Last month, the Nye County Veterans Service Office, headed up by Ken Shockley, hosted their fifth anniversary in Pahrump and Tonopah. It was a great event, and I was happy to attend and speak on behalf of our agency. I was personally blown away, though, with the presentation made by a local Sheriff's Deputy, Jim Scott. I've known Jim for some time now. He and his brother both participated in the Oral History project I helped put together when I was with the Lieutenant Governor's office. His story is compelling, and he always speaks very clearly and to the point. His speech in Pahrump was no different. I asked him to share the text of the speech with me because I found it to be a very nice encapsulation of the problems current returning veterans are facing, and how this information can help veteran organizations appeal to them. It's a long speech, but it is worth the read. And, a special thank you to Jim for sharing, withme and with the folks in Pahrump.
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When you use Google Images to search the various pictures on the internet related to the word “veteran” the very first picture you will see is a homeless man with a beard, in a wheelchair that has a pole bearing a tattered American flag, on a street corner holding a sign that reads, “Vietnam Vet. USMC. Too Poor. Please Help.” With two dollar signs under the word “Help.” There is also a picture of an old man, possibly in his 80s, sitting on his front porch staring intensely at an American flag while petting his golden retriever. If we are honest with ourselves, when we search our own mental database for our retrospect of what a veteran is, more than likely we aren’t thinking of the greats like Chesty Puller or Audie Murphy. Sure, we like to quote them when making speeches on veteran related holidays. We like to make coffee cups with their famous battle quotes on them or use them as a signature on our email as if to say that is the creed we live by. Yet, if we really think about it, the image of a veteran is usually like the aforementioned.
I thought to myself, “I wonder what the average Joe citizen would come up with if asked to describe their version of a veteran.” Interesting enough, the people I have talked to think of an elderly yet crusty “Clint Eastwood” type fellow. I wanted to know what the word “veteran” meant, so I looked it up. It’s a Latin word, vetus, and it actually means “old”.
I wondered… does this mean I am not a veteran? Sure, I served honorably in the Marine Corps for four years. But I didn’t make a career out of it. I certainly am not old! I’m 28. I don’t have one of those cool caps that read “Combat Veteran” on it and I don’t have an American flag hanging from my front porch. Heck, I don’t even have a front porch! I asked myself again, “Am I a veteran?” Folks, I am not the only one that thinks this.
I joined the Marine Corps as a Rifleman in the Infantry on September 11th, 2000. I remember it like it was yesterday. Getting yelled at to get off the bus and into formation. Being marched and ran to every station known to man to pick up issued equipment. Launched into the barracks with little time to spare to unpack and reform for chow. Being up until 0200 ironing my skivvy’s in a perfect 4x6 and making sure my wall locker and uniform was perfect for the morning inspection. I was a private fresh out of the School of Infantry and stationed in Camp Horno, Camp Pendleton California. I was assigned to Charlie Company, 1st Batallion, 4th Marines. I remember it like it was yesterday. Sure boot camp was hard, but the fleet was crazy. This was at my duty station! Boot camp is another story.
My first West PAC led me to many countries, to include Africa, Australia, Singapore, and Thailand. In Africa we got to work with their Army and taught them to do helicopter raids. In Singapore we trained on their Commando’s obstacle course. I remember being in the middle of the ocean waiting to go to Afghanistan for three months, but never going. I came back to a warm welcome from my family. I remember actually thinking to myself… am I a veteran yet?
My second deployment took me to a combat tour in Iraq. I ended up getting out in 2004 and applied for work out here in Pahrump. I remember having an application in my hand that asked whether I was a veteran or not. I still questioned myself… I wasn’t old… this wasn’t a career… I just spent four years…
Even though I checked “yes”, I didn’t really believe I was a veteran until two years later when my brother Jake was enlisting. I remember giving him advice about boot camp and about what to expect when over the next couple months with his Drill Instructors. My veteran status was solidified one day when my brother was venting to me about an issue he had with a senior NCO. This is when it hit me. I knew I was a veteran when I started the conversation with, “When I was in … we did it differently.” Later I found out that a documentary was made about my unit’s time in Iraq. It’s called “Severe Clear” if you are interested in checking it out. I was also interviewed for a book with other veterans entitled Battle Born. Another element that helped me solidify the fact that I was a veteran was Ken Shockley.
I walked into Ken’s office and saw all the paraphernalia on the wall and on his book shelves. I thought to myself, “Ken isn’t old and he’s a veteran!” But seriously, from what I can recall Ken is the first person to refer to me as a “veteran.” I felt a sense of pride in that. I knew I was a Marine, which carries its own status and bragging rights. But now I was a veteran.
I don’t really know what your image is of a veteran. Maybe you just picture yourself, I don’t know. But there is a new breed of veteran being produced out there. They are being forged in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. They are ending their active duty time as we speak. 180,000 people get out of the military every year. That means that by the end of today approximately 500 new veterans will hit the street, and tomorrow, 500 more. The question is will they know they are veterans?
