Voices is a series the Martha’s Vineyard Times has pursued as a way to give the public a platform to tell their own stories in their own voices. In a way, it’s a self-conscious reflection. Often in the news media, we get caught up in politics and policy, and we can forget why we do what we do: to inform you about happenings that actually impact your life.
In past Voices, we’ve heard stories about overcoming addiction, the struggle to find housing, Islanders’ experiences with racism, and life during the pandemic.
For the most recent in the series (found in the D section in today’s paper), we chose to sit down with Island veterans. We had no preconceived notions of how it would go, we simply wanted to see what Islanders experienced in the armed services; we also wanted to know what it was like coming home from war.
What we heard were stories that were sometimes shocking, sometimes sad, and sometimes uplifting.
The ones that will likely stick with us the most are the Islanders who risked their lives and saw their fellow soldiers die, but were abandoned by their government when they returned home, some even ridiculed by their fellow Islanders.
And their stories show that while there has been great improvement over the generations, more is needed to help veterans trying to make a living for themselves when they do come home.
Probably the most visceral stories that we heard in our series were from the veterans that served during Vietnam, who described what it was like to return home to an unwelcoming country. As Islander Tom Bennett said, an entire generation of males were wounded when they were sent to war — not by choice — and then they came home to protests; as Edgartown resident Paul Schulz told us, he was spit at and called a baby killer.
That has changed. Veterans of more recent conflicts say that they’ve been welcomed back with open arms, typically by other veterans. And they say that’s a good feeling, that they aren’t forgotten.
Also in this series, we hear stories of post-traumatic stress disorder, and how some did or did not recover. Randy Dull tells his story of survivor’s guilt. The soldiers he had helped train, his friends, would die in combat after he was taken off the front lines because of an injury.
But his story is also uplifting, and, in a way, gets at the heart of what the Voices series is all about. Randy was able to sit down with fellow veterans and eventually talk about his experience. He says that while he may not be fully normalized after seeing action in Afghanistan and Iraq, he’s able to enjoy going out in public without having to have his back against a wall. Getting his story off his chest and connecting with others helped in his healing. For his fellow veterans who tried to go it alone, he says, they did not fare well.
We’ve also heard that veterans still need help from the federal government and on the local level. As Schulz said, he suffers from symptoms caused by Agent Orange — a herbicide sprayed in Vietnam to destroy vegetation that was used as cover. Schulz has physical ailments that prevented him from working, and he says he’s been turned down by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on multiple occasions.
On a more local level, Bob Tankard, with the Martha’s Vineyard Community Services veterans outreach program, told us recently that there are veterans on the Island who are homeless and living in the woods because they can’t find housing.
Tankard, with others at the outreach program, has partnered with the Cape and Islands Veterans Outreach Center in Hyannis and the Island Housing Trust to develop what would be the first apartment complex for veterans on the Island, planned for Oak Bluffs. The plan is to build 12 one-bedroom apartments in three different buildings, and the effort will be asking for funding at town meetings across the Island in the spring; the partnership is also looking for donations from the public. We hope that Islanders support the project.
Over the generations, we have learned from past mistakes. The veterans of recent wars say they weren’t called baby killers when they landed back home; instead they were met by groups of fellow veterans from past wars.
But we are still learning. It is disheartening to know that veterans are living in our woods. We all deserve housing, veterans or otherwise, but to know that people risked their lives, fighting for our cause, hits differently.
There is a teachable moment here for the younger generation, before we forget about Vietnam. We strongly support welcoming veterans of the war to visit high school students to tell their stories. We are, after all, reaching a point of aging out of the era.
It may be too much to ask that our series focusing on these men and women will make a difference, but we hope that it can help us learn to maybe make things better for the generations to come.