All posts by jreed

‘Whatever it took to save lives’

Graduation day, 1964, Buffalo, Minn. 

Diane Carlson, daughter of a stoic dairy farmer and a country nurse, cannot believe her name is called from among the 93 graduating seniors. The principal and the local American Legion commander summon her and a classmate, Cliff Eng, to step up and receive the post’s annual citizenship award. 

She remembers that moment in vivid detail, as if it happened only yesterday. 

“My mother is sitting next to me, and she looks at me, and my dad looks at me, and I am shocked. Why me? What have I done to be a good citizen? So, I go up on the stage with my classmate, and receive the certificate. I still have it. They gave me a bronze medallion, and it was very heavy. It said, ‘For God and Country,’ and it had The American Legion logo. And they gave me a pin – a small pin to wear. I am in total shock.”

Eng, who would later serve in the Navy, and Evans thought they received the award because everyone in the county loved their mothers, both nurses.

“I go home, and I say, ‘Mom, why did they choose me?’ Of course, my dear mother says, ‘Because you have been a good citizen, Diane. Think of what you did during high school.’ I was not familiar with The American Legion except that there was a post downtown, and they had an American Legion sign on it.”

Four years later, during a rocket attack at an evacuation hospital near Pleiku in the central highlands of Vietnam, the same Diane Carlson, an Army nurse and first lieutenant, reaches into a crib and holds the trembling hand of a young girl severely burned by napalm. 

Soldiers have dived under their beds. IVs and other lines have been yanked out. The floor is slippery with blood. Carlson and a medic have thrown mattresses over those who cannot get onto the floor, to protect them from shrapnel. “Like in the jungle, you do what it takes to survive,” she recalls. “We are doing everything we can to protect them the best way that we can. But the little girl in the unit – we were caring for Montagnard and Vietnamese civilians with napalm burns and injuries incurred in the crossfires of the war – she came into our unit screaming in pain, and when we got hit, she started screaming again because it scared her like the night her village was bombed. I couldn’t throw a mattress on top of her because she was so badly burned. I went for cover under her crib, and I just held her hand. And she screamed herself to death.”

Another moment in vivid detail, as if it happened only yesterday. 

“That night, for me, was Vietnam. It was surreal … like a bad hallucination. I was one lone nurse with one lone medic, and these patients all needed life-saving care. And we were all they got that night. It was our job to do whatever it took to save their lives.”

Diane Carlson knew exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up. “I wanted to be a nurse, like my mom. I was very proud of her. She was a wonderful nurse and a wonderful mother … the Florence Nightingale of the county. Every farmer who did not want to go see a doctor called mother and wanted to know mother’s advice. She was loved.” 

After high school, Diane went without hesitation to a nursing school in Minneapolis.

Her oldest brother was in the Army by then, 101st Airborne Division, and another brother was drafted the following year. “Things are happening in Vietnam,” she recalls. “I am beginning to notice. We had what was called the nurses student lounge, and we could go there and watch TV. I would go every single night at 6 o’clock, and watch the nightly news. My brother had three classmates who were killed in Vietnam by 1966 – all farm boys. And my 4-H buddy, a close friend of ours, was killed in Vietnam.”

She was not frightened by the war. She was drawn to it. “I found an Army nurse recruiter,” she says. “I said to her, ‘I know I want to go to Vietnam. If I pass my state boards, will I be eligible? What do I do to sign up?’

“She said, ‘Well, there’s a nursing shortage right now all over the United States and in the military. We have the Army Student Nurse Program, and if you sign up now, as a junior in nursing, the U.S. government will consider you in the program, and they will pay your tuition and give you a stipend and pay for your books.’

“To have a stipend and have my tuition and books paid, that was a huge bonus. I said, ‘Well, I know I want to go to Vietnam, so how do I sign up?’ She showed me the paperwork. The decision, for me, was made.”

“Mom and Dad, I have something to tell you.”

Diane’s mother, who had gone to nursing school with women who later served in World War II, was not surprised. Diane’s Aunt Ruth had also enlisted in the military during World War II and used the GI Bill to get a doctorate degree.

“I joined the Army. And I am going to volunteer for Vietnam.”

Diane’s father, who rarely showed emotions, made a fist. He slammed it into the tabletop, got up and walked out.

“I was too young and naïve to understand how traumatic this was for a parent. Then, when I told my brothers, they were furious. They didn’t want their sister in the Army. They said the Army is no place for a woman. And I didn’t realize, until I joined the Army, what they meant. At the time, there were still a lot of stereotypes about women in the military.”

At the Hennepin County Hospital’s emergency room during nursing school and while training alongside her mother in Buffalo, shehad seen gunshot wounds, stabbings, domestic abuse, drownings and even some train accidents. “I had seen trauma,” she explains. “I was not afraid of it.” She also did a three-month internship at the VA hospital in Minneapolis. “That cinched it for me. I knew I wanted to take care of veterans. I was in my element.”

“And when I graduate, after I take my state boards, if I pass, I will go to basic training. After that, it will be determined when I go to Vietnam.”

Second Lt. Carlson was 21 when she arrived in country. “The tarmac had big holes in it from mortars and rocket attacks, and we get off,” she remembers, vividly, as if only yesterday. “There are two of us, two female nurses on the plane. There must have been over 250 men onboard. And I can’t tell you how quiet it was when it landed. There wasn’t a sound. I thought about these poor guys. How many were going to come back?

“The pilot says, ‘Nurses off first.’ Two armed guards with bandoliers of ammunition meet us as we come down the steps. ‘Get into the bus, and keep your head down.’”

Black chicken wire over the bus windows. The odor, the heat, the tropical humidity. Replacement center. Orders. Helicopter. Up and out. “My first assignment is the 36th Evac. People say, ‘Great! You’re going to the ocean. It’s on the South China Sea. It’s beautiful there.’

“I thought, that will be cool.”

Really, it wasn’t.

“I am now on a 65-bed unit – a surgical unit, all pre-op and post-op – it’s a Quonset hut. The temperature is 110 degrees. It’s Aug. 3. There is no air conditioning. Every bed is filled. This is 1968.”

Carlson had gone through basic training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, where she and other new Army nurses learned to march, salute and follow orders. She took classes on chemical weapons and how to treat combat wounds in less-than-ideal conditions. “I don’t care how good our training was, or our experience, or how old we were,” she says. “Nothing prepares you for a war zone.”

At Fort Lee, Va., her nine-month first assignment on active duty, she serves in the Army hospital’s orthopedic unit and gets her first taste of Vietnam, treating badly hurt troops sent home from the war. “These young guys could be funny,” she reflects. “They would race in their wheelchairs and re-injure themselves by crashing into each other or falling down stairs; they were just crazy young kids. They were always playing tricks on me.”

