Mike Tharp: Local vets stand up for Stand Down

March 27, 2009 

Mike Tharp

Jim, a Vietnam veteran, sits in Eli PaintedCrow's living room. Balding, brown-bearded with calloused hands, he talks with Ismael Hernandez, vice commander of Merced's Disabled American Veterans chapter.

Eli (pronounced 'Ellie'), 48, a Yaqui Indian, shuffles through copies of online material she's just printed out from her ever-humming laptop. As she talks in her kitchen about her efforts to help female veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Jim's words slide in from the other room: "Rockets...mortars...PTSD."

Eli moved to Merced in 1989, early in her 22-year career in the U.S. Army. She got out as an E-7, a mid-level noncommissioned officer. NCOs form the backbone of any military unit. They know more than privates and corporals and colonels and generals about how the Army and Marines work. Eli's MOS (military occupational specialty) was 88M, truck driver.

She did a lot more than drive a truck, including data processing.

She's been stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas; Honduras; Fort Lewis, Wash.; Sacramento; and Iraq. She spent six months there in 2004 before returning to the U.S. with uterine problems that led to a hysterectomy.

That invasive end-all surgery is mirrored by a small blue tattoo on her right wrist below a silver bracelet: NO. Her nickname as a girl.

It also represents her stance now on what the Veterans Administration offers to Iraq and Afghanistan vets when they come back from IEDs, street fights, mountain ambushes, physical and psychic wounds and things that go KA-WHUMP! in the night.

NO.

You're not giving us enough. You're not take taking care of us enough after we've gone to war for our fellow Americans.

NO.

You don't recognize a new military acronym: MST. Military Sexual Trauma. It means sexual assaults on female soldiers and Marines. It means sexually harassing them. Eli reckons that it affects 90 percent of women who've been in the military. Abuse and harassment aren't handled right by the military or VA, she argues. "It's not addressed correctly or confidentially," she says. "The military takes punitive action" if women complain. And the VA largely ignores it.

You can blow off this woman -- whose son Angel Milliman, 31, served eight years in the Marines, whose son Eddie served in the Army -- as just another malcontent. Or, in one of the worst slurs active-duty troops can call a comrade, a shirker.

You can blow off her righteous anger and sense of mission to the fact that she declared herself, in cop code, a 5150, a psycho, just last month. She drove herself to the Fresno VA hospital and checked herself in to get well. "I couldn't sleep, I was so delusional," she admits.

You can blow off her quest to help present and former female troops to the fact that she swallows Prazosin, Trazodone and Citalopram every day to get through the day and sleep through the night.

You could blow her off.

But you'd be wrong.

Let's assume that just a small part of what she says is true. Let's assume that based on more than two decades in the Army, with two sons who followed in her moccasin steps, we should pay at least a little attention to what she says.

Here's what she says:

Next year some 30,000 female veterans will be coming home. Add them to the 26 million veterans of all our wars and peacetime now living in the U.S. Add in the total number of Iraq and Afghanistan vets, including those with several tours.

Concentrate on Merced County. We have some 12,100 vets here, according to the 2007 census. Twelve percent of them since 9/11. Most have come home -- five, whose names are carved in stone in Courthouse Park -- haven't. Most returnees will adjust and readjust and put war and military service somewhere behind them.

But some -- and here's the key point for Eli -- won't. Some will fail. Some will fall into alcohol and drug abuse. Some will beat their wives or husbands or kids. Some will rob and steal because they can't find jobs in this depression. Some won't be able to put their memories and nightmares behind them. Some simply can't cope.

For the sake of argument, let's calculate that they make up only a couple hundred people in our county of 255,000. We can also assume some were losers before they enlisted, losers when they came out. So cut that number in half, as long as we're being conservative here.

So for the sake of argument, let's say we wind up with a hundred or so vets from Iraq and Afghanistan who are genuinely messed up (FUBAR was the World War II acronym) by what they did and saw and smelled and touched.

A small number. A small percentage of our county. Which already has its own big problems. Nearly 20 percent unemployment, some of them vets. OK. Now count the American flags outside homes and decals on bumpers, the yellow ribbons, the 'Support Our Troops' stickers.

Quite a few.

Aren't a hundred veterans of two wars worth all the money, focus, time and care we can give? Some of them -- 178 veterans overall by the latest official count -- are already homeless.

Here's what Eli PaintedCrow and Ismael Hernandez (who's in the honor guard that shows up at Santa Nella and other cemeteries to fold the flags and stand at attention as "Taps" is played) and the newly formed Service Women's Active Network (SWAN) want us to do.

They want a Stand Down in August. A Stand Down amounts to a job fair, a food bank, a free flea market, booths with counselors, shrinks, ministers, doctors, nurses and others to give guidance to those who are losing and lost. Hundreds have been held all over the country.

Eli and Ismael and all those they speak for need $1,200 to make this happen. They've already reserved the place -- the armory at 1240 8th St. for Saturday, Aug. 22. Ismael has already sought the help of those stalwart service organizations, the VFW, American Legion, the Elks. He and Eli "will be doing a lot of walking," he says, asking for contributions.

Philanthropy today is "Buddy, can you spare a dime?" So many Mercedians need so much. But how much is $1,200 for this cause in Merced County, filled with veterans and their families?

It seems a reasonable investment and a suitable payback for people who have gone to war from those who haven't. Or from those who preceded them on the battlefield.

Contacts: Eli: yaquimujer@sbcglobal.net, (209) 617-0276; Ismael: foxish48@bigvalley.net, (209) 617-6917; SWAN: www.servicewomen.org; info@servicewomen.org; and a special outfit devoted to veterans who are farmers: www.farmvetco.org.

Another Yaqui Indian, Don Juan in Carlos Castaneda's books, puts Eli's and Ismael's quest this way: "Do you know at this very moment you are surrounded by eternity? And do you know that you can use that eternity if you so desire?"

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsun-star.com.

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