Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Veterans Day, Old and New Concerns

City veterans and their supporters will gather on Friday for the annual ceremony at the War Memorial to honor all those who served their country.

But some will also be thinking of the often-promised building of their own that has yet to materialize. And some will be pondering the fate of the nation's newest veterans, many coming home with extensive needs and deep wounds of mind and body.

District 5 Veterans of Foreign Wars Commander Anthony Nelson, a veteran of 12 1/2 years in the Army in Indo-China and Korea, and Union County American Legion Commander Frank Rivers are working to get a place where all Plainfield veterans can meet and help each other.

"We're working on acquiring a place of own," Nelson said, noting more than five years have passed without much progress, due to shifts in city administrators.

Various veterans' groups have joined to form the Plainfield Veterans' Alliance to pursue getting a building. The group has a lawyer and an architect, but come January members will have to start over with a new city administration to call attention to their cause.

Meanwhile, some veterans have joined groups in other neighboring municipalities that appear to be more "veteran-friendly," he said.Nelson said the Vietnam Veterans and the Marine Corps League have both moved to Westfield and other veterans go to Scotch Plains, South Plainfield or Dunellen for meetings.

The Disabled American Veterans Chapter 7 merged with Edison, Nelson said. "It comes up to about 10 different organizations that were in this community. Each one pursued trying to get a facility." But resistance was such that it was easier to go elsewhere, he said.

Nelson said a facility in Plainfield would serve city veterans and their families.

"We wanted to be there for them," he said.

Now there is a new group needing a unique kind of support, he said - those serving in the unprecedented street battles in Iraq against a shadowy enemy. "In 24 hours they are in a combat zone and then they are back here in the United States," he said.

If the Vietnam War veterans suffered a high level of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and homelessness, Nelson sees Iraqi veterans as even more likely to end up debilitated.

His view is supported by information in the New Jersey Veteran Journal, a publication of the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. Among soldiers serving as part of Operation Iraqi freedom there is an increase in divorce rates, suicide rates and vehicle fatalities.

PTSD is also a large concern; a recent study from Walter Reed reported one in six returning troops suffer psychological damage," wrote Patty Richter, Chief of the Veterans Benefits Bureau.

The state agency has developed a Reconstitution Program for returning soldiers.

More info at

The current 71 percent of reservists now deployed is expected to rise to 75 percent soon.

"These service members are heroes who are returning to their civilian lives and jobs as fully productive members of their communities," Richter wrote.

Nelson fears that some who come home to Plainfield will slip through the cracks and end up unemployable or incarcerated unless they get help wrangling with federal bureaucracy.

He cited one instance of a soldier's wife who was pregnant with twins when one died in the womb. Nelson said the federal government would not allow what they deemed an "abortion" to take place, which left the woman in danger of blood poisoning. Finally a New York hospital volunteered to help and the soldier was allowed to return while his wife had the surgery.

In terms of getting a building, Nelson said there are also zoning issues to be settled before a veterans' facility can be located in Plainfield. But he feels it would be a benefit to any neighborhood with problems of prostitution or drugs, because its presence would deter such activity.

Meanwhile, many veterans gather daily at the Senior Center, more so to play cards and socialize than to take on battles with the Veterans Administration or to counsel younger vets.

Charles Nelson, no relation to Anthony, sympathizes with the quest for a veterans' building, but he said, "The biggest thing is financing."

As president of the Senior Center, he knows that issue well. The seniors just won city approval for $4 million to fund the new center they have been seeking for many years.

Even though enduring segregation in the 392nd Quartermaster Truck Company during World War II, Charles Nelson received useful veterans' benefits.

"I just hope they get half as much as we got," he said, citing the G.I. Bill (Serviceman's Readjustment Act of 1944) that provided education and housing benefits and an unemployment program.

Veteran Richard Tucker also agreed the problem in getting a city veterans' facility is money.

"The veterans in this area are being shortchanged," he said. "The things that veterans should have, they don't give them."

Despite a perceived community apathy and what Charles Nelson sees as disinterest even among some veterans themselves, a small band will gather at 10 a.m. Friday (Nov. 11, 2005) at the War Memorial, Watchung Avenue at East Seventh Street, to lay a wreath and salute those who served.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: veterans