Also at Fort Lee, she learns clearly about the invisible wounds of combat.  “One time I was on night duty, and a bed pan that I was trying to put under a patient fell onto the floor. My mistake. Do you know how loud a bed pan is falling onto a tile floor? The whole ward was now awake. The guys all hit the floor. Some actually came out of their pulleys, because of the noise … startled, hypervigilance. I won’t use the swear words they used for me, but they were swearing. Then I realized, these guys are still living back in Vietnam. They are still on guard. They still think they are in Vietnam when they are sleeping. A noise hits, and they’re all awake, and they’re all mad, all agitated.” 

She learns how to awaken a combat soldier to administer medicine. “You stood back and said his name quietly and inched over, very carefully. You did not want to startle a Vietnam vet patient. These are subtle things I learned while I took care of them. It was good training before I left.”

After nine months at Fort Lee, 2nd Lt. Carlson receives orders to deploy. By this time, her oldest brother had been injured and was medically discharged. Her other brother was on the DMZ in South Korea. Diane would be the lone Evans from Buffalo, Minn., with boots on the ground in Vietnam. “I remember that day. It was what I had dreamed of and been working toward”

She goes home on leave to see her parents once more. “In Minnesota on a farm in July, when it rains, you have to get the hay in. You can’t let the hay get wet. I’m a farm girl. I know that. Well, it was going to rain, and so my dad said, ‘Diane, I can’t take you to the airport today, so I’ll say good-bye here.’ 

“My dad had never hugged me or told me he loved me. He was a stoic Scandinavian. Very undemonstrative. In his overalls – I will never forget this – he gave me this big hug, and he started to cry. He said, ‘I have four sons, and I send my daughter off to war.’”

Soon, that daughter is flying out of Virginia, watching smoke billow up from the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on her way to Southeast Asia. “I will never forget what I saw. I had been listening to the radio. I had been watching TV. I know there are war protesters. I know there are people burning the flag, which I cannot believe – who would burn the American flag? – and the smoke is rising because of a tent city, where protesters had come to oppose the war. This was my last view of my nation’s capital – my sendoff to Vietnam.

She was undaunted. The war was calling. 

“I didn’t care what the protesters were saying. I still had this sense of citizenship – that, like my brothers, it was my duty to serve – certainly influenced by that American Legion citizenship award and why I had been chosen for it.”

No one had said anything about snakes. One of 2nd Lt. Carlson’s  first patients at the 36th Evacuation Hospital had been bitten by one “in that wonderful South China Sea that I was so happy to be by. It was full of sea snakes. I’m taking care of him, and he does survive – many of them didn’t – and I said to him, ‘What does a sea snake look like?’ 

“And he said, ‘a very bad snake.’

“The next day, I come in, and on the nurses’ station, where I am working to get medication together and check the orders for the day, there’s this big glass gallon jar with a lid on it. Inside of it is a snake. Of course, I jumped. And my patient is laughing hysterically. Now, everybody is laughing. They said, ‘Lieutenant, you wanted to see one…’ These guys went out and got one, just for me. Did they shoot it? Did they have a net? It was dead, thank goodness. We had to laugh. Welcome to Vietnam.”

Carlson  and each of her fellow nurses, corpsmen and doctors treated thousands of troops and civilians in country. “We saw the results of war every day, in every patient, for 12 or 14 hours, whatever the length our shift might be. We went from one to the next to the next to the next to the next. Each one had a story.”

Injuries were often accompanied by burns. She treated ground grunts and dust-off crash survivors, civilians (including children) and officers. As quickly as possible, patients other than civilians were transferred from the evacuation hospital to the 6th Convalescent Center at Cam Ranh Bay to recover if wounds were not so bad as to send them home.

Infections were a constant concern. “If you were wounded, the wounds were always considered dirty,” she says. “Vietnam was a dirty country. The enemy became very crafty. They would lace punji sticks with human feces. A soldier would step on it: instant injury and certain infection. Bone infections were sent home due to the long recovery period. DPCs – delayed primary closures. =Any soldier who went through this experienced excruciating pain. Our skilled medics irrigated the wound, packed the dressings, and on the third day, the surgeons could close the wound. Tons of antibiotics. So, now the wound is healing, and the antibiotics are working, and we take out the stitches and he goes back to his unit … or, he gets the million-dollar wound, and goes home.”

In January 1969, 1st Lt. Diane Carlson is transferred to the 71st Evac Hospital at Pleiku, near the Cambodia border. “Now, I am in the thick of combat. Our hospital is surrounded by concertina wire. We have four guard towers. It’s very dangerous. We have sappers trying to get in. We had one of our guards shot out of a tower. Patients were coming in so fast … we called it a push. A push meant mass casualties.”

The 71st Evac nurses could be summoned instantly, any time of day or night, by apush. “Our hooches, where the nurses lived, were right next to the hospital. So in seconds, we could get on our boots, jungle fatigues, flak jacket and helmet when the red-alert siren went on. So, we are now on our ward in seconds. 

“If one chopper was coming in, maybe eight patients on that chopper, or if they really threw bodies on top of bodies, maybe 16. But, you know, one chopper was limited. Two choppers, three choppers – I used to call it a gaggle – you got tuned into the sound of those Hueys coming in, and to this day, if a Huey flew over, I would hear it from a mile away, maybe two miles away. When a bunch of choppers came in, you knew it was trouble.

“I don’t think I ever really slept in Vietnam. I think I was always on the verge of sleep, waiting for that call and choppers flying overhead.”

On one particular night, the nurses’ hooches rattle and tremble like the earth is quaking. This is no Huey. It’s a Chinook. The nurses scramble to open a spare ward, an extra 45 beds, and begin setting up IVs. Patients start coming in, “but they are not wounded,” Carlson notices. “All the wounded are in the emergency room. They’re sending these sick guys to my unit. They were dehydrated. They were dirty. There was vomit. Wounds weren’t visible, but their suffering was acute and there wouldn’t be any Purple Hearts passed out for their near-death experience. All I could think about was they had been stranded out there without food, without water. Fevers. My lone corpsman and I couldn’t make diagnoses. We could just get IVs started.”

Deep in hostile territory, they worked by flashlight at night. “The hospital could not be lit because we got hit too often. I could start an IV in the dark, and I did.”

The first lieutenant  wrote her mother about that night. She had forgotten how many sick and dehydrated soldiers they treated until she rediscovered the letter in 1994. Twenty-eight. She still has no idea what had caused their condition. She does remember hooking up IVs in the dark to soldiers whose veins had collapsed. 

Her hoochmate at Pleiku, also from Minnesota, was a nurse named Edie (which means “prosperous in war”) and they bonded, under frequent enemy fire. One morning, they arose to find the hooch next to theirs “blown off the map. Nobody was in that hooch that night. It was unbelievable. They were all on R&R. It was like an act of God that it hit that hooch and not ours.”

