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PORTLAND, Ore. - A small group of Vietnam-era veterans, many of whom still struggle with the impact the war had on their lives, spent an afternoon cleaning a memorial for their fellow soldiers who never made it back home.
The Vietnam Veterans of Oregon Memorial at Washington Park is a quiet place to reflect on a war that changed so many lives. And coming up this Veterans Day, many folks are expected to stop at the memorial to pay tribute to, and remember, those who are now long gone.
Veterans Day falls on Sunday, Nov. 11 and this week volunteers with the Portland VA's Footsteps to Recovery program (an outpatient mental health program for veterans), NorthStar (a mental health recovery program) and veterans from Concordia University helped clean up the memorial in advance of the national holiday.
The volunteers, made up of veterans who are part of programs designed to help them cope with mental illnesses like schizophrenia, depression and post traumatic stress disorder, showed up Wednesday afternoon ready to go. They helped clear leaves, do some edging and of course, polish up the walls inscribed with the names of those who died in Vietnam.
"I feel good," said volunteer Steve Gaskill, one of the veterans in the Footsteps to Recovery program who was helping with the leaf cleanup. "I'm doing something useful."
This is the second year that the folks with Footsteps to Recovery have organized a cleanup of the memorial.
"The work these men and women contribute is beneficial not only to veterans but to people who live in Portland and who visit from around the world," said City Parks Commissioner Nick Fish. "Their continued courage and service is admirable."
"The work does offer healing," said Tom Moore, another veteran in the Footsteps to Recovery program who volunteered to help out. The names of two friends he lost in Vietnam are on a wall at the memorial. He said this type of volunteer work, in particular, helps him feel closer to the brothers in arms that he lost.
Moore served a tour from 1969 to 1970 as part of a Navy Construction Battalion team in support of the 101st Airborne Division and the 3rd Marines.
Decades have passed since Moore was in the service but his life was forever changed by what he experienced. And it wasn't just the tour he did that affected him - it was coming back home to a world that didn't understand what he had been through.
"There was lots of fear, lots of uncertainty, lots of doubt, lots of depression," Moore said. "Just the unknown."
We asked Navy veteran Pam Calegari, a Peer Specialist with Footsteps to Recovery who uses her own experiences with mental illness to help her fellow veterans, how a war that happened so long ago could still have such a lasting effect on a person's life. She explained that back then, there wasn't much help for veterans struggling with the after effects of war. Many came back broken and there was no one to help them. And as the years went on, some lost their way.
"I think for a lot of our veterans, because so many years went by without any support from the government, let alone the public, that they internalized," said Calegari, who was a Corpsman (an enlisted medical specialist for the Navy) during Vietnam. "They became drug addicts. They became alcoholics."
"It's sad," she added. "I think if we had been prepared 35 or 40 years ago, we wouldn't have what we have right now. We could hire a thousand mental health professionals and it wouldn't be enough to take care of everyone (from the Vietnam era) who needs care."
Calegari said there is a lot more of a support system for today's veterans. Those returning from Iraq or Afghanistan can find help to deal with the issues that soldiers face when coming home.
The program Calegari works for, Footsteps to Recovery, helps veterans who suffer from mental illness carry on with their lives in a positive way that brings them happiness, fulfillment and a sense that they belong. One of the ways they do that is to get veterans involved in volunteer efforts, like the cleanup, which brings them all together for a cause.
"We believe that you can recover from mental illness and we want to encourage folks to take steps to do that for themselves," Calegari's colleague, Gifford, told us.
Traveling Wall On Display in Portland
The Dignity Memorial Wall, a three-quarter scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington D.C., arrived in Portland this week and will be on display at Skyline Memorial Gardens.
Moore, the veteran we mentioned earlier in the story, told us that joining the program at Footsteps to Recovery likely saved his life.
"When I first walked in the door, it was like walking home," he said. "The level of acceptance - it's kind of like a family. Everybody is accepted regardless of what is going on with them."
NorthStar, which partnered with Footsteps to Recovery for the cleanup on Wednesday, also helps those struggling with mental health issues. Their main goal is to find ways to make folks feel like a part of the community.
They start by having the people they serve help run the program by doing clerical work, administrative work, etc. The idea is to build the type of camaraderie that can bring people out of their shells.
"Through them contributing their work through the operation of the club, their self esteem grows," said Bill Waters, coordinator for NorthStar. "They get used to working again. You're part of something again."
NorthStar seeks out opportunities for folks to help out in the community, like the cleanup effort at the Vietnam Veterans of Oregon Memorial. And they help people find jobs and get into school.
"People come here and they get very active," said Waters. "They're very interested in being a part (of something)."