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Veterans struggle to get by

Aging, down economy create many hardships

POSTED: May 30, 2009 11:42 p.m.

Making ends meet

Vietnam War veteran Miguel O'Casio talks about struggles he has had and Wendy Paradis, commander of the Gainesville-Hall County chapter of the Disabled American Veterans chapter, leads a tour of O'Casio's home.

TOM REED/The Times

Wendy Paradis, commander of the local Disable American Veterans chapter, looks over some of the rotting walls of a section of the mobile home owned by Vietnam War veteran Miguel O'Casio.

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LULA — Miguel O’Casio seemed to be doing fine.

Nearly 20 years had passed since his Vietnam War experience, since he had been flown in and out of battle-scarred areas, questioning the captured enemy in his job as an interrogator with the Marine Corps.

He was married, had a home and was working as a logistics engineer.

Then, life unraveled.

“Something stupid happened, which I can’t account for — I don’t know why or how come. But I left my wife and kids ... and went to sleep in the streets of Atlanta for three years,” O’Casio said.

Today, O’Casio faces a host of problems.

Like so many war veterans, he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, which has rendered him unable to work. Under the weight of much medication, he struggles to steady himself on his feet as he walks across the living room of his trailer.

Members of a couple of organizations, Disabled American Veterans and the Northeast Georgia chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America, have helped O’Casio with some repairs at his home, where the floors are sinking or rotting out altogether.

But his daily needs are still great, as are those of other aging Vietnam veterans. Many have seen their finances wrecked by years of dealing with sickness stemming from PTSD or diseases believed caused by Agent Orange, the herbicides used to removed vegetative cover for enemy forces.

“We are in need of contributions to help other (veterans),” said Wendy Paradis, commander of the Gainesville-Hall County chapter of Disabled American Veterans. “They are in so much need right now, with the economy and all.”

The economy also has hammered nonprofit groups trying to reel in money to help needy people.

And for now, the needs outweigh financial resources.

“The stories are so touching, you just don’t know,” she said, choking up. “It’s been a horrible year for these veterans.”

Paradis speaks of another veteran, a fellow Marine, who has been trying to help O’Casio and is himself “in the red all over the place,” and another veteran devastated after losing his business.

A veteran who had planned to meet at O’Casio’s home to share his story ended up spending the night at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, where he was being treated for problems stemming from high blood pressure.

“He lost his home recently. He doesn’t have any money,” Paradis said. “We have paid one of his car payments and a little toward another car payment to help him keep his car. He’s trying to get benefits, but it takes so long (to get them).”

She believes the government needs to make disabled veterans the highest priority.

“They fought for our country, for freedom, and to me, they should be taken care of before anybody else,” Paradis said.

The organization gets its funding strictly from donations and fundraisers.

Paradis said the Georgia Mountain Players, a Gainesville-based repertory company, has “helped us out significantly on a continuous basis,” and Home Depot “has given us a discount on helping with the cabinets we are going to install.”

Still, “we need more supporters,” she added.

The groups receives about $2,000 in donations.

The organization also helps veterans with paperwork needed to get benefits.

Unemployed veterans “do not need to be disabled to qualify for free medical at the VA hospital,” Paradis said. “They also have a hardship program to help veterans pay past medical bills.”

O’Casio, who served in the Marines from 1959-65, said he rarely leaves his trailer, except to take trips to receive medical care.

In the meantime, he has struggled to keep up his home hidden by woods off Dawn Ridge Road.

“The washer and dryer leaked profusely,” Paradis said. “It was so bad they had to bucket water into it to get it to run.”

A South Hall woman whose husband and son are training for deployment to Afghanistan replaced the appliances with a used set.

And Paradis and a group of other Vietnam vets have worked around O’Casio’s home, cleaning up his backyard and picking up flooring that had turned into chunks of sawdust.

“We have enough money to try to finish the floors and hopefully redo some cabinets, but we don’t have enough money to do to rest (of needed work) and that’s the problem,” she said.

O’Casio didn’t always struggles as he does now.

“I had a fairly good life. I didn’t always any problems. I haven’t always lived in a trailer,” he said. “And then just overnight, about 11 years ago, poof. There I was lying in the floor and ... I wouldn’t talk to people, I wouldn’t do anything.”

Adding to his struggles is getting timely care and attention, a problem he experienced recently in trying to change his pain medication.

O’Casio said he believes delays are occurring because Veterans Affairs is “getting overcrowded.”

“There are too many guys coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, so it makes it difficult for them just to keep up,” he said. “To get a primary doctor to see you, sometimes you have to wait three months.”

According to the Department of Veterans Affair’s Web site, President Barack Obama has pledged to retool the department so that it is “veteran-centric, results-driven and foward-looking.”

Bill Harris, president of the Northeast Georgia chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America, said his group also is working hard to help veterans.

“We just helped a guy up in Clermont who is 100 percent disabled and is on kidney dialysis,” he said. “Through lack of communications, he figured he was still eligible for VA (benefits).

“It hasn’t gotten out to all these people that no matter whether or not Social Security disables you, you’re not automatically eligible for VA benefits. ... We helped pay for his prescriptions because Medicare wasn’t kicking in until June 1.”

Many veterans are jobless and having difficult times paying their bills, Harris said.

“Some of them are too proud to ask for help,” he added. “It’s a shame. No one should be (that way) after they have sacrificed years of their life for our country, but that happens.

“That’s what we’re here for — to help them and to do as much for these guys as we can, whether they are Vietnam or Korea, Afghanistan or Iraq.”

He said prostate cancer is now “showing its face” to a lot of Vietnam vets, particularly those who served in the Navy.

“The speculation is that the Navy distilled their drinking water from the sea right off the coast of Vietnam,” said Harris, himself a Navy veteran with the disease.

He said his group “is always needing (donations) or items people can use in daily life or to make life easier for them, whether it’s wheelchairs or maintenance on their wheelchairs.”

“The economy has hit us a couple of times,” he said of the group’s efforts to raise money.

“We just a had a car show where we did fairly decent — we didn’t do tremendously well — and now we’re working with the (Veterans of Foreign Wars) on their car show,” Harris said. “We try to help out all the veterans organizations that we can.”

The Vietnam group refers veterans to the DAV for help in qualifying for benefits.

“They have people specifically trained in the paperwork,” Harris said.

Still, “whatever is needed, we’ll try to do.”

The generosity isn’t lost on Paradis.

“I’m just so impressed with the (Vietnam vets group) and how they get together and help everyone. And that’s been continuous — anytime you need their help, they’re there,” she said.

O’Casio said he believes that veterans going through hardships will continue to tough out their situations.

The one thing many don’t fear, he added, is dying.

“But since we’re so hard-headed, we don’t. We keep on going, but with a little push, you could go over the hill,” he said, cracking a half-smile.



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