As rockets exploded around Diane and Edie one night, they got under their beds and, despite the situation, got the giggles like the schoolgirls they once were. “We’re laughing because Edie, who always tried to keep her hair nice, had curlers in, and she had her helmet on over her head, and she is eating peanut butter and crackers. When Edie is under stress, she eats. ‘If I am going to die, I am going to die happy.’

“Our guys were putting sandbags up to the top of our hooch at daybreak, to protect us from any more incoming. We went to work the next day. Was I afraid of dying? I think by that time, I was so numb, I had resigned myself to it – that I might not come home. It was part of being there. You didn’t worry about the little things like dying. We had so many casualties to take care of, we were never bored. Our patients came first.”

In July 1969, 1st Lt. Carlson’s tour in Vietnam ends. She doesn’t want to go. “Just when we got good at what we were doing, we left. Same with the guys, the infantrymen, the soldiers.  We turned it over to new people. I thought about staying another year, by re-upping, but I knew I needed to go home. I was losing weight. I was exhausted. I needed to rest.”

She remembers vividly, as if it was only yesterday, her last patient in Pleiku. He was on a ventilator and a tracheostomy tube and could not speak. He was too sick to be transferred from the evacuation hospital. To communicate, they wrote notes to each other. “I told him I was leaving. He was agitated. He didn’t want me to leave. I was his nurse. I think he felt abandoned. He had become very attached to me. He wrote me a note that said, ‘Don’t go home.’ I think he knew he was going to die, and he didn’t want to die alone. I felt like I was abandoning him. So, I am leaving Vietnam where I feel like I am abandoning my patients just when I am good at what I am doing.”

Before leaving Vietnam, she is advised to not wear her Army uniform when she lands in the United States. Protesters can be hostile. She wears it anyway.

First stop, Travis Air Force Base. Then on to Madigan Army Hospital at Fort Lewis, Wash. for an examination and discharge paperwork. She is told she has a spot on her lung and is laterdiagnosed with tuberculosis in both lungs and her spleen, probably the cause of her weight loss and frequent coughing. 

She travels alone, in uniform, back to Minneapolis where hecklers greet her at the airport. Two GIs are there. One throws a heckler to the ground. “It’s beyond me. That era. How our society could turn their backs on soldiers, not separating the war from the warrior.”

She rests, recovers and takes a job as a surgical nurse in Minneapolis. Three weeks later, she quits. “I was a fish out of water.” She calls Edie, who has been assigned to Madigan. Carlson drives to Madigan and signs on as a civilian nurse there. Within months she simply re-ups and, promoted to captain, is stationed at Fort Sam Houston, as head nurse in surgical intensive care. “That saved my life. I needed to be taking care of soldiers again. I couldn’t relate to patients who were just having their gallbladders out and complaining about the pain.”

She falls in love with a surgical intern, Maj. Mike Evans. They marry, and when their first child is on the way, Capt. Carlson-Evans retires from the Army, anexpectation for pregnant soldiers. “I wanted to stay in the Army Nurse Corps forever. I loved military nursing.”

Then, vividly, as if it was only yesterday, she returns to Vietnam.

“I didn’t know what a flashback was.”

A new mother, she goes to work part-time as a recovery room nurse at a civilian hospital in San Antonio – pretty slow work compared to Pleiku. Then, one night, the operating room nurse calls Carlson-Evans in to help with an emergency surgery. “There was a small child on the operating room table. The child was hemorrhaging, and the surgeon was throwing bloody sponges at me, into the basin, for me to count. I smelled the blood. I saw the blood. And I’m right back in Vietnam. It was so shocking to me that I stood there frozen. I wasn’t functioning. And the surgeon is now swearing at me, and the operating room nurse is acting like she can’t believe that I am behaving in such a manner. What kind of nurse would just stand there and do nothing?”

The child died on the table.

“I went home, and I started to shake. I think I shook all night. The next day, I went to human resources, and I resigned.”

No one really talked much about post-traumatic stress disorder at that time. Carlson-Evans  knew she had been a  competent nurse in Vietnam and at Brooke Army Medical Center. “I had no idea what was happening to me.” She did not talk about it for years.

Soon, with another child on the way, the family moves to Heidelberg, Germany, where Dr. Carlson becomes chief of the Army’s 130th Station Hospital. The family grows by two more as the 1970s unfold. “So, now I am being a full-time mother, and I am really stuffing my Vietnam experience. The incident in that operating room was so traumatic I didn’t think I could ever go back to nursing. I had gone from being a nurse who felt very skilled and very competent to feeling that I was incompetent and couldn’t do my job.”

In 1982, she attends the dedication ceremony of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. “It was so beautiful and so meaningful – finally the nation was beginning to come to grips with our experience and looking at us as who we really were, not what their stereotypes were, about us. And finding the names on the Wall that I know … I couldn’t keep those memories away anymore. They just came. It seems like I never had a wake, never had a funeral, for all those men and women who died in Vietnam. One by one, faces would come back. Names would come back. I was grieving for each one of them.”

She estimates that 35,000 of the names on the Wall lost their lives during the time she was in-country. Eight were nurses.

In 1984, when the Three Soldiers bronze statue is dedicated near the Wall, depicting three Vietnam War troops gazing back at the names of the fallen, Carlson-Evans thinks to herself, “it’s a beautiful sculpture, but they forgot someone.”

She tells her husband, “there’s something I need to do. If they are going to have a statue to the men, then we need one for the women. It only took the men two years. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know how I’m going to do it. But I think something needs to be done.”

She appeals to other interested veterans and together they apply for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status to accept tax-deductible donations to build a monument to honor women who served in the Vietnam War. She writes articles of incorporation and reaches out to other Vietnam War veterans, male and female. The organization establishes a presence in Washington, D.C., and begins the long journey through commissions, committees, subcommittees, agencies and offices necessary to install anything permanent on the National Mall. She soon learns that to make it happen she will need a mandate from Congress. “So, now I realize I need to go to the veterans service organizations and see if they wouldn’t support this.”

The American Legion would.

A member of American Legion Post 121 in River Falls, Wis., Carlson-Evans asks her fellow Legionnaires how she might get the nation’s largest veterans organization behind the memorial idea. 

“They said, ‘If you want to get anything done in The American Legion, you’d better contact Judge Dan Foley.’ Well, he was in St. Paul. He was an appellate judge, and I called him. I told him I was a veteran. That was all he needed to hear. He said, ‘Come and have lunch with me.’”

Foley, who served as national commander of The American Legion the year Diane Carlson graduated from high school, explains that she will need a resolution passed at her post, then district and department levels. Then he says, ’AYou will come to the national convention. That’s how you get this done.’ I did everything he said.”

In October 1985, The American Legion National Executive Committee unanimously passes Resolution 16 calling on the Department of the Interior, the Fine Arts Commission, the National Capitol Planning Commission and other agencies to dedicate an area near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial “to erect a statue honoring the women who have served during the Vietnam War.” 

