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From 1971 to Today's VA, My Little Buffet
By Jim Wohlgemuth
I looked at the assignment on what to write for this coming Memorial day and felt a bit lost. What could I possibly contribute to these topics? So I put down some thoughts about each. I hope this contributes just a little to this wonderful paper that I have looked forward to for years.
Fifty years of VVAW. Well in 1971 I was still in the Navy floating off the coast of the Mekong Delta and Bo De River. I was still watching as we would refuel and rearm attack helicopters and swift boats for their excursions into the countryside, that peaceful countryside. That country side that our captain would periodically throw 5 inch shells into for who knows what strategic or tactical purpose. So I did not know what VVAW was doing. I was out of the loop and unaware. However a couple of years later I heard about VVAW and all the good that you all were doing on so many issues from Agent Orange, to the Wall, to sharing the truth about Vietnam and I sent in my first check. So now it is my turn to just say THANK YOU ALL. Thank you for having the courage and fortitude that I did not. We are such a better country for all that you have done.
Concerning resistance to unlawful orders on my ship, there was none of that. My ship the Westchester County LST 1167 was home ported in Yokosuka and I am thinking because we were not home ported in the states that maybe we were just not as aware of what was going on or maybe I was just asleep at the wheel. I know that I was so upset by the Kent State shootings the year before, that I had written a letter to the editor of my hometown Butler Eagle in Butler PA condemning the National Guard. That generated three letters back from residents condemning me and saying the guard should have killed more. I was shocked and dismayed that adults in my home town could think that way and so I asked myself if I was wrong. Years later I realized no, I was not wrong. Those students demonstrating were just trying to bring me and all of us home. As for the rest of my shipmates we all concentrated on how many days until our service would be over. I believe that most of us thought the war was stupid, but there was no real movement to resist. When I got back to the states, in 1972, I started to hear about resistance, of course, I was not brave enough and too consumed with going back to college, but it was then that I knew that my inner questions, concerns, trauma (moral injury) about what I had just done were shared by thousands of others. I was not crazy.
About the VA. I continue to get the best care and by the time this is printed I will have had both of my Covid vaccine shots. I can, however, relate a disturbing story. I go to the VA in Nashville; I used to get care at Vanderbilt but switched so that I could actually be cared for and cared about. Nevertheless, the doctors I am seeing at the VA are Vanderbilt residents. It is amazing how they change their mindset from the production line service at Vandy to the caring service at the VA. So I had an appointment for a general check up and a shot (they never let me leave without getting some sort of shot) and the resident was wonderful and caring. He said he wanted his supervisor, a VA doctor, to stop by and talk to me. We had a nice conversation and I mentioned how grateful I was with the service provided despite the VA's lack of funding and staff. He mentioned about the mission act and the resources available that should be the way to go. I was shocked and so I countered that my limited experience at private sector doctors under the mission act was at best disappointing. Then I mentioned that if the VA was privatized where would that young resident go to get the experience and further training he needs to become a great doctor. I do not believe he had heard that argument before because he had no comeback. I mentioned that many VAs are co-located with medical schools and are key to the continuing education of our doctors. What happens if the profit motive takes charge. I said do you really think this resident is here helping me if the VA is privatized. He smiled and said something to the effect of take care of yourself and have a great day as he left. The resident then without saying a word looked at me and smiled.
So there is my buffet of reflections; I hope I contributed just a little. Thanks for sharing the platform.
Jim Wohlgemuth, USN 68-72. Retired Federal employee and Social Studies teacher. Co-host Veterans for Peace Radio Hour on WRFN 107.1/103.7 FM/LP, Nashville.