This is a story from one of the hardest days of my life.
One afternoon I rang the doorbell of a veteran named Ron. No one answered. I proceeded to go back to my car to write him a note. Then something horrific occurred.
Limousines showed up from Ron's burial service. Up the driveway they came. I often recall witnessing the anger on the faces of family members as a result of their disappointment with the VA claim-processing requirements. The hostility I received from Ron's family was understandable.
But then something amazing happened. Ron's cousin, Janet, used the opportunity to tell me about the difference Ron made in the lives of many in society as a veteran and a citizen. Ron came from a family with a rich history in the military. His father and three uncles were in WWII and his other brother in Vietnam. Janet wanted to tell Ron's story and believed his life story needed to live on.
Ron was 22 and newly engaged when he received a draft notice. He looked at it as the opportunity to continue his family's legacy. However his experience in Vietnam left him with vast mental and physical scars. He was seriously injured in the field and was sent to Letterman Army Medical Center in San Francisco where he underwent months of rehab for his injuries.
It was at Letterman where Ron became Ramona. Ramona broke off his engagement to his girlfriend and was accepted by the gay community. After having the best time of his life, he started noticing some strange things with his health. He was later diagnosed with AIDS. He was adamant it came from blood he received after returning home from Vietnam.
Ramona's partner, Tim, explained their struggles with the VA. They would call the VA with negative results. Before Ramona became ill, she would call the VA but later when Tim had to call the privacy act would not allow him to get results.
" ... she was drafted, sent to Vietnam to fight a war, stupidly stepped on a trap, got injured, and was sent to one of the most fabulous Army medical centers. She then somehow contracted AIDS. She died without a total confirmation as to how or when she was infested with the virus."
So Tim asked me, "My companion died, so why are you here now?"
I explained the reason I was there was to release the awarded funds. I acknowledged how words could not express my sincere condolences to the family, friends and companion or the embarrassment, sadness, or disappointment with the agency's bureaucratic system.
I learned Ramona was proud of who she was and her accomplishments. The most gratifying opportunities for me were the privilege of listening to the stories, being trusted by families and being able to confer with my Senior Veteran Service Representatives who mentored me.
I'm grateful to them all. I thank them and I thank Ramona.
Major Miguel Reece is the author of The Disabled Veteran's Story. www.MiguelReece.com