Veterans’ group extends a helpful hand

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The Dorchester Banner/Susan M. Bautz Fridays at 9:30 a.m. the Hurlock American Legion holds a session called Vets Helping Vets. Pictured from left are Program founder Phil Simmons, Mike McGee, Jack Lewis, Vic Peranio, and John Jorette.

HURLOCK — On Nov. 3, 1965, the 1st Cavalry Division made history. And Dorchester County resident Phil Simmons was there. “We made history twice,” he says. “We made the first combat night air assault in the history of the Vietnam War; and, I was the first man on the ground.”

A member of the renowned Jumping Mustangs, Mr. Simmons first served in the 82nd Airborne Division during the Dominican Republic conflict in the spring of 1965. Following orders to report to the 1st Cavalry Division, he spent his last 10 months and 21 days of service in Vietnam in 1965-66.

“I enlisted,” he says. “I hit my shop teacher six weeks before high school graduation. The next day my mother said ‘Boy, you ain’t going to school, you ain’t working, you ain’t staying here.’ So I walked into an Army recruiter’s office and said ‘I want to jump out of airplanes.’ Four days later I was gone and I’ve never looked back.”

When combat veterans return home their lives are changed. Many face problems – often insurmountable problems. But on Fridays at 9:30 a.m. there are solutions. Several members of the Hurlock American Legion Post 243 host “Veterans Helping Veterans.” And they are passionate about their mission.

Phil Simmons says, “I had help and I’m trying to help all the vets because they laid their lives on the line for the country. A lot of the guys got wounded. And they’re entitled to help.”

What is “Vets Helping Vets?” It sounds simple but it has required hours of gathering material, contacting resources, and reaching out to vets – some of whom do not want to be found. Mr. Simmons says, “It’s a bunch of vets getting together.” They recently discussed with a group of 10 vets a new law that allows vets who live more than 40 miles from a Veterans’ Administration (VA) hospital to seek help outside the VA system. “We have connections so if a homeless vet comes in here we got places to take him for shelter, or get other kinds of assistance. We have information to help. When I find out a person’s a vet I ask ‘are you getting your benefits?’  If they say ‘no’ I ask why. Then I explain they can come here and find out how to get the benefits they’re entitled to; like medical, financial, fuel, etc. Every veteran is welcome.”
Legion member Frank Fraley explains, “We go out and ask the veterans; the VA waits for the vet to come to them and ask. Most veterans are proud souls. They won’t come and ask for help but we can encourage them and try to find out what they need and help them that way.”

Mike McGee, a Vietnam vet who served 16 years in the Army, clarifies, “You might not be aware that a veteran will talk to another veteran. But if you’re a ‘civilian’ they won’t. If you’re a combat vet and I’m a combat vet I’m willing to talk to you. That’s kind of how we do it.”

An overstuffed loose leaf binder has a myriad of resources with dozens of telephone numbers to call for help. Phil notes, “Any vet that comes in here with a question, I can get the answer somewhere.” The problem is not finding information. The problem is connecting the vet to the information. “That’s what we do.”

“A vet might not want help. Every time I see a vet I ask ‘are you getting your benefits?’ If he says ‘yes,’ I say ‘are you getting them all?’ If he says ‘yes,’ I leave him alone. If he says ‘no,’ I ask ‘why not?’ Then I tell them they are entitled to get an ID card from the VA hospital. They cannot refuse you.’ They go to the clinic or uptown and they may say ‘you’re not eligible.’ But if you’ve spent even one day as a vet they have to give you the card that makes you eligible for benefits.”

“We tell guys who are trying to make ends meet, ‘you’re entitled to something.’ It might be 10 percent, 50 percent, 100 percent and they don’t even know it. That’s what I found out when a friend helped me and that’s what I try to do. Some of them are too stubborn; some of them don’t want help and would rather live under a bridge or in cardboard box. We’re trying to find those guys and help them.”

The seriousness of their mission does not stop the banter. The guys are witty, funny, and obviously fond of each other. Phil jokes that because fellow Legionnaire Jack Lewis served in a submarine, “He could only go forward or backward so he couldn’t get lost.” Mike adds, “If he’d answered two more questions correctly he could have joined the Army.” Jack counters that he “Ate well, showered every night, had a warm rack to sleep in, and was protected from the weather.”

“I was very fortunate to be in the US Navy,” he says. “I was a crypto-operator on a submarine. My job was enciphering and deciphering messages.” He served on 3 month war patrols out of Scotland and stateside duty for 3 months. “It was good service. I enjoyed it. If they want to mobilize me, I’m ready.”

Vic Peranio is not a Vietnam vet. Following an army stint, he joined the National Guard and served during Desert Storm in Egypt and in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba until his 2009 retirement. He is considered “retired reserves” now but could be called back to duty until he is 60 in 3 years. “I don’t think they want me back,” he laughs. “Something’s gotta’ be really bad before they do that.”

Jack says his “C” bag is always packed and Mike believes “We’d all be happy to go in a unit.”

While he just missed the Korean War, John Jorette served in 1956 on the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. “We still had a lot of confrontation,” he says. “We were on security on an OP (operation) watching the line. I got blown off a jeep by a land mine and it messed my back up.” He enlisted and served for 12 years; twice in Germany, once in Korea.  The first time was in Baumholder with the 11th Airborne Division.

Known by the Legion vets as the “senior man,” Earl Richmond is a WWII vet and among the oldest Post 243 members. “We’re sort of dying off a bit,” he says. He served as a cook on PT108, a sister ship of Pres. John F. Kennedy’s PT109. “I never personally met him,” says Earl, “but he went through my chow line.”
“We’re all vets trying to stick together. I just wish we had more – a bigger group every Friday,” says John. Jack agrees. “We have one thing in common. We all love our country.”

They want to reach vets who need help. When they seek veterans’ names and addresses from a government agency, the answer is “with the Privacy Act we cannot give you that information.”  So the group is asking vets to join them on Friday mornings, 9:30 a.m., Hurlock American Legion Post 243, 57 Legion Drive, 410-943-8205. The Hurlock Post 243 vets believe the group can never be too large. There is room for all area vets and there are answers to all questions.

Susan Bautz is a freelance writer for the Dorchester Banner.

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