A STAR-SPANGLED OATH
To experience war is to forever forgo the title of ‘civilian.’
“I took that oath to protect and defend my country—they never told me when that expired,” said Arthur Tipton, 86, a veteran of the Marines and the Navy. “To me that’s still my job.”
Tipton said no one can truly understand war until they’ve lived through it. Though many of us have considered the potential trials of service, few think of the lasting repercussions the experience can have, even years after coming home. In 2016, there is an estimated 40,000 homeless veterans, making up 11 percent of the homeless population. Many more struggle to find jobs, afford medical treatment and adapt to civilian life.
Honor for our fighting men and women seems sewn into the Stars and Stripes, inked in our constitution, yet doesn’t equal the support provided to repay their service. In recent years, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has been marred by reports of long waiting lists, negligence and corruption—enough to spur an investigation by the Obama Administration. Headlines from The New York Times and Washington Post have detailed the scandal, polarizing public opinion and causing the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to resign in 2014. How can a population of Americans so revered be left underserved amidst political disarray?
OPERATION: STAND DOWN
With the national organization lacking the necessary organization to properly see to veterans’ claims, local service organizations and clubs have taken up the task. In The Plains, Ohio, the Athens County Veterans Services Commission handles claims for the area’s approximately 4,000 veterans. Veteran Service Officer Kim Spencer said the office fields about 400 phone calls every month, assisting individuals with rent, employment and directing them to other area services like the VA Outpatient Clinic in Athens.
Only 62 percent of veterans seeking their monthly pension of just over a thousand dollars are approved, according to Spencer. Widows of veterans can also receive a pension, but only a quarter of their claims are approved. The office deals with clients needing a variety of assistance. Some, Spencer said, don’t even know what help they need or what amenities are offered—they just need help.
Another way communities nationwide have been combatting the issue of veteran homelessness and supplementing care is by holding ‘stand down’ events. Based on the military concept of safe retreat, these events provide services such as meals, haircuts, medical examinations, clothing and other basics to give struggling veterans a hand up.
The closest stand down to Athens County in past years has been in Chillicothe, Ohio, where one of the state’s five VA hospitals is located. However, veterans from as far as Athens were making the 60-mile trip to Chillicothe for aid. As a result, a committee of passionate community members from various support-oriented organizations initiated a stand down in Athens.
Arthur Tipton's medals detail his 25-year military service, including a Purple Heart he received after taking shrapnel during a firefight on Tiger Tooth Mountain in Vietnam.
Jesse Barnhart, left, helps veteran Rick Melrose pick out a backpack to carry other donated supplies during the Athens Stand Down.
Multi-purpose blankets and bags woven from hundreds of plastic bags tied by inmates in Nelsonville, Ohio were available at the stand down.
Sam Taylor, a veteran marked by his white wristband, searches for the size in a pair of boots. The local headquarters for Rocky Boots donated nearly one hundred pairs for the Athens Stand Down.
Jesse Barnhart, left, helps veteran Rick Melrose pick out a backpack to carry other donated supplies during the Athens Stand Down.
"They took 40 years to thank us but that’s OK. I’d do it again."
- Jerome May, Vietnam War
WHAT ARE WE FIGHTING FOR?
Not all of those who attended the Athens Area Stand Down were homeless veterans; some were otherwise homeless and others were veterans whose problems were less visible. Many deal with employment issues like simply finding work or eking out rent. Some face deeper difficulties like searching for meaningful employment or even feeling social alienation. Jerome May, who served in the Vietnam War, felt isolated from society upon returning home, when public opinion mostly opposed the war. Though the public may have had a foul perception of the war, May still felt firmly about his service to the U.S.
“They took 40 years to thank us but that’s OK,” May said. “I’d do it again.”
Others suffer from further hidden conflicts such as addiction, chronic pain and PTSD. Some health issues can be as extreme as requiring an individual to be moved to a lockdown ward, according to John Keirns, who attends a monthly party held at the Chillicothe VA Medical Center to provide patients someone to talk to.
James Spurlock, who joined the Marine Corps in 1968, says his hospital stay was a different kind of party. Shortly after completing training and shipping out to Vietnam, he ended up in the Philadelphia Naval Hospital, victim of a car accident.
“Drugs were just flying rampant,” Spurlock said. “I had more fun there than I did when I got home.” Before he left the hospital, however, Spurlock’s life would be changed forever; one afternoon, he walked into a bathroom only to be approached by a man who proceeded to inject him with crystal meth. That single shot was enough to become an addict, Spurlock said.
“I was an addict for about three years there and all of a sudden I jumped on a plane and came home and, for about 35 years, I never touched meth again,” he said. By 2003 however, after a visit from his son, Spurlock began cooking meth, an endeavor that would eventually land him a four-year sentence in the Chillicothe Correctional Institution. During his incarceration, he was startled after a friend passed away, suffering from Hepatitis C—a disease that plagued Spurlock as well.
“I had my mortality jump up in my face and it scared me really bad,” he said. “I started making arrangements for me to go to the VA medical center across the road.” He moved into a halfway house and received treatment for over 7 months. Doctors were concerned about his heart, urging him to pay attention to it. At first, he was offended by nurses and staff who would constantly ask how he was doing but then he realized it was because they actually cared.
“The VA used to not be like that,” Spurlock said. “President Reagan changed that.” He now feels confident that he will be accepted anytime he visits a VA medical center.
“It’s a real good thing for a vet to have,” he said.
"The VA used to not be like that. It's a real good thing for a vet to have."
- James Spurlock, Vietnam War
Patrick Maltba sits in the back of his Chevrolet van with his border collie, Minnie. "We've been a bunch of places," he said.
