On Saturday, a disgruntled veteran that the media has referred to as “highly decorated” walked into the Veterans Home of California with a rifle. He took three employees hostage, fired shots at a sheriff’s deputy, and after hours of attempts to make contact with the gunman, police entered to find the three hostages, as well as the gunman, dead. No official word has been said regarding the way in which the four died, but it can be surmised that the gunman was the culprit, and that he accomplished exactly what he set out to do that day.
I’ve never been to that California Veterans Home, but I am quite familiar with that type of facility. My father, a Vietnam veteran with troubles of his own, worked as a nursing home administrator throughout much of my childhood. Administrators (in the healthcare community) serve as the senior management on site in most instances, and during the years my father ran the Vermont Veterans home, it even came with an honorary rank. That position boasted other perks as well – including a home on the grounds of the facility, to ensure the administrator (called a Commandant in Veterans Homes) could always be close by to address any type of situation that required his attention.
Veterans Homes are not like most VA facilities, in fact, most of the funding for Veterans Homes actually comes from the state, rather than the Department of Veterans Affairs. Most Veteran’s Homes, however, do have a VA facility on site, where non-residents can come to seek treatment just as they would at a VA hospital. The Veterans Home itself, however, functions much more like a nursing or “old folks home” catering specifically to veterans. For the most part, these are not outpatient facilities, they’re the place you come to see your grandfather on a Sunday.
During all the years I lived on the grounds of the Vermont Veterans Home, the only times my father was pulled out of bed for “emergencies” involved locals cutting the locks on the gate for the deer park that was also on the grounds (aside from our house, the grounds also housed a deer enclosure and stocked fish pond – both with facilities for residents to feed the deer or fish). Our small community in Vermont was a well armed one – but no shootings ever took place during my tenure there.
Living on the grounds of an old folks home might not sound like the best way to spend your high school years, but I didn’t have any complaints. My driveway was a two-hundred yard long stretch of blacktop with American flags hung every 20 feet or so on either side. My neighbors were the heroes that fought for our country in Europe and the Pacific. And each morning, as I left for school, I was greeted by dozens of men and women that devoted their lives to serving those who served and to honoring their sacrifices.
That same walk to school brought me through the facility’s well kept cemetery, where I first learned the local tradition of reading the names off the gravestones aloud as you walked past them, to help ensure their memory never truly fades from existence. Later in life, I would fold flags in my Dress Blues at hundreds of funerals, and as I passed by headstones at each one during route recon and planning, I kept that tradition alive.
The gunman, whom some outlets have reported as a “decorated veteran,” truly wasn’t in any meaningful way. He was a veteran with the same four medals most service members of my era who have deployed received. He left service with a small collection of participation trophies – which isn’t a condemnation of his service, nor is it indicative of a particularly prestigious career. Albert Wong, 36, of Sacramento, was a troubled man who had, at one point in his life, worn the uniform of a U.S. Army soldier. I can’t be sure that his troubles were rooted in his experiences in service, nor can I assume they weren’t there before he signed his contract – but I can be certain that the world suffered a tragic loss on Saturday regardless of what lit the fire that burned so deep within him that he chose to stifle it with a gun.
My father had a complicated relationship with his service in Vietnam. He had the utmost respect and admiration for veterans, but maintained very little regard for our nation’s leaders that chose to send them into harm’s way. I, also, had a complicated relationship with my father – whose demons, perhaps also born out of war, so often took priority over the well being of his family. I respect my father, but it wasn’t him that led me to joining the Marines (in fact, he disowned me when I enlisted).
It was coming home each day, under a mass of American flags. It was meeting the men that stood from their wheelchairs each morning for Colors. It was the staff that devoted their nights, weekends, and holidays to honoring what the residents had done, had given, for us all.
“We are deeply saddened by the tragic situation in Yountville and mourn the loss of three incredible women who cared for our Veterans,” U.S. President Donald Trump said on Saturday on Twitter.
I didn’t know Christine Loeber, Jen Golick, or Jennifer Gonzales, but I knew lot of men and women like them – people who spent their careers just trying to help, despite limited funding and resources, people who spent their Christmas mornings passing out pills and treating symptoms, people who gave what they could to try to repay the favor to those who fought on our behalf.
“These brave women were accomplished professionals, dedicated to their careers of serving our nation’s veterans, working closely with those of the greatest need of attention,” Pathway Home said in a statement.
They may not have signed their lives away to the military, but they gave them for their country nonetheless, and if given the opportunity, I would fold a flag for each of them, just as I have for countless heroes before..
Feature image courtesy of LinkedIn, Facebook, PsychArmor Institute
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