Eltona Henderson displays the photos of more than 700 veterans.

The result of this incredible volunteer work is more than 14,000 pages of personal histories in 74 volumes in a special collection at the Gem County Historical Museum in Emmett. Schaut’s husband keeps a digital archive of her work, scans maps and photos, and is her full-time tech guy. “I consider the computer the work of the devil,” she says. “Paul gets me out of trouble.”

Schaut’s work has been recognized by the Idaho Military Department, the mayor of Emmett, U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo and the Daughters of the American Revolution. Shortly before Olson died, Schaut received the Esto Perpetua Award, the Idaho State Historical Society’s highest history honor – a recognition for which he nominated her. Schaut doesn’t do it for the awards, but for the veterans, she emphasizes. And she hopes her work will inspire other communities to write biographies of their veterans.

Schaut is most proud of the biography she penned about her husband’s uncle, William Kirby, a Marine aviator killed in the Battle of Savo Island in World War II. There’s also the research she compiled about Ron Rekow, a waist gunner and engineer on a B-24 who still runs a barbershop in Emmett. Rekow was troubled by a customer who convinced him that U.S. bombers had sunk a Japanese “hell ship” carrying American prisoners, including two Gem County lads. Schaut proved the customer wrong.

“I went down and told Ron, ‘You know all that guilt you’ve been carrying all these years? You didn’t sink that ship. You were never anywhere close. A submarine did.'”

Families often first discover what their loved one endured through Schaut’s work. Cindy Gorino finally learned the story of her father, who was killed in a logging accident when she was 4. Because her mother drowned six months after her father’s death, Gorino had only a few military records and a long list of questions – until Schaut showed up on her doorstep with her father’s biography.

“It’s tearful to see every place he had gone – Normandy – and this horrifying prisoner of war camp they liberated,” Gorino says. She used the information Schaut complied to apply for the medals her father earned and is having a box built to display them in her home.

Robert Sawyer first saw photos of his father, Charles, from the elder Sawyer’s service with the Flying Tigers because of the biography Schaut complied. But he speaks of a larger sense of gratitude.

“For my family, we appreciate the public acknowledgement of what my father did,” says Sawyer, who is a Vietnam War Navy veteran. “But it’s good for the community to be reminded what its sons and daughters did for Gem County, Idaho – and the rest of the country.”

This story originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of The American Legion Magazine.

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Vietnam’s Senior Class: Often forgotten, the Americans who served in country between 1950 and 1964 saw their share of death and danger

By Ken Olsen

(Copyright 2015, All Rights Reserved)

Just before the Army sent Jable Dean to Vietnam in 1954, it outlined a simple emergency evacuation plan: “If we have to pull out, get to the Saigon River,” Dean recalls the Pentagon briefer telling him. “And if we can’t get to you, we don’t know you.”

Dean survived his yearlong mission and became part of one of the most forgotten cadres of the U.S. military: servicemembers who were shot at, bombed, captured and killed in the decade-and-a-half prelude to the official start of the Vietnam War. Rarely are they acknowledged as combat veterans. It’s as if the words Dean heard before heading to Vietnam – “we don’t know you” – still echo.

“They were as dedicated as any soldiers involved in previous conflicts,” says author and retired soldier Ray Bows, who served in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969. “Not only are they the senior class, they are the unsung heroes of the Vietnam War. But their status as Vietnam veterans is totally ignored by the U.S. government.”

The U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), the Army Security Agency (ASA), the Temporary Equipment Recovery Mission and other groups – official and unofficial – served from 1950 through 1964. They supported French efforts to retake its former colony following World War II and then backed South Vietnam’s efforts to deflect the Viet Minh, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese after the French were defeated in 1954. A mix of World War II veterans, Korean War veterans and new recruits, they were prohibited from carrying their service weapons and many wore civilian clothes. Nevertheless, they gathered intelligence, trained soldiers, transported Catholic refugees out of the north, flew reconnaissance, took casualties and were sent home with orders not to talk about their time in Southeast Asia. That secrecy became a curse for many of them, part of the veil that hides their service and sacrifice.

“The thing that bothers me is none of this is out there,” says Wayne “Maddog” McCaughey, who served with MAAG in 1960. “You pick up a book on Vietnam, and it says it all started in 1965. If we had not been there, the South Vietnamese government probably wouldn’t have survived.”

