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.
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."
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."
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."
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.
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.
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
"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
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.
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
E-mail us at TheVeteran@vva.org