Sunday, May 29, 2011

Why I Love the Vietnam Vet

I have the utmost respect, admiration and gratitude for all veterans of all our armed services.  But I've always had a special affinity for the Vietnam-era veteran.  And not just because I'm the proud son of the one pictured above.  I feel a special duty to try to make up for the honor and recognition they deserve but were denied for so long, to make sure as many Vietnam vets as possible know they are appreciated.

Vietnam-era veterans, following the example of their fathers and grandfathers, stepped up when their nation called, and wrote a blank check for an amount up to and including their very lives.  They fought with every bit as much determination, valor and love for their brothers as did their fathers in the Greatest Generation, even as they were maligned and mistreated by a nation that lost its way.  Don't believe me?  Read the citations of Medals of Honor awarded for gallantry in Vietnam.

While so many others their age at home turned to chemically fueled self-indulgence, exhibitionism and apathy, our Vietnam warriors looked outward in dedication and sacrifice.  While many of the ones who were fortunate enough to return came home broken in body and spirit, and were spit on and abused, in years to come a conscience-stricken nation vowed to never again let its warriors be so mistreated.  Our current fighters reap the benefit of this and of the example of honor set by their fathers and grandfathers of the Vietnam generation.  And unlike their tormentors, Vietnam veterans can now walk with their heads held high, knowing that whatever was lost by the press and politicians, they won their war, outfighting a skilled and determined enemy, and did so with consummate skill, courage and honor. 

Thank you, Vietnam veterans.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Small Time Driver

A bit of doggerel from my younger days.

She eyes him with pity.  As they sit in the Airstream, somewhere between hell and Hanford, her baleful stare accuses him, mocks him, but mostly pities him.

No more, he says.  He’s had enough, he says.  Enough of the gut-wrenching gladiator show called racing.  Enough bloodshot bleary-eyed midnights hurtling hell-bent down some two-lane blacktop in a borrowed box van, nodding off between hits of caffeine, nicotine and delusion.  He requires respite from the roller-coaster ride of small triumphs and big failures, from the never-ending demands on his guts and cussedness.  He’s tired of empty pockets, hard luck, busted knuckles and dodging broken men on and off the track.  He’s just plain tired.

He’s through, he says, but she knows better.  Her face says as much as she mentally recites the threadbare confession in unison with him.  She knows that the lure of the dirt, the siren song of shrieking small-blocks, the smell of high-test in the morning (smells like… like victory) will prove too much for his worn-out will.  Too much for this five-o’clock-shadowed effigy hunched in the unforgiving glare of the single swinging bare bulb.  It’ll be too much, and more likely sooner than later.

She’s right of course – they always are.  He’ll fold like a pup tent in a hurricane and once again, the call of competition will see him sucked into the sweat-soaked swirling maelstrom of rubber, steel, fiberglass, fumes, tears, spit, gritted teeth, waving arms, white knuckles, clenched fists, middle digits, muttered curses and maybe, just maybe, some fleeting scrap of glory.

She shakes her head, amused, knowing she won’t be quitting her bank teller job anytime soon.


Friday, May 6, 2011

The Measure of Devotion

            On Sunday, May 1, 2011, the Wounded Heroes Fund Kern County Chapter held their 3rd annual Salute to Local Heroes at the CSUB Outdoor Amphitheater in celebration and support of local veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

            Two local veterans honored were Casey Schaubschlager and Wesley Leon-Barrientos.

            In the savage fighting in Ramadi and Fallujah during the darkest days of the Iraqi insurgency, Cpl. Casey Schaubschlager and his brother Marines were so continually battered by daily combat that Schaubschlager can’t even say how many times he was wounded.

            “We got mortared three times a day like clockwork. Morning, noon and night.”

            It was a buried, remotely triggered artillery shell that finally sent him home for good, with 40-60 percent hearing loss and traumatic brain injury.

            Schaubschlager still contends with the invisible wounds of survivor guilt and post-traumatic stress and likely always will, has had to fight for medical care for combat injuries and still hasn’t received his Purple Heart.  But for Schaubschlager, who considered himself a career Marine, the premature end to his Marine Corps career may have been the bitterest loss of all.

            “If it wasn’t for them retiring me out, I would still be in for my 20 years. I was what they called a ‘lifer.’”

            Schaubschlager is open about his difficulties in coping with that loss and readjusting to civilian life.  He’s gradually healing from his seen and unseen wounds with the support of a loving wife and the same determination that saw him through his three combat tours of Iraq.  And he credits the Wounded Heroes Fund with helping with everything from groceries to finding jobs. 

            “They actually approached me.  They just felt like they wanted to help me, so they did.  They were ‘forcefully helpful,’ in a good way, though,” he laughed.

            His work at the Kern County Veterans Center, volunteering with the Wounded Heroes Fund and pursuing a degree in psychology with an eye toward helping other vets have given Schaubschlager a renewed sense of purpose in a post-Marines life that, until recently, he’d never even imagined.  His advice to other vets?

            “Keep the faith, keep the hope, don't let your head hang low.  At first I let my pride get in the way.  Don't let your pride get in the way of getting the help you need.”

            For U.S. Army Cpl. Wesley Leon-Barrientos and his fellow 101st Airborne Division “Screaming Eagles,” death and injury were a daily reality in Iraq’s infamous “Sunni Triangle,” as were enormous mental stresses and ironic twists of fate.  He once flipped a coin with a close friend to determine which one would have to take up the dreaded rear position in a convoy escort.

            “I lost, and he got to go in the front truck.  The front truck got hit and he died right there.”

            That was the first of many incidents over the course of three combat tours that might have shattered a less resilient man, but not Leon-Barrientos, who earned five Army Commendation Medals and three Purple Hearts.  The third was for an IED attack that cost him a broken jaw, two crushed vertebrae - and both of his legs.  But he believes there are reasons for everything - even for that.  He gestures to his two year old pixie of a daughter, who was born during the time he’d still have been in Iraq had he not been wounded:

            “I see a lot of reasons.  I see one right now.  She wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t lost my legs,” said Leon-Barrientos.  “I wouldn’t change a thing.” 

            Leon-Barrientos’ friendliness and upbeat attitude are remarkable in light of all he’s experienced.  He is lavish and effusive in his praise of the way the people of Kern County support their veterans, especially through the efforts of the Wounded Heroes Fund, which protected his mother’s home from foreclosure while she remained with him during his year-long sojourn at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C., and helped build his family a home of their own.

            “If you've never had anything that you're thrilled about, proud about, and honored to do in your life, there's nothing better than volunteering with and donating to the Wounded Heroes Fund.”

            Please join the Wounded Heroes Fund in thanking and supporting these remarkable young men and their families and many others like them for their service and sacrifices.  For more information, or to learn more about Casey Schaubschlager and Wesley Leon-Barrientos and their fellow vets, call 661-324-7453 or visit