The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
September/October 2005
FEATURE
 
 

A New War:
Dennis Andras in the Hurricane's Aftermath
 

BY JIM BELSHAW

VVA member Dennis Andras found it strange that a hurricane in Louisiana should send him back to roots he put down in Vietnam. But the hurricane’s aftermath felt like war. He found himself fighting for survival. The hurricane’s destruction surpassed anything he’d seen in Vietnam. It felt like war and it looked like war. So the 57-year-old businessman found himself thinking like the 19-year-old “shake ’n’ bake” infantry NCO who went to Vietnam in 1969.

The 33-year-old family business, Deltone Electric, had been passed on to him when his father died. He’s worked in it for twenty years. It serviced the marine and oilfield industries along the Gulf Coast. The hurricane did not destroy the business but battered it badly, leaving behind a trail of devastation that left his employees homeless and in desperate need.

He housed 23 of them and their families in a hotel, vowing to keep them there as long as the money held out. The DAV chapter in Gonzales, La., rented its hall to him for only $300, saying him he could use it as his business headquarters for as long as he needed. VVA members from Texas loaded up supplies and headed to Louisiana, where Dennis Andras had gone to war.

“You’re going to love this,” he said. “I’m using training I had in the military to set up forward observation bases. I was able to draw on my skills in the military to keep things going, and I’m amazed at how well I can remember what I used to do.”

He moved his company 150 miles. He moved half his equipment the same distance. He moved his personnel out, housed them, re-established his office, re-established his lines of communication, and got people back out in the field. He lives in a “fifth-wheel” RV. He calls it his “mobile command center.”

“Everything I learned in the Army, everything I learned in Vietnam, I’m putting to use,” he said. “And it’s working. Mentally, this is a war. I’m fighting a war right now. I’m back in Vietnam. I’m in my element. That’s what’s strange. It’s like I used to say back then: I can shoot, move, and communicate.”

There is tension in his voice when he speaks. The words rush out as if in competition for a limited amount of oxygen that the lungs insist on rationing.

“One wrong decision, one wrong move, and 80 people [his employees and their families] are worse off than they are now,” he said. “If I mess up, they’re on the street. I gotta take care of my people. I can’t let them get on the street. That’s all I’m trying to do, you know? All I want to do is take care of my people.”

Three of his employees are missing. He doesn’t know where they are or if they’re safe. “One of the best marine electricians you’ll ever see” calls from Mississippi. His house has been destroyed. He needs money and asks for a loan. Andras tells him to get to Louisiana and he’ll put him to work, but he can’t afford to loan him any money. Another young man calls from a shelter and says he can’t make it to work because his wife is pregnant and he won’t leave her. A 22-year veteran employee has to be told three times how to do his job because he goes through the day in a daze, like so many people in the Gulf Coast do now, disconnected from the reality they once knew.

After the hurricane hit, Andras told his employees that the lives they all knew were over. He said: “Let me explain something to y’all. The life we had does not exist anymore. We all have to start from scratch.”

He reminisces on the “very nice existence” he used to have, a time when everything he needed was at his disposal—telephones, computers, offices, suppliers. Anything he needed, all he had to do was pick up the phone.

That was the old life, the one that doesn’t exist anymore.

An old friend, a Marine veteran of Vietnam, is feared dead somewhere in the wreck of his shrimp boat. Andras figures he ignored the storm warnings. He’d ridden out other hurricanes on his shrimp boats, and he probably tried to ride this one out as well. He was that kind of man.

“Three Purple Hearts, PTSD. If he rode out this storm, he’s dead,” Dennis said. “I haven’t heard anything from him. He’s a very close friend. When I first met him, he didn’t want to talk to anybody. He was very hostile. I got him to get 70 percent disability on PTSD. Whenever he saw my truck somewhere, he’d stop to talk and talk and talk because I was somebody he could talk to, somebody he could relate to. He’d always talk to my wife. I think he’s gone. It’s just . . . the whole thing.”

It’s morning when he speaks of these things and he apologizes for “getting emotional.” Mornings for him are tough.

The people who worked for him lost everything but the clothes they wore the day the storm hit. His son, Scott, a staff sergeant in the Louisiana National Guard, came home from Iraq a few days after the storm. He lost everything he owned. Another son at home lost everything. Dennis Andras counts himself fortunate. His home was damaged, but it survived.

“My day is trying to solve problems all day long, thinking you have them solved, only to find out there’s a hundred more waiting for you,” he said. “That’s my day. My stomach’s always in knots.”

Later in the day in another conversation, his voice changes, the morning’s tension and exhaustion gone. It seems a pattern, he says. The mornings are always hard, but if he can get some things done in the course of a day—if he can take a few steps back toward approaching normalcy—the day looks different.

“If I can accomplish the goals I set in the morning, by the end of the day everything changes,” he said. “If I can last three more weeks, that’s all I need and I’ll have won the battle. Call me then and I’ll let you know if I won.”

   

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