Events like the Athens Area Stand Down represent a common thread for veteran care: support for struggling service members stems largely from other veterans. Other community members at the event were relatives, caretakers or individuals who expressed a genuine honor for those who have served. Though such events have proved successful in providing basic living needs to veterans, they fall short in producing lasting emotional support.
Peer counseling is a crucial aspect of easing veterans’ return home, according to Patrick Maltba, who served in the Army in the 1980’s. When his duties abroad ended, he spent 20 years working different counseling and nursing jobs at summer camps and outdoor schools. The jobs provided him work and a place to live—except during winter months, in which times he chose to camp out. When his employer decided to dissolve his position, however, he was driven to take on this itinerant lifestyle full time.
“I pretty much shut down—I went full hermit,” Maltba said. “People didn’t know I was homeless and I was okay with that.” He and his dog, Minnie, made shelter out of a parked Asplundh truck in the woods, leaving only to gather supplies. Eventually, those that knew him in the area noticed that he was making more trips from the woods into the community. “They said it was because of Minnie.”
“I was in a very dark place,” he said. “Minnie very much did save my life.” Realizing her therapeutic intuition, Maltba trained and certified his companion to be a service dog. Before, he couldn’t find places to live or work because no one would accept him with his dog. With her certifications, however, he was able to find an apartment in Nelsonville, Ohio via the Shelter Plus Care Program and return to school, studying nursing at Hocking College.
Already a certified peer counselor with experience helping fellow veterans in psychiatric wards and years as a camp counselor, he plans to use his nursing degree to make a career working in wilderness therapy programs. For now, he’s applying to work for the Salvation Army in The Plains with community programming.
“I feel useful and that’s very important to me,” Maltba said.
CULTURE OF CAMARADERIE
“I went in because there was a little sign along the roadside with a fella that wore a big hat with stars on it and had his finger pointed and said, ‘I want you,’” said Charles Bush, 96, a veteran of World War II. He and his six brothers all served in the military. “We went in because I was drafted.”
Though life for Bush was mostly unchanged upon returning from the war, he felt a great change in his perspective of the world. After seeing the destruction abroad, he felt passionate about his sacrifice in the name of his family and home. This outlook, he said, could only be attained through service but has also evolved since wars like Vietnam, Korea and World War II.
“You knew what you was fighting against,” Bush said. “Their army wore uniforms and you wore uniforms.” Today’s combat is different, confused by the rise of terrorism, and provides yet more challenges for men and women in the services.
“It’s totally different and I can see where there is a lack of understanding,” he said.
This changed perspective, inconceivable to civilians, is a uniting force among veterans. Organizations like the VFW, American Legion, AMVETS and the Forty and Eight serve as bases for area veteran communities. They hold events like bingo games and special dinners as fundraisers to benefit local veteran advocacy programs. They also serve as refuges for service members to share a drink in a private space.
Matt Hoisington, a 15-year member of Athens American Legion Post 21, is a Son of the Legion, meaning he never served but his father did in World War II. He is the Sons Commander and says he joined out of pride for his father’s service.
“It’s a way I can be close to him still,” he said. The Athens post has about 400 members but only half of them are veterans, according to Hoisington. In recent years, the Legion has been struggling to keep membership up and even had to cancel a few bingo nights due to low attendance. With many members from the World War II generation passing away, he sees a gap left as new returning veterans refuse to join the ranks of the Legion, busy with families and jobs. Nevertheless, there is no lack of unity among those veterans that do join.
“I still miss that brotherhood—that camaraderie we had,” said Arthur Tipton, also a member of Athens Post 21. “So, we started a motorcycle club here.” He joined the Marines in 1968, as a single man, thinking that if he went some married man might be able to stay home. After fighting in the Vietnam War, re-enlisting in the Navy and continuing his service through the end of Operation Desert Storm, he retired to Athens in 1993.
Tipton and his club meet monthly to ride and raise money for institutions like the Chillicothe VA Medical Center and the West Virginia Veterans Home and also donated to the Athens Area Stand Down. Their members are from all branches of the service, he said, “but they all have that one thing in common: they took that oath to protect their country.”
The American Legion crest at Athens Post 21 shows wear yet shines on the roof of their pavilion.
Athens' American Legion Post 21 has a bar where members can be comfortable relaxing and sharing a drink with each other.
Members of the Athens American Legion compete in a cornhole tournament during the fall Hog Roast.
The Legion's hog roast also featured a modified version of cowpie bingo, using a chicken instead to decide the winner of the pot.
Bingo players line up at the Athens Legion Post for a Sunday night game. Some nights, when the Legion does not receive enough attendees, they must cancel.
A HAND UP
“They went in as kids, came home as men,” said Larry Churchheus, who founded the Meigs County Veterans Outreach with his wife, Betty, in 2014. After struggling with homelessness himself, he wanted to help other veterans get back on their feet. Many, he said, don’t want to reflect on their war experiences, but still desire the same brotherhood found in organizations like the VFW and Legion. “They mostly just want to be around other veterans.”
Churchheus and his wife’s non-profit, faith-based group provides supplies and a safe space for service members where they can come to read, chat or spend the night. Many veterans are unaware of the services available to them or too prideful to seek help. Churchheus looks for veterans weekly, usually at the local Pomeroy, Ohio McDonalds to explain to them what options they have.
Whether it’s scheduling doctor appointments, performing house or car repairs, assisting with funeral costs or providing groceries, the couple has managed to assist nearly 200 veterans since their opening, without state funding. “They don’t want to do anything with the government, they’ve had enough, the government’s left them high and dry,” Churchheus said.
Veterans are a different breed, forever marked by their sense of duty, sacrifice and the oath they took to protect our nation. After serving, the brotherhood they forged through training and combat remains a pillar of their community and culture. No matter their differences, or the challenges they may face, veterans return home with a new call to action: to serve each other.