Vet to vet

The Sacramento Valley chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America is beginning to focus its energy on assisting young men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan

California Military Department Staff Sgt. Ed Siguenza and Vietnam veteran Patrick Graham work on a gourmet meal at CalVet’s 2018 MRE Cooking Challenge at the State Fair.

California Military Department Staff Sgt. Ed Siguenza and Vietnam veteran Patrick Graham work on a gourmet meal at CalVet’s 2018 MRE Cooking Challenge at the State Fair.

Photo courtesy of the California Department of Veteran's Affairs

With a crowd of people watching, Vietnam veteran Patrick Graham used every culinary trick he had to alter a military-issued package of MRE beef chili sludge into a gourmet dinner plate that looked fit for a king.

If the audience thought Graham was nervous wielding his knives and frying pans, then it didn’t know the former Air Force police officer’s history: After his transport plane was shot down over Laos, Graham marched for days through the jungle carrying wounded comrades and skirting past guerrilla strongholds. A friendly culinary competition at the California State Fair on July 19 was hardly intimidating.

Graham the amateur chef had a respectable showing at the Veterans MRE Cooking Challenge, but Graham the Vietnam survivor strives to accomplish a bigger mission: helping returning service-members get the health-care they need. Graham believes that’s essential because a June study by the federal Department of Veteran Affairs found that, on average, 20 veterans commit suicide every day.

Now, as president of the Sacramento Valley chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America, Graham is leading members of his organization to help a younger, war-torn generation find its own path to stronger advocacy.

The chaos started with a shortcut.

It was March 19, 1973, and the U.S. military was drawing down its forces in Vietnam. Up until that point, Graham worked in base security and prisoner exchange missions. But that day he’d been sent to help close up a base in the Vietnamese city of Pleiku. When the work was done, he and 18 other men loaded onto a C1-30 carrier plane bound for Thailand. It was supposed to fly 100 miles south and then bank west to cruise over Cambodia, avoiding Laos, where communist forces were known to operate. Graham said that before taking off the pilot took a straw poll of everyone on board to see who wanted to shave three hours off the trip by sneaking over the Laotian treetops.

“We were tired, we were ready to be in our own beds,” Graham recalled.

Soon, the C1-30 was flying low over a leafy canopy of Laos, trying to avoid radar detection. It was soon spotted by a surface-to-air missile site. One lucky shot tore an entire wing and engine off the plane, forcing it down.

“We came to a screeching, screaming halt in the jungle,” Graham said.

The plane’s co-pilot was killed. The cockpit was so mangled the survivors couldn’t remove his body. For three days and three nights, the remaining 17 servicemen moved stealthily through a wooded, hostile landscape. Three were carried on makeshift stretchers, but not the co-pilot.

“That was the worst thing,” Graham admitted. “That’s what weighed on me the most—leaving one of our own behind.”

Today, as president of a prominent veterans’ organization, Graham is determined to make sure that young men and women returning with terrible memories trapped in their heads won’t also get left behind.

Though named for Vietnam veterans, the Sacramento Valley chapter of VVOA spends much of its time working with former military personnel that have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Graham says he meets plenty of young people from those conflicts who need assistance making their voices heard.

“Vietnam veterans, we’re a dying breed,” he noted. “Each year our numbers become smaller. What we’re trying to do is figure out how to carry on what we’ve accomplished; because 90 percent of the legislation that’s had to do with veterans’ benefits over the last 20 years has come because of Vietnam veterans having a strong lobby at the state and federal levels.”

Among those accomplishments is getting guaranteed treatment for veterans suffering from Agent Orange-related cancers and getting the names of those who later died from cancers caused by the toxic defoliate’s deadly illnesses inscribed on the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial. In terms of helping Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, not only does the VVOA assist them in navigating California’s labyrinthine health-care system, its Sacramento members will also volunteer to drive them to VA hospitals as far away as Benicia and San Francisco.

But a bigger accomplishment, Graham says, is VVOA’s lobbying for a veterans’ registration option on California drivers licenses. That allows law enforcement officers contacting people in distress to know the person may have PTSD challenges.

“Rather than throwing the person in county jail, they can get them to a VA clinic,” Graham said. “When you look at the veterans’ suicide rates right now, in my opinion, it’s due in part to a lack of understanding in the community. There’s just a fundamental misunderstanding about what these people have gone through.”