When I first got out I tried to go to the veteran’s service office in Las Vegas. The problem was, I couldn’t ever get there. I worked Monday to Friday during basic work hours. Guess what hours they were open? Yea, and with an hour drive there was no way I was getting there on time for close of business. They weren’t open at night and they didn’t accept appointments on the weekends. I was married; I had a new baby… I couldn’t miss work. It seemed that the only option was to lose a day’s pay for a V.A. visit, or work so I can buy diapers. You can guess where my time went. Finally, after some time, my schedule began to be rotational, so I had a weekday or two off. That ultimately didn’t solve anything. I didn’t know what my schedule would be until a week before it changed, so I often times had to cancel appointments. Even though I couldn’t get in to see the doctors the documentation in my service records apparently provided the V.A. with enough information to give me a generous 0% rating. As Ken Shockley later put it, “At least you’re in the system. That’s the hardest part.” I ended up being discouraged in the process and just left it alone. Not because of the process necessarily, but because I had no idea what the heck I was doing. I signed papers like I signed them in the Marine Corps. They put it in front of you, you sign it, next thing you know you are swallowing a pink pill and you’re getting sunburns from the moon.
Later I met Ken Shockley. Keep in mind, this is around 2006 that I met Ken. Like many of you I am sure, once I found out what Ken Shockley was capable of I bugged him relentlessly. I showed up to the office without an appointment. I called him on the phone, sent him emails… That didn’t happen right away though. Ken talked to me about the process and gave me the famous Ken question, “How can I help you?”
Because of Ken’s service I was able to get a lot of help. The famous Dr. Toppo was my doctor and between the two of them I was bounced back and forth like a tennis ball. The VA would evaluate and send me back, Ken and Toppo would evaluate and send me back. Eventually I would receive a higher rating, but more importantly the injuries I sustained were acknowledge as service connected and, from what I am told, I will be taken care of even when those problems increase to a greater degree. If I ever had a problem or an issue all I had to do was call Ken. He helped me out.
Many of you are a part of a veterans organization. I am sure at one point in time you have asked yourself, “How do we get the younger veterans into our organization.” Let me give you a glimpse into my mind, and maybe that will help you out. I am a husband and have been for almost nine years now. The first year of my marriage was me in Iraq and her in California. When I got back things weren’t looking so good. By God’s good grace though we are stronger than ever to this day. I have two kids: My daughter Daile who was born four days before I got out and my son Jim who was born in 2008. When I got out I had a wife and a daughter. I needed a job, period. When I had a job, I had to work to support them, period. As time went on I used the G.I. Bill and went to school full-time for three and a half years. I worked through summer school as well. I was a husband, a father, employed in a more than full time job and a full time student. So, when does this person get to join a veteran’s organization?
Here are some principles I observed from Ken Shockley. Number one, don’t expect much. Ken knew I had little time during the day and week to do anything. One of the first things a new person experiences when they show up is, “Want to volunteer your whole weekend in the WalMart parking lot?” That isn’t a great recruiting method, folks. Another thing is that Ken told me what he expected me to do. I would do that and complete the mission. Most service organizations seem to open with, “Want to be the Sergeant at Arms?” The new veteran will say they can do it, but later will bow out and not come back. They will get overwhelmed and feel embarrassed that they couldn’t complete the mission. Thirdly, give them time and space. If I couldn’t make a meeting, all Ken would ask me to do is call so he could open his schedule up for another veteran. I would call, reschedule, and eventually I would show back up.
During the first three months I was in Iraq 182 American’s were KIA. That count grew as time went on. I remember one Marine looking me dead in the eye and asking me to ask God to allow him to keep his leg. How do you respond to that? I remember standing there by myself in the dark, off to the side of a small group of marines who just lost four guys during an ambush. I was there to offer prayer and support, but no one came. I remember walking up to a young Marine who was on guard who, when he turned around to face me, had tears streaming down his face. Although he wasn’t moving or showing emotion, the tears just kept coming. You see, the sun was about to go down for the night. The inevitable was going to happen.
For those of you in the audience who aren’t a veteran, or for those of you who are but may have forgotten, these little stories tell you how veterans operate. That young Marine asked me, not the guys carrying him to the LAV for a CASEVAC, because he knew who I was. Veterans want to talk to veterans.
You need to also remember that veterans confide in very few people about the traumatic things that happen. Much like those Marines who huddled together morning the loss of their four brothers, veterans mourn with veterans.
You see what I am saying? Veterans want to talk to veterans. Veterans morn with veterans. Just like that Marine who wasn’t showing emotion, but had tears running down his dirty face, veterans keep their bearing even though they are hurting inside.
I hope you can understand this. Veterans want to talk to veterans about veteran issues. Veterans aren’t going to tell everyone much of anything regarding their experiences, especially if they aren’t a veteran. When it comes down to it, a veteran is more likely to be quiet about everything, although they are hurting inside. That is why we need to support programs like the Nye County Veteran’s services. We have veterans available for veterans to be their voice, even though they would rather just not talk about it.
In addition to that, new veterans need old veterans to tell them they are veterans. It is important to solidify this issue in the mind of the new veteran because it is only then that they will feel that they are entitled to their veteran related benefits. We need you to tell that younger veteran “good job” and be there for them, mentor them, help them in their new identity as veteran.
Lets give a big round of applause for the veterans service office and for those veterans who are helping other veterans!