With national American Legion support, she writes a strategic plan, assembles a board of directors, continues raising funds and launches a publicity campaign. “My skills from Vietnam, and my nursing skills, really played a huge part in my ability to get things done. First of all, you get it done. You don’t give up. That was my mantra. In Vietnam, I never even thought about giving up.”

It takes nearly 10 years and more than 30 hearings in Washington. “I am up at 3 in the morning writing testimony trying to convince people. And then, I realize why so many people are against this. They don’t know who we are. They don’t know what we accomplished because in Vietnam on the 6 o’clock news, we saw the wounded and the body bags and the soldiers, the chopper pilots and the burning villages, but we never ever saw the nurses behind the scenes or the other women who were serving in other roles. They had no clue what our contribution was, how many thousands of lives we touched, how many thousands of lives we saved. To get their story out, she sends press releases to every U.S. state calling on women veterans to step forward and talk. “That’s when the tide turned.” Thousands of news clippings, and a wave of donations, pour in. 

Still, opposition persists. Carlson-Evans reads that the next thing you know, there will be a “movement to put a woman on Mount Rushmore.” She hears that maybe they should paint the Statue of Liberty pink. Perhaps a woman could be painted into the canvas of Washington crossing the Delaware. The Commemorative Works Act then becomes law in 1986, “making it almost impossible to put a memorial on the Mall.”

Carlson-Evans studies every line of the new law and its restrictions. “One of the statements said that it had to be of pre-eminent historical significance. So, that stayed with me.”

The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts disapproves of the design. “They said the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is closed. There will never be another addition. They didn’t want us there at all.”

A proposal to install a statue on the Mall to honor the Vietnam War canine corps, at the same time Carlson-Evans is fighting for the women’s monument, leads one official to publicly question where to draw the line. 

She remembers that comparison vividly, as if it was only yesterday. “The canine corps was fantastic – the dogs and all that – but did he just put us in the same sentence?”

That’s when “60 Minutes” calls. Morley Safer, who had reported in Vietnam and saw what the nurses did, interviews Carlson-Evans and three other nurses. Millions watch the interview, including patients whose lives were saved in the war. Phone calls, letters and telegrams of support storm in.

It comes down to one final hearing with the Department of the Interior. It has to be unanimous. Carlson-Evans prepares a 10-page speech. 

“I had it in front of me, but I didn’t even look at it. I’m just going to say one thing to them: I said, ‘Is it not of pre-eminent historical significance, and lasting significance, that they saved these lives? Our wall would be much higher and much wider without the contribution of these very brave women.’ I sat down. The place went quiet. They took the vote. It was unanimous. It was done.”

On Veterans Day 1993, the statue depicting three uniformed women with a wounded soldier, one nurse looking skyward for a chopper, is dedicated. Thousands, including many who owed their lives to the approximately 10,000 women who served in the Vietnam War, attend. Their experience, now cast in bronze, would be permanent.

“We stood on the shoulders of the World War II veteran women and the Korean War women,” says Carlson-Evans, now a member of The American Legion’s 100th Anniversary Honorary Committee. “The World War I women – the first nurses who went into the military as nurses – they opened doors for World War II. Each generation opens doors for the next. We Vietnam veteran women certainly proved that we measured up. We were brave. We did our job, and we didn’t quit.”

And no matter what haunts them, sometimes in vivid detail, as if it was only yesterday, combat nurses and all women who have bravely served in uniform can stand assured that they have more than fulfilled the responsibilities of what The American Legion recognizes as good citizenship. That may, in fact, be one reason Carlson-Evans has kept her high school award all these years.

 

Jeff Stoffer is editor of The American Legion Magazine.

Source: Legion News

‘Goodbye and good luck’

In 1934 and 1935, the Past Presidents’ Parley of the American Legion Auxiliary Department of North Dakota identified and interviewed the state’s 271 women who served during the Great War. Of that number, 225 were nurses. Red Cross statistics show that 20 percent of all North Dakota registered nurses served in Europe – a greater percentage than any other state during the war.

In her book “North Dakota Nurses Over There 1917-1919,” Grace E.F. Holmes shares the accounts of these women, as collected by 52 American Legion Auxiliary units – when they enlisted, where they served and what their service meant to them. The following excerpts offer a glimpse into nurses’ varied experiences, whether fighting the deadly Spanish flu pandemic on the homefront or caring for combat-wounded troops fresh off the battlefields of France.

GENE MARIE GUNDERSON, Fargo Unit

After 15 years, France seems very far away.
Blue capes with scarlet linings, gray chambray uniforms, yellow shoes (often caked with mud), cold drafty barracks, the roll of drums, Old Glory whipping in the breeze, death always at one’s elbow, and the thousand and one annoyances incidental to living so unnatural an existence, blur into an unreal picture. It is all like a dream that has passed ….

On Sept. 14, 1918, we sailed on the Olympic. When we were but six hours out, I was put to
bed sick with the flu and remained there until I was carried off the boat when we docked in Southampton, England. I was not ever expected to reach England alive. My only food was champagne and cracked ice. We were held in quarantine for four days, then sent to Hursley Park, an English Rest Camp. 

Five of our nurses died there. I saw my first military funeral. Being weak and ill, it impressed me more perhaps than it otherwise would. The soldiers could not bury our girls in the rough boxes given the men, and it was touching to see them line the crude interiors with cheese cloth … They brought wild flowers and placed them in the dead hands that had meant to minister to them. Then covering each ugly box with the flag, they carried them to the newly made graves. As taps sounded it seemed the most melancholy but beautiful music I had ever heard …. 

I was with Base Hospital No. 58. There were thousands of wounded, gassed, pneumonia, infectious and contagious cases. I was both day and night nurse. Here I contracted laryngitis with a touch of pleurisy and went about my work for four weeks unable to speak and with my side strapped. It was very cold in the barracks, and we crawled into our sleeping bags with our clothes on. We were so cold, tired, and half sick that we used to say that even an air raid could not get us up. We always talked this way on moonlight nights, for those were the times we feared bombing.

 

GERTRUDE HEALY, Grand Forks Unit

I was ordered to report to Camp Upton, Long Island, a huge evacuation camp with a large hospital, after sitting in suspense for weeks together with hundreds of other aides …. But our first assignment had nothing to do with physical treatment. We arrived the day before the New Year. That evening the Chief of Staff called me and said, “We have just received a bunch of mashed up aviators who are in a blue funk. They are New York men and counted on New York hospitalization. Won’t you aides go in that ward and try to cheer them up?” Trembling with uncertainty, we went to our first meeting with the badly wounded. My first patient looked like a mummy in a sarcophagus, completely encased in a plaster cast as he appeared to be. He turned out to be a nephew of former Gov. White of North Dakota. That was one of the hardest, and in a way, one of the grandest evenings I have ever spent.

