A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

October/November 1998

Veterans Helping Veterans: A Moving Experience

By Jim Belshaw

At the bottom of Nancy Alexander's thirty-year spiral she found the same people she had been with in the beginning: the men with broken bodies and wounded spirits, the men she had helped to heal and to make whole again.

In the thirty years since she had listened to the soldiers' stories and the soldiers' cries in the night, much had changed. Her body now lay broken, and her spirit as well. She never dreamed that the very men she and women like her had healed would now reach out and do the same for her.

It had been thirty years. Vietnam had been a long time ago. But its connective tissue held; the bond was still strong, if unseen by Nancy Alexander.

"I didn't think this was possible," she said when the hands of so many strangers reached out to help her. "I had no idea anything like this could happen. I was doing something I wanted to do, doing something for my country that I needed to do. I loved nursing. I still do. I never thought it would come back thirty years later and have this effect on me, on my son, and on a lot of people."

Nancy Alexander is fifty-one years old now. She served in the Air Force for two years on active duty and five years in the reserves. She worked in the stateside intensive-care wards that treated the most severely wounded men flown home from the Vietnam War.

"They came in body casts, they came with missing limbs, they needed someone to be there," she said. "There was no way for any of us to know what we were getting into. My roommate got out before her time was up because she couldn't take seeing those guys anymore."

After being discharged, Alexander went to work as a civilian nurse. In a 1979 workplace accident, she slipped in a pool of water on the floor and came down hard on her back.

She wouldn't work again for a year.

Finally, she found work as a supervisor for a home-health agency and then with the Kaiser Health Plan. But her back continued to deteriorate. In 1986, Alexander underwent two surgeries that produced no success in resolving the injury's effect.

"One day after the surgeries, I was sitting in front of my computer and I sneezed and that was it," she said. "My back shifted and I was back in the hospital. I couldn't walk this time. I came out with a walker, and I was stuck in the house for several months."

No longer able to operate the pedals in her car, Alexander had hand controls installed, which allowed her to escape from the house. That small victory was short lived. As the years progressed, so did the deterioration of her back until she was hospitalized again, this time coming out in a wheelchair.

Unable to find handicapped-accessible housing because of the long waiting list, Alexander lived in a Port Chester, N.Y., house that did little to ease the difficulty for her or for her 24-year-old son, John, who suffers from cerebral palsy and lives with her.

"I can walk, but not far," she said. "I use crutches in the house and the wheelchair otherwise. I had twenty-one stairs to climb to get up to the house. I didn't go out much. There were months at a time when I wouldn't go out."

In 1997, the dreams of wounded men came to Alexander, haunting her until she sought counseling at a Vet Center. At the center, she spoke about another dream—moving to Fort Worth, Texas, starting over, and finding a better place to live. She had been stationed there while in the Air Force. Although some of the memories were harsh, she knew the landscape and wanted to return to it.

"I had gone bankrupt," Alexander said. "Accessibility services were difficult to find in New York. I needed a warmer place to live that had the services my son and I needed. It was time to go."

The question was how.

The answer came when the word got around, as it often does in the veteran community.

"I heard about her through a friend of mine," said Dan Griffin of VVA Chapter 49 in Pleasantville, New York. "The week I met her, her van broke down, the handicapped van with a lift. In the same week, the brakes failed on her wheelchair. She was living in a twenty-one-step walkup. She'd put leg braces on and use special crutches to get herself up the stairs. By the time she got inside, she was exhausted."

Griffin suggested a fund-raiser sponsored by the chapter to help her make the move to Texas. Newspaper articles were written. Griffin made up flyers and spread the word. Donations started coming in from other VVA chapters, particularly Chapter 541 in Putnam County, New York, Chapter 333 in Rockland County, New York, and Chapter 802 in New Jersey.

Griffin called Chapter 330 President Vic Restani in Fort Worth to tell him the situation and ask for help. Restani began working right away.

"Why?" Restani said. "Because a veteran's a veteran. If they need help, I think Vietnam veterans will help more than any other veterans out there. We know what it's like to be left alone. And the nurses really helped us a lot. It's touching, you know. I just don't think any other veterans organization would do what we did here, If somebody says you need help, well, hell, we'll help."

The fund-raiser netted $5,647.

Nancy Alexander sought out estimates from moving companies. The first came in at around $6,000. She settled on one at $4,900. Dan Griffin heard about a trucking company in Texas owned by Vietnam veterans who were in the Air Force, Nancy's branch of service. "They don't want their name used," Griffin said. "They brought a tractor trailer to her house, not a moving van but a tractor trailer."

Members of Chapter 49 and the president of 541 from a neighboring county came to her house to load the truck. Initially, she had planned on driving her van cross-country, but Griffin vetoed the idea and they loaded the van into the trailer.

"I told her it was too much work for her to drive to Texas and that we'd fly her to Fort Worth," Griffin said. "She flew out the same day we loaded up the truck. Vietnam veterans have an affinity, a love for any nurse. They were volunteers. They were great. We've done stuff for other people, but when it comes to a nurse, we'll go the extra mile. I really like the cooperation we got—our chapter, Chapter 541, the chapter in New Jersey, the chapter in Fort Worth, the Air Force guys with the trucking company—all of us working together. We've done things before, but never anything this big."

In Texas, Vic Restani and others from the Fort Worth chapter met Alexander at the airport, arranged for a hotel, and helped her find a place to live. Once she located an apartment, Restani went over the morning the truck was scheduled to arrive.

Caught in Fort Worth traffic, the truck was an hour late. They waited another hour for the special vehicle needed to unload the van, then they started unloading the trailer.

"That day it hit 110 degrees," Restani said. "But we were 110 every day back in August. We got done around three in the afternoon. But if somebody needs help, we'll reach out and pull resources together to help any veteran. She was scared coming out here. I would have been, too. But it was really important for her to do it.”

Nancy Alexander, settled into a new home with her son, still marvels at what has happened to her. "They worked so hard for us, especially Dan Griffin," she said. "It was so awesome for me and for my son to see these Fort Worth guys just come over and visit and encourage us, to be here when we got here, to meet us at the airport. They hadn't forgotten us. They were here to make sure we got what we needed. They said, 'whatever you need, just give us a call. There aren't many people around who are like that.

"All of this came from people who understood and knew what went on and how I felt," she said. "Once we're settled, my son can start living a life of his own now, which is what I want for him and what he needs. I know we'll get there. It will take time and patience, but we'll get there. For the vets to do this for us is just unbelievable."

 

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