ROUTINE MISSION

MAAG’s arrival in Vietnam in 1950 wasn’t necessarily remarkable. The United States had more than 40 military assistance groups stationed around the world between 1946 and 1960. “We had MAAG Laos, MAAG Ethiopia, even MAAG Finland,” Bows says. The difference was the job hazards that came with Indochina. “Of all the 44 MAAG groups around the world, the guys who got caught up in the bombings and shootings were those assigned to MAAG Vietnam.”

At least 60,000 served in Vietnam prior to 1965, the majority from 1961 to 1964, says Andrew Birtle, chief of the military operations branch at the U.S. Army Center of Military History in Washington. The United States was allowed to have about 340 MAAG personnel in the country in the early years under the terms of the Geneva Accords, McCaughey says. When MAAG Indochina became MAAG Vietnam in November 1955, there were 746 U.S. servicemen in country, Bows adds. That was augmented by the 350-member Temporary Equipment Recovery Mission that primarily served as clandestine reinforcements for MAAG.

All told, nearly 250 U.S. servicemembers died in enemy action in Vietnam prior to 1965, Birtle says. Most were killed in 1963 and 1964, as U.S. troop levels rose from about 16,000 to more than 23,000.

Reluctant recruit Dean had no intention of going to Vietnam when he joined the Army in 1953 to escape his job at a golf-club factory in Tennessee. He was approached by “two men with badges” while in cryptology school at Fort Gordon, Ga. They told Dean they were recruiting volunteers to go to Indochina. Dean declined; he had recently become engaged. The men insisted. “I just accepted the fact there was nothing I could do about it,” he says.

Dean went to Washington for a two-week briefing. He purchased two alligator-skin Samsonite suitcases, filled them with civilian clothes and headed out.

When he arrived in Vietnam in August 1954, Dean was sure he was in the wrong place.

“It was hot, I was sweating and it smelled terrible,” he recalls – a common recollection among MAAG veterans who arrived in Saigon to find its open sewers, rotting garbage dumps and overpowering smog. He worked rotating shifts – days, swings and then midnights – encoding and decoding messages from around the world. He lived in a hotel on the Rue Galliéni, and woke up one night in April 1955 to tracers zinging down the street as forces loyal to President Ngo Dinh Diem battled a powerful sect led by a man named Ba Cut.

Dean and a fellow American watched what became known as the Battle of Saigon unfold in the streets below their hotel over the next three days. It seemed harmless until the bullets came their direction. “We’re standing up there watching guys throw white phosphorus mortars and somebody cut down on us,” he says. “Talk about getting inside quick.”

Even so, Dean photographed the battle and came home with a set of black-and-white images nearly identical to some of the photos that appeared in Life magazine that spring. “It never crossed my mind I might get hurt,” he says. “When you are young and full of piss and vinegar, it doesn’t bother you as much as it does later on.”

TERRORIST STRIKE

Bill Pratt was more shaken by his brush with death. Communist insurgents rolled a bomb under the U.S. military bus Pratt boarded in front of the Metropole Hotel in Saigon the morning of Oct. 22, 1957. A tornado of smoke and shattered glass ripped through the heavily damaged bus. Thirteen U.S. servicemen and five civilians were injured. Eight were medevaced to Clark Air Base in the Philippines.

“I played and replayed the sights and sounds over and over in my mind,” says Pratt, who was headed to his job with the MAAG engineer branch when the bomb went off. “No one perished simply because the bus was fueled by diesel instead of gasoline, preventing a huge fire that probably would have killed all of us.”

Equally miraculous: a gasoline station next door to the hotel didn’t go up in flames.

The bus attack was accompanied by a simultaneous bombing at the U.S. military’s officers’ quarters in Cholon a mile away, which injured four Americans. Another bomb was detonated at the U.S. Information Service library elsewhere in Saigon, but the building was unoccupied.

The bombings captured a few headlines in the United States, as well as the attention of Pratt’s mother. She contacted the Red Cross to inquire about his welfare. As a result, Pratt was called before Gen. Sam Williams to explain why he wasn’t writing home. Otherwise, it’s as if the three attacks never took place.