 

JENNIE MAHONEY, Larimore, Langdon & Fargo Units 

…. we nurses went by ambulance to Field Hospital No. 112, located in a shell-torn building
at Château-Thierry. Their commanding officer, Maj. Hazlett, said he knew God had sent us, they needed help so badly. We had gone about 50 miles over shell-torn roads, arriving there in the evening. We worked all night and the following day in a building with windows, doors, and shell holes covered with heavy dark blankets, lest the enemy see a glimmer of light from our candles, the noise of guns and exploding bombs striking terror to our hearts, our souls sick at the sight of our boys. From 7 o’clock that evening until 7 the next morning, one thousand wounded were brought in.

 

ITA ROSA McDONELL, Devils Lake Unit

What a shock it was when 25 of us found our names posted for duty at Camp Mills, Long Island. The influenza epidemic had started. We found the patients in hospital tents and in the State Fair buildings. After caring for patients in the horse barns for a few days, 12 of us were sent with some of the Regular Army nurses to open up the huge new camp laundry building as part of the hospital. As fast as the corps men set up the cots and brought in the straw-stuffed ticks, we nurses made up the beds. We had quantities of linen and a good supply of hospital utensils, but no chairs or tables. The cots were low. It still makes my back ache to think of it. I believe there were nearly 5,000 cots, row on row, head to foot, a very narrow space between rows. And soon those cots were all filled …. Then followed a nightmare period of nights and days filled with inadequacy in the face of the devastating disease. Sometimes I think that time and its events can’t be as I recall them, but the drone of a fleet of aeroplanes still brings it back with all its horror.

 

ANNIE M. MICKLESON, Fargo & Kindred Units

We left Fargo on Monday night and arrived at Tacoma, Wash., on Wednesday night. The next morning we took the bus to Camp Lewis … Arriving in the morning, as they were doing their morning’s work, we went to call on one of our best nurse friends. She was giving a soldier a bath without a screen at the foot of the bed, so I said, “You must be short of screens.” She answered, “You have to get used to this. I think when I get back to Fargo I can give a bath on Broadway without blushing.”

 

DOROTHY AGNES BLODGETT, Minot Unit

I had not been in service many weeks when the Spanish flu epidemic started. It kept us all so busy that we were unable to think of anything but work. If I remember rightly, we had 80 nurses in the hospital when the epidemic started. In a short time we had 400 nurses and about 8,000 patients. Every available nurse was called into service, even student nurses from many training schools. We could not give the soldiers anywhere near the care they should have received for they came in so fast and many of them were so desperately sick. Every ward was filled to its capacity and the long corridors between were lined with cots on either side. Many of the patients lived only two or three days … It was indeed a depressing sight to look out and see the stretchers going by from morning to night. 

Since the Armistice was signed in less than three months after I entered service, I did not get overseas, but I think the nurses who worked through the epidemic in this country, and cared for the disabled veterans on their return home, did not miss many of the horrors of war.

 

JEAN FORREST BROWN, Fargo Unit

At Coëtquidan Camp Hospital No. 15 … I was attached to surgery for 13 months, serving as first assistant to three different surgeons during this period. We operated on more than 1,500 major cases, and many more minor ones. Our record during this time was less than 1 percent mortality. Our part was very difficult at times; there were so many sights and heartaches. Our boys, blind, wounded, and maimed, brought to us begging to die for they did not wish to go home helpless and a burden to their families or their government. Trying to encourage and uplift their morale and keep up our own, under indescribable circumstances, was not an easy task.

 

JANET KIPPEN, Cavalier Unit

I was stationed at Camp Grant (Rockford, Ill.) for 13 months. The flu broke out shortly after I arrived. We didn’t have enough nurses. I was on night duty for six weeks in a barracks and, for a week, was alone with four corps boys to try and care for very sick men who were rushing in and falling on the floor and having to stay there until we could get to them. In six weeks, 1,100 men died in Camp Grant. The most that died in one night were 250. We also lost several nurses. When it was all over we had parties and we danced, but I really think everyone was too sad to enjoy anything very much.

 

SIGNE LEE, Fargo Unit

On Jan. 21, 1918, leaving Base Hospital No. 1, I was transferred to the base hospital at Camp McArthur, Waco, Texas. The country was a sandy plain and the wind blew most of the time, carrying dust through cracks and crevices into everything. In the cold weather the heat was almost non-existent. Suffering was very acute at times. The water supply was poor. The flu epidemic in the fall of 1918 can never be forgotten by any who survived. We were frequently on duty for 36 or 40 hours, if we did not drop before.

 

LILLIAN S. McKNIGHT, Langdon Unit

In the morning at break of day we went on deck … the pier was crowded with crippled soldiers on crutches. I think that was one of the saddest mornings I spent while in the Army, to see so many husky boys without arms and legs who were there to welcome the Americans. Here we said “Goodbye and good luck” to the boys and officers we met on the way over, and many we knew would never return ….

Our hospital was outside the city and part of it was in an old French convent …. I was on night duty, surgical floor, and had 78 beds in my ward and one orderly to help me. During the thickest of the fight we had as many as five “go west” in a night and I always managed to be with each boy at the last. One thought that was always foremost in my mind was that there were mothers, wives, and sisters somewhere who would have sacrificed everything to have the privilege of being with their own boys at these times ….

Troops were going up the line by the thousands, and thousands were coming down wounded every day. We nurses would always try to get to the road and call, “Goodbye and good luck.” Their answer always was, “Goodbye, Sister, I’ll be back in a few days. Have a bed for me.” We hadn’t much time to give them, but tried to give each man his due. Such wonderful lads, who wouldn’t? …. I shall always feel I have to strive real hard to make my life as useful in the future as I did during those 19 months.

 

REGINA WAHL, Fargo Unit

Once when we were walking among rows of wooden crosses looking for names of someone we might know, we found the grave of Norah Emilie Anderson. I did not know her in North Dakota, but she was in Camp Custer when I was there ….

We now began to see what war had been like. All about was desolation. Not a tree remained nor any living thing. The ground was broken with shell holes and shell craters. The towns were great heaps of ruins. All that remained standing in them were high smoke stacks. Large piles of ammunition and machine guns, the trenches and the sandbags were in evidence.

 

LILLIAN JANE BLACKWELL, Cooperstown Unit

July 5, 1918: Sleep? Well, I better stuff my ears with cotton this a.m. Guns are booming in the distance. But it’s a sound we feel strangely lonesome without ….

July 16, 1918. What must God think when He looks down from His heaven upon this miserable struggle of mankind. Such horrible agony and suffering. Such heroism from the men!

July 28, 1918: Poor John! He was sent to help in Evacuation VII as stretcher bearer and discovered the dead patient he was about to carry out was his own brother.

July 29, 1918: Patients, patients – simply pouring in and lying all over the hillsides under the trees. They are so tired, many only slightly wounded, but how they sleep from sheer exhaustion … roads are lined with trucks. We had over 8,000 in eight days for our 300-bed hospital, but 1,100 in one night!

