The website of Florida Veterans Programs and Projects, Inc.

The website of Florida Veterans Programs and Projects, Inc.

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Vietnam: Service, Sacrifice & Courage

An excerpt from the presentations.

Photos from the premier at Flagler Auditorium

Additional photos can bee seen here.












Ms. Bush won an award for this essay:

Vietnam Vets:
A Profile in Courage

Bernita A. Bush
Flagler College
Public Administration Program
October 23, 2010

I first met Raymond when I responded to a patient medical call in a homeless camp in my fire district in Northeast Florida. Set about 100 yards back from a well-traveled roadway, the camp was an unlikely testament of the good in people, if one could imagine such a gift could be found tucked away in such humble surroundings. To the thousands who drove past every day, the people who lived there, and who sometimes ventured out, were invisible. Those who chose or were forced by life?s circumstances to make such a place home were not burdened with the need to rush or to hurry somewhere in the mornings; they were seldom seen by the outside world. Yet, there the camp was, and there lived Raymond. From him, I learned a valuable lesson in the wealth sometimes hidden in one who had no obligation to share his struggles, and his gifts, with a stranger.

First rays of sun barely glinted over the trees as our rescue and engine crews trudged through the neatly-raked walkway which led to the camp. A large rubber snake wound on a piece of rebar stood sentry at the entrance to the camp, which was neatly marked off with ?sites? for each resident. As we approached, Raymond rose from his makeshift bed. Carefully and methodically, he straightened his blanket and folded the thin coverlet, too light to shield his aching bones from the nights? chill, and reached for a cigarette. Inhaling it deeply, he leveled his eyes on me. Wordlessly, he watched as medical care was rendered to his camp mate, and the man was loaded onto the stretcher. As the rescue crew began the trek back to the roadway and the waiting ambulance, I turned and met Raymond?s eyes. He held my gaze steadily, his strong chin jutting as he took a last drag of his cigarette, and carefully flicked the butt into the campfire pit. I felt the distance between us, and instinctively knew Raymond was used to authority, had stood shoulder to shoulder with greatness, yet had walked away of his own free will. Instinctively, I knew too that Raymond represented the leadership found within people who have been challenged by the very worse, who have risen to that challenge, yet been broken by the burdens they could not overcome.

Reaching into my jacket pocket, I pulled out a granola bar, and handed it over. A look of slight amusement flitted across his face as he reached for it. Exchanging names, his hand brushed mine and I was surprised at how cold he felt. The first twinges of fall were nipping at the heels of a full-blown winter sure to come. The nights were already in the high 40?s, giving way to balmy Indian summer days. The refreshing temperatures invigorated me, providing a respite from the broiling summer Florida residents had endured. I, however, had a job, a bed and a roof over my head and the opportunity to close the door to the world and to shut away the elements at will. Raymond in his lightweight shirt, and the many homeless like him were afforded no such luxury.

Returning to the station, I packed my bag, returned my gear to the locker, and left for the day. Two days off awaited me, and I busied myself with the chores inherent to caring for a family and home. Raymond and the situation at the camp strangely gnawed at my thoughts, and I wondered each night as I lay down, pulling the freshly-laundered sheets and comforter up to my chin, if he was warm and had food to eat.

My next duty day found me at the station early, with a few items culled from my well-stocked home. Several blankets, some jackets, a box of shelf-stable foods with easy open tops, and a case of water were loaded into the fire engine. As evening approached, my crew and I made our way toward the camp, parked on the side of the roadway, and lugged the loot into the woods. Suspicion met us as we arrived at the camp, as several residents moved catlike from the campfire to settle into the shadows, their faces shrouded in the falling darkness.

Seeing Raymond slowly stand as we approached the fire, I moved toward him, saw recognition soften his features as we set the supplies in the space between us. He was wearing a different shirt this day, but one no thicker than the last I had seen him wear, and certainly no warmer. With temperatures predicted to dip into the low 50?s, I was glad I had brought jackets.

I stared at the six evenly-spaced logs creating a molten teepee, so precisely built it would have made a Boy Scout leader beam with pride, and watched the flames lick hungrily at the dry fuel. A fire of this caliber surely was laid by someone long familiar with the art of campfires. Not surprisingly, I watched as Raymond carefully maneuvered another log onto the fire, and beckoned us to sit on the large tree rounds surrounding the fire.

Cautiously edging forward, the other residents resumed their seats near the fire, and gazed expectantly toward us, the boxes of supplies, then Raymond. He leaned forward, briskly rubbing his hands together near the fire, made no mention of the supplies and smiled a disarming smile which took me by surprise. He had a nice smile, and I wondered how often he got to smile.

Laughter erupted all around as I pulled a jumbo-sized bag of marshmallows from the box of supplies. Quickly, palmetto sticks appeared and were placed into service as makeshift roasters, as everyone enjoyed a toasted treat. Friends enjoyed a few minutes of laughter and camaraderie around a simple fire, brought together by fate, which was perhaps, not such a fate. Economic differences faded as we chatted and joked in the warmth of the fire.

Raymond?s gaze fell onto the glowing embers, and he began a monologue which captivated each of us. That night, in the glow of a homeless camp fire, I realized the material life I enjoyed provided no enticement to folks like Raymond, and that the bare necessities fulfilled every material wish he had. The courage with which he faced every day of his life was resilient yet astounding. I left that night with a richer understanding of mankind.

Raymond was born into a middle-class family in Alabama in 1949. He and his older brother entered the Army in 1968, and were soon separated and sent to the hot, steamy jungles of Vietnam, seeking to destroy enemies Raymond never realized he had. His unit saw multiple skirmishes, with over one-third of its members destined never to return. His face clouded as he told of returning home with a shard of shrapnel lodged in his back, a fistful of metals, and a coffin which held his beloved brother.

Returning to a country ravaged by the effects of a war, both within, and on a continent far away, Raymond struggled to have a normal life, hiding away the pain and fear which crept into his nightly dreams. A beautiful wife and infant son gave him sustenance, a reason for being and he relished time with his family, camping, hunting and fishing. He taught his son the intricacies of reading the woodlands, surviving on what was available, and how to understand the rich nuances of the wilderness and animals. The boy grew into a strong young man and Raymond swelled with pride over the successes his son enjoyed.

The seasons of his life flew quickly, and the hustle of everyday life took the son far away to a successful job. Too soon, cancer took the beautiful bride he gently had caressed for more than half his life. Stone-faced, he buried her, and then walked away from the trappings of life as he had always known it. His reason for existence had abandoned him, and he returned to the life which he had been happiest living, in the woods. The friends he now made were often veterans like him, with sordid tales of their own war experiences, and the wars they waged every day since. It was in that manner that Raymond ended up living in Tent City, at the edge of a world which only too eagerly turns its back on people like him.

Raymond cleared his throat and blinked against the acrid smoke curling from the dying fire. He smiled again, knowingly, and each of us smiled back, each imagining him leaning forward, taking a small child?s hand as he demonstrated how to coax flames from dry tinder. That night, I realized how very proudly Raymond had walked in his day, and that the contributions he had made had changed the world on many different levels. And I knew, in the dying light of the fire, how his quiet reflective actions each day provided a richness which will forever escape most of us.