“I fail to understand why history basically ignores the coordinated attacks in Cholon and Saigon on that day,” Pratt says. “Sadly, many of those involved in the incident cannot even be credited with service in Vietnam because their official discharge records failed to specifically state they served in Vietnam. Instead, they only receive credit for ‘foreign service.’ Somehow this seems unfair.”

Two years later, Maj. Dale R. Buis and Master Sgt. Chester M. Ovnand were killed when Viet Cong attacked the MAAG compound at Bien Hoa, 20 miles northeast of Saigon. The deaths of these two soldiers in July 1959 also received passing news coverage and faded from view. “I’m sure the U.S. government would have suppressed it if they could have,” says Bows, who chronicled the attack in his book “First on the Wall.” Williams, commander of U.S. MAAG in South Vietnam, was worried about the North Vietnamese coming across the 17th parallel, much the way the North Koreans had come across the 38th parallel on the Korean peninsula

“He was far less concerned about terrorist attacks and bombings,” Bows says. “For him, two soldiers getting killed at a compound in Bien Hoa was not of great significance in regard to the overall big picture.”

PRISONER OF WAR

The first U.S. prisoner of the Vietnam War came from the MAAG ranks. But it took George Fryett decades to convince VA that he was held by the Viet Cong for more than six grueling months, during which he expected to be executed at any moment.

Fryett was in charge of classified documents at MAAG headquarters. But on Christmas Eve 1961, he headed out of Saigon on his three-speed bicycle in search of a swimming pool in Thu Duc – a leisurely outing he thought was safe. He was jumped by Viet Cong insurgents after turning down a side road he assumed led to the pool. The U.S. military searched extensively for Fryett, but the Viet Cong kept him moving, twice even taking him into Cambodia.

“It seems that every time the choppers or artillery came close, I was moved,” Fryett says.

He estimates he marched 500 miles as a prisoner with a rope around his neck and his hands tied behind his back. Although his release and return home in June 1962 was widely publicized, it failed to register with some of the people he dealt with in the United States.

“When I came down with a temperature of 104, I went to the Fort MacArthur (Calif.) hospital. When the doctor asked me why I was there, I tried to tell him that it was perhaps due to my period of captivity,” Fryett says, noting that the doctor had a copy of the newspaper story about his release on his desk. The doctor instead wrote, “This man has a thinking disorder” in Fryett’s medical chart. And for years afterward, the military and VA medical systems treated Fryett as if he was indeed insane. He wasn’t officially recognized as a POW until 1985.

FOND MEMORIES Other soldiers regarded overseas duty as an adventure. McCaughey deployed to train South Vietnamese soldiers in early 1960 after persuading the Army to give him the opportunity to see another part of the world. “My expertise was fields of fire,” he says, born of shooting skills he honed on woodchucks while growing up on a farm in Connecticut.

McCaughey sustained shrapnel wounds when another soldier tripped a land mine while on field exercises near the DMZ. He was ultimately shipped to Germany – but not before seeing evidence of the North Vietnamese assassinations of village chiefs and their families loyal to the South Vietnamese government.

“It was not pleasant,” he says. “It looked like their throats were cut or they were partially beheaded.”

Like McCaughey, Lonnie Frampton campaigned for an overseas assignment. He wanted to escape the routine of KP, guard duty and other chores that marked his days stateside. He was sent to Saigon with an ASA radio installation team in 1961. He returned for a second deployment in 1967 with an aviation company that hunted enemy positions with radio direction finders. Frampton loved both tours, but is reluctant to share much about his time in Vietnam.

“I’m still in a quandary about what I can and can’t say,” he says. “The ASA wasn’t supposed to be there, of course. And because of the security clearances, we couldn’t travel to Cuba or other restricted countries for 10 years after we got out.”

Looking back as the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon approaches, Frampton has mixed feelings about how the Vietnam War ended. “From what I read, we didn’t lose a battle. We just lost the country because we pulled out,” he says. “It’s almost like we wasted all that material and sacrifice and lives for what? But if it was under the same circumstances, I’d go again.”

That sense of loyalty and no regret persists among veterans of MAAG, the ASA and other groups that served without recognition in Vietnam.

“I think it grew me up and made me accept people,” says Dean, who was a schoolteacher and principal for more than four decades after leaving the Army. “I think I’m a better person for being involved.”

This story originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of The American Legion Magazine.

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