 

LOUESE FREEMAN, Park River Unit

It is 4 a.m., and I am hurriedly called from the nurses’ quarters to the hospital, a short distance away. Sgt. Canary was dying and calling for me …. I stepped to his bed and he said, “Sunshine, take my hand and raise me up.” I did, and then with the last speck of energy he said. “I’ll answer roll call elsewhere in – the – morning.” That was all. 

 

MABEL OLETTA OLSON, Fargo Unit

The memory of memorial services at Kerhoun, France, on May 30, 1919 still lingers with me …. As the line of marchers proceeded to the little village along winding and narrow roads, one could look back and see, first, the nurses, the officers and the “boys” – corpsmen and patients. Some were just appearing over the brow of the hill; a few patients were hobbling along on crutches; others had their heads or arms still bandaged, the ambulance bringing up the rear. As we passed one house
a pleasant sight greeted us. Out of one of the upstairs windows was flying our Stars and Stripes beside the French banner. At the cemetery were the people of the village to help us decorate the graves of our boys as well as their own.

 

JENNIE MAHONEY, Larimore, Langdon & Fargo Units

When we saw the Statue of Liberty and heard the strains of “Home, Sweet Home” from the band of the mayor’s welcoming committee, our hearts were tremulous and our eyes filled with tears and sadness for those left over there, and joy for our homeland, the very best on earth.

I feel I cannot close without a word of appreciation for the men of our Army, they were most manly, unselfish and patient. It was a real privilege to be there, for perhaps in no other way could we have learned what splendid characters our American men had.  

 

Grace E.F. Holmes, M.D., is a professor of pediatrics and preventive medicine emerita at the University of Kansas Medical Center. She is a member of Dwight Cowles American Legion Auxiliary Unit 370 of Overland Park, Kan.

 

 

To purchase a copy of “North Dakota Nurses Over There 1917-1919,” contact the American Legion Auxiliary Department of North Dakota at (701) 253-5992 or nurses@ndala.org.

Source: Legion News

Madam Commander

Denise Rohan is the first woman to be national commander of The American Legion.

She’s proud of that distinction. She knows it’s a milestone for the organization and female veterans in general. Just don’t tell her, “It’s about time!”

From Rohan’s perspective, women have always been leaders in the Legion. “If you look back, women were post commanders early on,” she says. “We’ve been in leadership positions. If we weren’t leading from the front, we were still there, helping the organization along.

“I don’t think of myself as a female Legionnaire. I want to be known as a great American Legion leader who happens to be a woman. I’ve been working hard for the Legion for more than 30 years, and am humbled it chose me to be national commander. It’s an honor.” 

Elected at the Legion’s 99th National Convention in Reno, Nev., in August, Rohan is an Army veteran and the second national commander from Wisconsin. She and her husband, Mike, belong to Mason Lindsay Post 385 in Verona, where they moved after nearly 30 years in Sun Prairie.

“They fit in right away,” says Stan Hook, post commander. “They didn’t sit back and watch things happen. They hit the ground running.”

Members have supported Rohan for a long time and are excited to see her at the top, Hook adds. “She’s very capable. She’s outgoing, friendly and can bring people together in a consensus. She’s done a lot for this post and she’ll do a lot for the national organization.” 

SECOND FAMILY Rohan grew up in Elkader, Iowa, a small town on the Turkey River. At age 5 or 6, she was waking up and leaving notes that said, “Gone fishing.” 

Her parents, Joe and Dorothy Hulbert, set a strong example for their three daughters. Both were volunteer EMTs and active in the local United Church of Christ; Joe was Elkader’s volunteer fire chief. “They served the community and taught us to serve our community too,” Rohan says. “They were supportive of whatever we wanted to do.”

She first encountered the Legion as a girl, at Memorial Day services in a Catholic cemetery near her house. She’d wait patiently to receive a spent brass shell casing from the honor guard, to use as a whistle. 

“The town always had a parade that started at the cemetery, came down the hill, went across the bridge and ended up at another cemetery on the other side of the river,” she says. “There was only one parade I remember going the other way, when they brought home the body of someone killed in Vietnam. It began at the high school and went up the hill. That memory stayed with me.”

Still, the idea of serving in the military herself didn’t occur to her until a high school friend asked Rohan and another girl to accompany her to Des Moines for an Army physical. Her friend failed, they passed, and Rohan had a choice. Unsure what she wanted to do with her life, and reluctant to ask her parents to put a third child through college, she joined under the buddy system in 1974.

For a person who struggled with homesickness, Fort McClellan, Ala., took some getting used to.

“Somehow my mother lived through me sobbing on the phone every single call for a couple of weeks,” Rohan says. “Then I started realizing that I had another family: the women in basic training with me. They had my back, they made sure I was taken care of, and we became sisters.”

At Fort Lee, Va., she completed quartermaster school and was the outstanding graduate of her class. Needing female instructors, the Army sent Rohan to more training. That’s where she met Mike, who was working as a television production specialist.

“I had to have some time in the studio,” she says, teasing him. “My roommate at the time was a runner-up for Miss West Virginia the year before she joined the Army, so here’s this beautiful blonde who probably did really good on camera because she was used to that kind of stuff. He doesn’t remember meeting me that day.”

By Mike’s recollection, they met through a mutual friend a couple of months later. He soon realized this girl had all the qualities his mother told him to seek in a woman – and more.

“She never once told me to look for someone who could shoot an M16 or crawl under barbed wire with live fire going on or run two miles with a ruck sack on her back, but that’s what I found,” he says. “Denise has all those abilities of a soldier but is also a loving wife and mother.”

They started dating, fell in love and … Mike got orders to go to Korea. About the same time, Rohan was up for re-enlistment. Wanting to stay together, they were married by a justice of the peace during one of Rohan’s morning breaks. Their reception was at a McDonald’s.

“That’s our romantic place we go every year, on May 21,” she says.

‘WOMEN ARE VETERANS TOO’ In the end, the Army couldn’t guarantee Rohan an assignment overseas, so she left the service and became an Army wife. Over the next few years, the couple lived in Korea, Texas and, finally, Wisconsin. Mike spent the first half of his career as enlisted, then became a warrant officer in the National Guard.

Meanwhile, Rohan built her own career at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, starting as a program assistant in the student loans office. She eventually rose to the position of assistant bursar, managing a $120 million loan portfolio and helping to develop a computerized system to manage it all. She retired in 2012, after 29 years.

“We miss her a lot,” says Regina Derlein, who worked under Rohan as a financial specialist. “She is someone we always went to for answers. Always up on all the federal and institutional regulations. When she left, she took a wealth of knowledge.”

