WILDWOOD – Facing this city's Vietnam Memorial Wall with its 58,195 names, survivors of that war, some living with the lingering effects of Agent Orange, others whose loved ones died from vestiges of the defoliant, called for local veterans' health care at a March 25 rally that drew about 200.
The rally began here at 11 a.m. and, shortly after noon, traveled north on Garden State Parkway to the Ocean View Rest Stop where the Armed Forces Memorial was the centerpiece for more calls for better veterans' care from officials, chiefly at the federal level.
The cortege was escorted by a Wildwood police motorcycle followed by motorcyclists from Legion Riders 184 and Cape Classic Riders.
An Army helicopter and trailer that bore flags and a mock casket draped in an American flag for deaths inflicted by Agent Orange was part of the event.
The event was organized by Harry Weimar, commander American Legion Post 184, Wildwood; who addressed his peers, and William Davenport, president, Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 955, who recounted a litany of medical missteps by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Both men shared their stories of health care disservice. Along with other veterans, whose hands were calloused and cracked by Agent Orange, some talked of lingering cancer, amputations of toes and feet, and others with mental problems, in particular, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from witnessing horrid war scenes and reliving the fear they knew in the jungles and rice paddies.
The rally focused on the need for veterans to have Cape May County-based medical facilities, including those at Cape Regional Medical Center, instead of having to travel to Wilmington, Del. or Philadelphia where VA medical centers are located.
Weimar urged that the government "Listen to us." He further called on the federal government to compensate every family who had been affected by Agent Orange.
"There are families who will never know their loved ones died from Agent Orange," said Weimar. He pointed to the children and grandchildren of veterans who are affected in physical ways by the chemical used to defoliate jungle vegetation in the Southeast Asian country.
Erica Laub spoke of her grandfather, Maurice "Whitey" Laub Jr., 67, who died in November 2016 from Agent Orange effects.
Laub believes if the VA had been more attentive to her grandfather's Agent Orange effects, "I may have had more time with my Pop Pop."
Most speakers cited trips to VA medical centers, sometimes in vans that lacked a bathroom. That lack of a restroom in the van, they said, resulted in some veterans having to urinate in a plastic jug to relieve themselves.
Wildwood Mayor Ernie Troiano, one of the chief builders of the local Vietnam Memorial Wall, spoke to the veterans and stated that the city government supported their efforts. Troiano puzzled why Cape Regional Medical Center, about 10 miles away, could not be fully utilized by veterans instead of their having to travel over 90 miles for care, some appointments lasting only 10 minutes.
Troiano presented a resolution, recently passed by Wildwood City Commission, which advocated the lack of veterans' health care.
He said a copy of that resolution would be sent to each of the state's 562 municipalities to garner statewide support for those who served.
Veteran Joseph Griffies chastised state and federal officials for lack of caring for veterans. He cited a 1990 state study that has languished in Trenton that called for ways to address veterans' needs, including the creation of a Veterans' Court system to assist those who served in the military that may have problems with their service that brought them into brushes with the law.
Some of those politicians targeted by Griffies stood in the crowd, wearing caps detailing membership in veterans' organizations.
Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton, an Air Force veteran, stood by Freeholder and retired Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Pierson. Near them was Assemblyman Robert Andrzejczak, an Army veteran who served in Iraq and lost his leg there.
Andrzejczak, while younger than most he addressed, said he was asked by Sen. Jeff Van Drew about serving in the Assembly. Since he wanted to continue to serve his country and state, he agreed. From the outset, Andrzejczak noted, he pledged to work tirelessly for the veterans in the district and state.
He wondered why the VA, which issues identification cards to those in its system, could not also place a chip into those cards that would enable veterans to see any doctor or hospital to treat their needs instead of having to go to distant VA hospitals.
Next to him was Assemblyman Bruce Land (both D-1st) who received the Bronze Star for combat valor in Vietnam. Land served with the 101st in I-Corps, in Vietnam. He swept away tears when he started to speak and said he lost many comrades there and even more since returning home. In 2014, Land said he had lost six friends with whom he served.
Freeholder E. Marie Hayes became emotional as she recounted the war her brother, Stanley Franklin Jones, fought after he returned from serving in Vietnam. A young man with a sense of humor before he departed for the war, Hayes said he returned from the war with a "void, dull look" and was always sullen.
Being young at the time, his condition did not register with her until, one day, an airplane flew low overhead, and he quickly hit the ground. Why? She asked another brother, why did he do that? She was told that it was because he was scared, and the plane brought back memories of what happened in the war.
"He would never go to the VA because he said they treated him worse than in Vietnam," Hayes said. Because of that, his parents paid for his medical treatments.
While politicians were the target of some of the speakers, Marine Corps Vietnam veteran Joe Waters, who lost his left leg, and who told how terribly one VA doctor treated him, including wanted to rewrap his wound with an old bandage, when he was healing, leaned against a wooden support at the Ocean View Memorial, and offered his hand to politicians.
Land was one of the first to shake Waters' hand.
Thornton did likewise. Thornton noted the centennial of World War I and said his grandfather served in that war and suffered from mustard gas. He cited the similarities of mustard gas and Agent Orange because of the long-term effects on those who were exposed to them.
Pierson, a retired brigadier general from the Army National Guard after 42 years’ service, similarly embraced Waters.
Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-1st), whose enemy at the Ocean View Rest Stop was a wireless microphone that repeatedly cut off his words, pledged to do everything in his power to assist veterans in the district.