- Terelle Jerricks
Barton Hill Alum Look to Help Returning Vets and Old Ones Too
By Terelle Jerricks, Managing Editor
Longtime San Pedro resident and Vietnam veteran Merwin “Skeeter” Jones and Rev. Anthony Quezada have been hosting First Saturday breakfast meetings at the Grinder for the past few months. The most recent meeting, just three weeks before Memorial Day, was the best-attended yet. All but one of the 15 attendees were veterans.
Jones and Quezada, who have been working to establish a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in San Pedro, invited Veterans Service officer George Dixon, who works for the county out of the North Hills office in the San Fernando Valley.
Dixon travels far and wide to educate veterans about benefits for which they didn’t know they were eligible, let alone knew that they had.
Almost everyone at the breakfast was an alumnus of Barton Hill Elementary, Rudecinda, Sepulveda, Dodson or Richard Henry Dana Middle schools and San Pedro High. In some ways, it seemed more like a school reunion, except everyone had served in the military.
Dixon spent 12 years in the Army and much of his post-military career was spent assisting veterans.
At 55 years of age, the 6-foot 2-inch veteran service worker has a voice that rises above the boisterous chatter of veterans a couple of decades his senior.
“How many here are Vietnam veterans?” Dixon asked. “Raise your hand.”
Almost all raised their hands.
“How many of you have not filed for anything with [Veterans Affairs], like medical care?”
Almost half of the room raised their hands.
Dixon used these questions to form rhetorical bullet points in his presentation, serving as kind of call and response performance, except the number of responses really brought home how little many veterans understood about benefit eligibility.
“Why not?” Dixon asked.
Many in the room replied that they didn’t know that they could be covered by their jobs and still access veterans’ benefits.
“I am a service-connected veteran and I am 90 percent service-connected.” Dixon said. “Do I look disabled to you?”
These local veterans, some of whom came from their respective Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Lomita and Wilmington to support San Pedro veterans’ efforts, said, “no.”
Dixon was hitting at the common excuse veterans give about why they have not collected benefits owed to them, i.e. “I thought I had to be physically disabled to get benefits.”
Dixon proceeded to discuss service-connected health benefits available to veterans, which is only a portion of the benefits available to them. Other benefits with which the county’s military Veterans Affairs Office can help include housing, education and employment.
“You guys train me,” he said. “You’re my squad leader, my platoon sergeants and my section sergeants.”
Then he changed tone.
“You were probably a member of my squad when I became squad leader because you got busted four or five times and you decided to stay in the Army,” Dixon joked. “Don’t worry sergeant, I’m going to get my rank back. This is the fifth time I’ve been busted.
“That’s the way it was back in the late 70s and early 80s.”
Dixon said he entered active duty in 1979; he stayed in the Army for 12 years.
“I got out in 1992 and arrived in LA, just like some of you in the 60s and 70s, to unemployment,” he said. “The first thing they told me was, ‘Hey staff sergeant, no job.’ So how do you think that made me feel when I got out?”
“I was E6 [non-commissioned officer rank], all the places the Army sent me to. I was a drill sergeant and I was in the top 10 percent of my class and I go to the unemployment office.
“I felt about this big,” Dixon said as he held up his thumb and index finger with an inch of a space between them. “A lot of you guys who went to look for work kind of blended [together] because the nation back then did not respect Vietnam veterans.”
Dixon recalled listening to stories from many veterans who went to look for work and were asked “if you’ve killed anybody over there or were told you’re a baby killer. [And then were told] … We’re not going to hire you.”
Dixon noted that Vietnam veterans did not want to go to the Veterans Affairs.
“Nine times out of 10, they went to school, got their jobs and functioned,” Dixon said. “They were like, ‘you know what, I got my job and I got my health insurance. I’m not going to the VA.’
“Does anyone here have a Purple Heart here? Bronze star? Gold medal. If you have a veteran in your VFW post who has a Purple Heart, when the veteran got out of there did he have that gunshot wound to the stomach before he entered the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marine Corps? That’s direct service-connected. And not only that, he probably has post traumatic stress disorder; 98.1 percent probably have but don’t even realize it.
“You talk loud right? That’s the result from hearing loss.
“How many of you are married?
The number of attendees who raised their hands went from nearly all to one or two by the end of this particular series of questions.
“You probably have high frequency hearing loss and ringing in the head.
“How many of you were M-60 machine gunners in Vietnam? Or fired a 200 flash gun or worked on the aircraft under the crack of a machine gun when they fired it? Or on the ship and they’re popping stuff off.
“The majority of us have high frequency hearing loss. Or you were too afraid of our drill sergeant to tell him that you dropped your hearing protection in the hole so you got some cigarette butts and crammed them into your ears just to make it look you had your protection because that’s how drill sergeants work.”
Dixon recounted an incident in which he disrespected his drill sergeant. The drill sergeant kicked him in the ribcage.
“Back in the day, drill sergeants could physically manhandle you,” Dixon half-joked. “They did ‘off the wall counseling.’”
Dixon explained that if you went into the military and you didn’t have a particular ailment before you went in, but then you got out with hearing loss, PTSD, gunshots wounds, broken bones from basic training, or sprained ankles from climbing up through the jungles of Vietnam, these were direct service connections.
Dixon noted how in the previous era, enlistees didn’t go to sick hall [military equivalent of a clinic] too often.
“I remember in Fort Horn, Calif., you’re sitting there waiting to go on sick hall and the first sergeant comes and gets a check sheet on you and says, ‘Oh, Frapper Jones, you’re in the sick hall again. You better come back with a profile or we’re going to kick you out.’ That’s how it was,” Dixon said.
“How many of you volunteered for the draft or were drafted?” Dixon asked.
About half the attendees raised their hands.
“Remember, when you were in the military, the draft man said, ‘OK sir’ … they would go ‘Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine … Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine’ and you might get one Coast Guard out of it. Then they would tell everyone to stand up…. If you sat there you might go to Marine Corp.
“How many of you have undergone the Agent Orange Protocol Exam?
Two raised their hands.
“Why haven’t you guys been down to the Long Beach VA and gotten that Agent Orange Protocol Exam?”
After Agent Orange exposure, there are 35 different service connections exposed veterans become eligible for, and the biggest one is Type 2 diabetes.
Dixon then asked, “How many in this room, besides those who are already service-connected, of you have diabetes?”
Several raised their hands.
Similarly, few of the attendees were aware that they were still eligible for new and ongoing benefits, whether these benefits may entail college tuition fee waivers for themselves or their dependents and/or placements in trade apprenticeships and government jobs.
Despite their ignorance concerning benefit eligibility, all of the veterans at the meeting had homes to which they would return. A number of them, upon completion of their military service, even had health benefits, pensions and stability. In this way, these veterans are more fortunate than the thousands of their now-homeless former compatriots. If veterans with means know so little available benefits, it’s no wonder that so many homeless vets are disconnected from these resources.
Jones and Quezada seek to attract more veterans ready to help establish a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in San Pedro.
The next meeting VFW meeting is June 3 at 3 p.m. at the Grinder, 511 S Harbor Blvd, San Pedro.