Rohan’s American Legion career has had a similar trajectory. She joined in 1984, when the new commander of Post 333 in Sun Prairie – a friend of Mike’s – recruited her to join so she could serve as adjutant. She laughs when she recalls an older veteran who was flustered by a woman’s presence at meetings. “He was saying something and swore, and then he took his cap off and said, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be disrespectful.’ Later he did it again and said, ‘I just don’t know how I’m going to do this.’ I told him, ‘Hey, I was in the Army too. I’ve heard those words before.’”

Where Rohan really found her spot in the Sun Prairie post was coordinating community blood drives – four a year for two decades. “Each pint of blood can help three people, and we collected hundreds at each drive,” she says. “The volunteers kept coming back, the donors kept coming back. It makes you feel like you’re making a difference.”

From there, Rohan’s reputation for hard work and willingness to serve opened door after door: post commander, district adjutant and commander, department historian (she’s a four-time winner of the National American Legion Historian Contest), department commander. On the national level, she  is a former chairman of the Veterans Employment & Education Commission, as well as the National Membership & Post Activities Committee. Along the way, she’s volunteered for dozens of smaller jobs that have cemented the Legion’s place in her community, like chartering a Boy Scout troop, organizing children’s Christmas parties and assembling troop care packages. 

None of it would have happened if Rohan was the sort to hold grudges. When the couple lived in Marshall, Wis., briefly, a member of the local American Legion came by to recruit Mike. Rohan identified herself as an eligible veteran, but the Legion recruiter told her that women join the Auxiliary only. Years later, the Marshall post realized its mistake and hung a photo of Rohan – then district commander – beneath a sign that says, “Remember, women are veterans too!” 

Today that post is one of her biggest supporters. “I promised they’d get one of my first national commander photos to put in that frame,” she says.

‘WE CAN DO THAT’ Rohan’s name is known in more than just Legion circles. At the Wisconsin Army National Guard Armory in Madison, she and her husband are Aunt Denise and Uncle Mike. Since 2006, they’ve frequented drill weekends so often that young servicemembers sometimes assume they’re part of their unit. 

Facing a rough situation with a soldier fresh off deployment, and needing resources fast, Staff Sgt. Dan Killam was told to talk to the Rohans at the Legion. That call led to an unbelievable amount of care for troops and their families, he says.

When soldiers needed satellite phone minutes to call home after a battle, the Wisconsin Legion Family raised $50,000. At a spur run for the 105th Cavalry, Legionnaires fed nearly 500 people in 20 minutes. At various dine-outs, they’ve covered the cost of dinner for re-enlisting soldiers. All these things happened because of the Rohans.

“If Denise says, ‘We can do that,’ something makes everybody say, ‘It’s going to be OK,’” Killam says. “People who pray that something works out in the end are essentially praying that Denise shows up.”

He tells a story about a soldier whose roommate killed himself in their house. He couldn’t afford to have it cleaned. Within a day, Killam received a check from a Vietnam War veteran eager to help.

“There is no program that provides for that, but there is a number in my phone,” he says. “The Rohans are the tightest safety net we’ve ever seen. I would do anything for them, and I believe they would do anything for me, if for no other reason than I am a soldier with a family.”

Whether it’s the military, the Legion or one’s relatives, Rohan believes in strengthening the bonds people share. Her theme as commander – in fact, her motto in life – is “Family First.”

She’s thought about it a lot after a particularly difficult year. While decorating a tree in her backyard, she fell off a ladder and broke both feet. Not long after, her son Nick had life-threatening complications following surgery and was in the hospital for weeks. What kept her going was prayer and encouragement from her Legion family.

It reminds Rohan why she’s devoted much of her life to the organization: camaraderie, belonging, mutual helpfulness. “Each and every Legionnaire should take time to remember why they joined in the first place, and why they continue to belong,” she says. “If we’re ready with the answers to those questions when we ask others to join, we’ll grow.”

Keeping members is just as important to Rohan. She hates hearing of people leaving the Legion because something upset them at their post or they didn’t see the point of membership. 

“That just seems really sad to me,” she says. “We’re family, and somebody left our family. We need to go after them and bring them back, even if that’s a post in the next city or other part of town.”

That’s Rohan’s message for all veterans, women and men. “If you go into a Legion post and you don’t feel like it’s a fit, go to another post and find the fit. Give us another chance. There’s a family out there for you someplace.” 

Matt Grills is managing editor of The American Legion Magazine.

Source: Legion News

I Am The American Legion: Joseph Schram

“We don’t just sit behind a table and wait for them to come to us. We get up front and talk to them. Once you start talking, you bring in The American Legion and what we do – pretty soon you get them as a member.”

Five years ago, Joseph Schram was one of two veterans who belonged to Flanders Field American Legion Post BE-02 in Belgium. Today, post membership exceeds 100 thanks to initiatives that connect the fallen heroes of World War I to the children of active‑duty U.S. personnel and veterans serving today at SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe) and NATO.

Post BE-02 Commander Schram has recruited members and worked to revitalize and charter posts elsewhere in Europe. He helped rev up a Legion Riders chapter and an adopt-a-grave program at the World  War I cemetery that is Post BE-02’s namesake.

The Flanders Field American Cemetery in Waregem, Belgium, is the final resting place of 368 U.S. World War I heroes. The names of another 43 are etched into the wall of the missing. Just as the post was getting ready to launch the grave-adoption program, then-President Barack Obama spoke at the cemetery. “It brought the cemetery to light …. within two months, every grave and name on the wall of the missing were adopted. By associating this adoption program with The American Legion, we’re branding The American Legion.”

The adopt-a-grave program, oratorical competition, Boys State and American Legion Auxiliary Girls State help the post build awareness and membership. “It’s getting bigger and bigger,” he says of the youth outreach effort at NATO and SHAPE. “As we grow, and as the community understands what we can do, we are working more with the Junior ROTC and hopefully will be more involved with their junior shooting program.”

As the Legion’s centennial draws nearer, Schram and the department look forward to extending the organization’s message in France, where the Legion was founded in March 1919. 

“As we start advertising through the different commands, through the embassies, the different VIPs in Europe – they’re going to say, ‘American Legion? Wow.’ People are going to take notice.”

 

Branch of Service: Army, Army Reserve and Army National Guard (1983-2011)

MOS: Psychological operations, transportation

Post: Flanders Field Post BE-02

Years in the legion: 5 

LEGION ACTIVITIES

  • Department vice commander at large (2016‑2017) 
  • Post commander (2012-present)
  • Post service officer
  • Gold Brigade Recruiter

 

 

Source: Legion News

Mentors on the diamond

An IED explosion cost Army Sgt. Brent Nadjadi, 22, his left leg in Afghanistan in 2010. Leaving the military three years later left the veteran without something else: a sense of belonging.

“When you go back to the civilian sector, nothing’s the same,” Nadjadi says. “It’s hard to relate (there), especially when I was the only amputee in my area in rural New York.”
Nadjadi joined American Legion Post 173 in Bath, N.Y., where he found friends and mentors. “These guys have been through a lot of the same things we’ve been through, and they’re able to speak firsthand to it,” he says. “They took me in.”

