By Linda Wondra, Mary Kay Gominger, Bill Armstrong, Will Ackerman
Thursday, June 11, 2015
Two hundred and forty years ago, our nation’s leaders established the Continental Army.
VA joins the Army in celebrating its 240th birthday. The Army continues to demonstrate its competence, its commitment, and its character in defense of our nation.
Every day VA cares for thousands of Army Veterans. Here are just four of their stories.
Vietnam Veteran Helping Other Veterans
Linda Wondra, Public Affairs Officer, Walla Walla VA Medical Center
Vietnam Army Veteran Larry Werst is the Chief of Community Affairs and Voluntary Service at the Walla Walla, Wash., VA. He is very passionate about the service he and his volunteers provide this nation’s heroes. Werst says the Walla Walla VA saved his life, and he is very thankful for that help.
In Vietnam, he was part of the 86th Transportation Company and drove a five-ton truck hauling small arms ammunition into fire bases and landing zones to support the ground troops.
Back home, Werst started out working as a cross-country truck driver but struggled as he attempted to integrate back into civilian life. When he became homeless and needed help, he came to the Walla Walla VA seeking treatment and assistance, carrying everything he owned in two large plastic garbage bags.
Werst completed a substance abuse treatment program and credits the VA for his sobriety. After earning a degree in Alcohol and Drug Studies, he began his new job as an addiction therapist at the Walla Walla VA. He expresses great satisfaction in being able to help his fellow Veterans who also may be struggling with sobriety and other issues. He says that he “just wanted to give back.”
Since 2004, Werst has led the volunteer program, and in 2012 his role expanded to include Community Affairs. Deborah McCormick, Walla Walla associate director, says his ability to be empathetic to the Veteran experience makes him shine as a VA leader, adding, “Knowing Larry’s story is humbling for me, and he serves as a constant reminder to me why I work at the VA. Larry is a VA success story.”
Army Veteran Receives Top-Notch Care at VA Community Living Center
Mary Kay Gominger, Chief of Community & Public Affairs, Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System
When Army Veteran Darren Jones left the military in 1999 the last thing on his mind was signing up at the VA for health care. Jones served in the Gulf War and says joining the Army was one of the best decisions of his life.
“It enabled me to get very good training, travel and learn valuable life lessons,” Jones said. Upon leaving the Army, he got a good job and settled into the community, but it wasn’t until 15 years later that VA came into his life.
“I was working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and was having a few medical problems. And it wasn’t until that moment did I realize that I had this whole package of benefits available to me that I had totally forgotten about.” Three years after he enrolled in the Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System, his hip, which had been causing him problems for as long as he can remember, began getting steadily worse.
His VA physician suggested that he request his military medical records which showed a continued dialog that Jones had with his doctors when he was on active duty about aggravated pain in his hip after long marches and extended periods of standing.
“I didn’t even realize those notes were documented in my military record,” Jones said. “I had dealt with this hip pain for so many years. It was time to do something about it.”
Earlier this year he underwent a full hip replacement and checked in to the Biloxi VA Medical Center’s Community Living Center (CLC) for short-term rehabilitation. His recovery went extremely well, thanks to the excellent care and treatment he is receiving at the CLC.
“Everyone at the Biloxi VA has just been great,” Jones said. “From the housekeeping staff, to the nurses, physical therapists … they have all been so helpful. The therapists push you, but not too hard. They want to make sure you are strong enough to get around on your own before you go home. I am very thankful that there is a place like this for us Veterans to come for rehabilitation. I couldn’t have asked for a better place to recover.”
Army Veteran Teaches Tai Chi for Visually Impaired Veterans
Bill Armstrong, Public Affairs Specialist, New Mexico VA Health Care System
Tony Vignali was an infantryman in the U.S. Army in Vietnam in 1966 assigned to the 116th Assault Helicopter Company, part of the 25th Infantry Division. He flew in Dustoff helicopters, the air ambulance of Vietnam, evacuating casualties from the battlefield.
His time in Vietnam was a traumatic chapter in his life which he has great difficulty talking about, but Vignali looks back on his Army experience as an important path in his life’s journey. “For where I am right now, the experience was worth it.”
Jump forward half a century from Vietnam and Vignali stands barefoot on the wooden floor of the recreational hall at the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center in Albuquerque, N.M.
He has a long gray beard, his hair braided in a waist-length ponytail, and wire-framed glasses. Facing him are four visually impaired Veterans, standing an arm’s length apart from each other. The men exhale slowly as they bring their arms up over their heads.
Vignali, a Tai Chi instructor and medical center volunteer, exhales with his students, then asks the group to slowly bring their arms back down to their sides. He conducts the hour-long class with the help of two Veteran volunteers. A VA patient himself, Vignali says Tai Chi is an excellent form of exercise for these Veterans who may have limited recreational opportunities.
“They take walks and that’s about it, but Tai Chi gets their shoulders, hips and backs moving,” Vignali said. “It also gives them a better sense of balance, which they really need. They’re fast learners, they love it and it makes them feel good.”
Dr. Darel Siebert, a U.S. Air Force Veteran, attends the regular Tai Chi classes and volunteers to assist his blind comrades during this class. He said taking three years of Tai Chi classes at the VA has changed his life. “I’ve got Parkinson’s and Tai Chi has really helped me with my balance. Three years ago, I was walking around with a cane. Now I don’t use a cane anymore.”
Vignali has been teaching Tai Chi at the VA rec hall for 10 years. His dedication in volunteering to help his fellow Veterans is evident by his commute as he lives 67 miles south of Albuquerque. He said teaching this class for visually impaired Veterans has been an education for him.
“I’m learning a lot,” Vignali said. “I’m learning how to teach them.”
World War II Army Veteran Gets High School Diploma – 60 Years Later
Will Ackerman, VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System Public Affairs
World War II Army Veteran James Plummer entered the military as part of the Greatest Generation to serve his nation when it needed him — before he had a chance to finish high school. After his service, Plummer never had the chance to go back to finish and graduate.
In 2015, his day finally arrived on January 16, nearly 60 years after the war, when he received an honorary high school diploma at the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System Community Living Center, Grand Island, Neb.
“A program called “Operation Recognition” enables Veterans from World War II and the Korean War to receive honorary diplomas in place of the ones they missed out on when they left to fight in these wars,” said Ken Ward, recreation therapist.
Angela Williams, Grand Island VA site manager, presented Plummer his diploma in a ceremony that featured him wearing a graduation cap and gown, a procession with the traditional pomp and circumstance music and led by a VA employee carrying the U.S. flag. VA employees joined in the celebration, with each personally shaking Plummer’s hand after the ceremony.
“It means a great deal,” Plummer said, as he looked at his diploma. “It was a surprise to me. I never did think I’d get it.”
Operation Recognition is a collaboration between the Nebraska Department of Veterans Affairs and the Nebraska Department of Education. Since the program was implemented in 1999, more than 1,700 honorary diplomas have been awarded to eligible Veterans.
The Army continues to demonstrate its competence, commitment and character in defense of our nation.
Happy Birthday U.S. Army