Still, he felt incomplete. Before joining the Army, Nadjadi had a strong love for baseball. After his amputation, he longed to get back on the diamond. He made it his goal to “better myself physically and mentally.”

He’s doing that now as part of the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team (WWAST). Based out of northern Virginia, the team is made up of veterans and active-duty military who have lost limbs. They travel the country playing (and usually defeating) able-bodied teams in celebrity, exhibition and competitive softball games.

It’s hard to spot WWAST’s weaknesses. They field the ball with precision, round the bases with speed and can jack the ball out of the park in a matter of seconds. It’s a highly competitive level of softball – and was just what Nadjadi needed.

“It’s great being able to play around like-minded people who look, act (and) feel the same way you do,” he says. “You get that camaraderie stuff with it. You had it in the military, it’s gone, and now it’s back. It’s been an incredible experience.”

While WWAST’s players get a lot out of being part of a team, they also give back. Since 2013, they’ve hosted an annual Kids Camp for children ages 8 to 12 who have amputations or missing limbs. The team covers all the expenses for children and a parent to attend; priority is given to military families.

During this past summer’s camp at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., children spent a week working softball drills with WWAST players. It culminated with campers splitting into two groups and playing a game in front of family and fans at the GMU softball field.

Children learn physical skills at the camp, but the week offers much more than learning to hit, field and throw. Eleven-year-old Jake, the son of an Army veteran named Christopher, lost his right leg in a car accident a few years ago. He also suffered a depressed skull fracture, and at one point his parents were told Jake would be a vegetable for the rest of his life. He had to relearn everything, Christopher says.

“I’m probably speaking for most parents who have a kid missing an arm or a leg, or both,” he adds. “They lament that there’s nowhere they can go and put their child into another group of kids without their child standing out. And how much their child stands out defines a spectrum, but it’s a spectrum of bad ….

“What this camp offers is a social normal. A lot of the parents I’ve met hail from places where their child is the only one in that community or within a 100-mile radius who has just one hand or just one leg. They come here and it’s a mind-opening experience because they see not just the dynamics of the new social normal … we see young adults who have already walked through the fire that our children are walking through now and are doing it successfully.”

As for Jake, he says he’ll remember the WWAST camp for “a long time,” and that for him the highlights were “meeting all the new kids, with prosthetics … and meeting the new counselors who were wounded warriors who know how much work goes into this thing.”

Thanks to a family connection, the WWAST camp has a strong relationship with The American Legion – specifically, Post 177 in Fairfax, which provides meals, financial contributions and other support. Post 177 conducts the camp’s opening ceremony, while post service officer Brad Watkins arranged for local transportation for this year’s campers. Post 176 in nearby Springfield also provided a meal.

“When the kids come in, they lack self-confidence and lack ability,” Watkins says. “They’ve been made fun of. A lot of times they’ve never associated with anybody else with an amputation. So for them to have this kind of experience, and for these guys to pay that stuff forward, not to mention the patriotism that goes with it – we’re doing the Pledge of Allegiance, we’re tying in The American Legion, the 17th District color guard does flag presentations for the game. All that stuff, it’s what the Legion does. We take care of each other and we pay it forward.”

The team’s family connection to the Legion is coach Dennis “Bucky” Weaver, who has headed WWAST since 2014. A member of Post 177’s Sons of The American Legion squadron – and son of a World War II veteran and 50-year member of the post – he applauds the Legion’s support of the team at the camp and on the road.
“The American Legion’s support over the past six years has been incredible, especially here at 177,” Weaver says. “Every time we’ve come in the area, they’ve opened this place up and fed us and taken care of us. And we when travel, the same thing. All the posts around the country, we’ll stop in for dinner. The Legion Riders, the Auxiliary, the Sons – everybody has been so supportive of us. I can’t thank them enough.”

He adds, “The Legion was such a big part of my life growing up. I played baseball here for Post 177. It’s amazing how they’ve opened up to me. Every time I come back they want to know how the team’s doing.”

Weaver originally planned on being with the team for a year, but that changed when he spent time with the players. “I realized their hunger to get back into playing sports … (it) really appealed to me. I looked at myself and said, ‘You need to help these guys.’ So I stuck with it.

“When we first started, a lot of these guys had issues. They had PTSD. (They had a) distrust in their prosthetics. A lot of these guys, when we first started, were just out of Walter Reed … I see a change in them mentally and physically. I think a lot of it has to do with camaraderie. Getting back with more people who are soldiers. I think that’s something they really missed when they left the military.”

Nadjadi has found those relationships with WWAST, as has Frank Wasson, a member of Post 136 in Salem, Ore., and Army veteran who lost his left leg in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in Afghanistan in 2010. He enjoys seeing campers grow in their confidence and skill during their week with the team.

“You’ll have kids missing legs and they’ll come in pants,” Wasson says. “The (missing) arm kids will be in long shirts. Slowly, through the practices and the days, they’ll start shedding down to tank tops (and) T-shirts. You start seeing these small groups form. They actually start having friends themselves. And what’s funny is you see the parents forming small groups and transferring information among themselves.”

One parent at this year’s camp was Eric Thomas, an Air Force veteran and commander at Post 360 on the campus of Indiana University Purdue University-Indianapolis. His son, Sam, was born without fingers on his right hand and has attended multiple camps for children with similar challenges. WWAST makes a deep impression on its participants.

“You can’t really put into words what they take away from that,” Thomas says. “As a veteran – not being injured but having friends who have been –
I know what that’s like, at least from a little bit of a distance. Exposing these kids to these great patriots – you can’t put into words.

“We went to D.C. and were walking along the Vietnam memorial, and there were veterans walking in the opposite direction (with) Vietnam Veteran hats on. And (Sam) is stopping and offering a hand to them and saying, ‘Thank you.’ It was very emotional to see him volunteering it like that. Other kids were doing the same thing. This kind of camp, with these people as mentors, helps bring that patriotism and understanding about the cost of freedom. I think that’s great, too.”

The Legion’s support for the WWAST camp means a great deal to Thomas. “As a Legionnaire, it makes me really proud to be involved with an organization that is so giving and so welcoming … to know that no matter where we’re at, there’s always good fellowship to be had, and open arms and friendliness.”

For Post 177 Commander Jeff White, the Legion’s relationship with WWAST is a natural fit. “It just resonated,” he says. “The (team), that’s kind of what we’re about: trying to do things for veterans and support them any way we can.”

That support matters to Nadjadi, both as a player and a Legionnaire. “We tour the country and get to stop at all these Legion posts, and it just amazes me how people come together and really put on a great time, a good atmosphere,” he says. “It’s really awesome to be a part of (the Legion).”

Steve B. Brooks is social media manager for The American Legion.

Source: Legion News