Steff Adams | PREVIEW Columnist
Spring in Virginia is the season of the flowering dogwood.
I know that beautiful tree because I was born in Quantico and my dad would invariably drive us back to that Marine Corps base to stay while he trained and flew away for various deployments.
Much later, following two tours in ‘Nam, my folks built a cabin near there in the dappled shade where dogwood grow. Here my dad lived out the sequel of neurologic disease from Agent Orange.
Before Dad got sick, I chose to honor him by enlisting in the Army for four years. I never directly saw war, but I treated soldiers with burns in San Antonio and later helped their preemies on and off ventilators in the neonatal ICU at Fort Meade, Md.
Military service for any length of time can leave scars. I never thought that 40 years later I’d be so far away from those sweetly tiered dogwood blooms with a sprawling anxiety about my husband’s illness and my own anxious military memories tiered above like heavy, over-hanging dogwood boughs. When my husband retired, we moved far away to Pagosa Springs to find peace of mind.
It’s hard to make new friends when you’re over 60. Most people are shaving away unwanted connections at that age and hunkering down with a very few trusted long-term relations. Twelve years ago, however, a small group of military veterans and their spouses agreed to meet at The Junction — that lodgy little breakfast place at the edge of town. These veterans somehow knew that I, and so many others like me, would be looking for that kind of comfort for the heart that can only be had by proximity to snow-capped mountains, the tranquilities of sullen skies’ interplay with luminous sunlight, crackling stoves and the camaraderie of familiar folks sharing life in snug social halls.
This small group of far-sighted men and women collected $25, opened a bank account and started what would become Vets4Vets.
Today, largely by its own volunteer efforts, private donations, fundraising activities and government grants, Vets4Vets ministers to fellow vets with tens of thousands of dollars — invariably depleted by the time three-quarters of the year has passed. Housing, broken cars, dental, counseling and other pressing needs plague vets as they do most retirees. Two hundred-fifty vets belong to Vets4Vets, but there are 1,200 vets in the county.
Because of the relief available from Vets4Vets, vets passing through Pagosa have found help — one couple needing car repairs was given a room for the night and extra cash for food while the shop fixed their vehicle. Vets don’t have to reside here to find assistance. A young woman recently released from the Air Force found her way to Pagosa and, responding to the same mystifying pull that we have all succumbed to, wanted to make a life here. Vets4Vets paid her first and last month’s housing deposit and never asked questions. All that is needed to qualify for help is a DD-214 and an honorable discharge.
Vets4Vets has rebuilt truck engines, replaced sump pumps, spent thousands to repair a well, found searching vets a needed piece of property. To keep serving, Vets4Vets has functioned out of a church office with only 10 percent overhead, a phone and a computer. Ninety percent of incoming funds go directly to veterans’ needs.
I did not hear about Vets4Vets in Pagosa immediately upon arrival — I became aware of their existence when I discovered Colorado property tax rates. My husband and I needed to know if we could afford our lovely little home alongside his out-of-pocket medical bills for Lyme disease. Colorado will only give tax relief to vets who are 100 percent disabled — some other states offer relief for unemployability and disabling conditions that are not total or permanent. Thankfully, we didn’t need help at that time, but a couple years of medical-related travel, a pandemic and other stressors invariably associated with aging had literally crushed the molars on both sides of my mouth into fragments. Dentists call it bruxism. The indifference of dental insurance coverage to an aging population left me with thousands of dollars of tooth repair, the burden of which we reckoned at the time might have to be transferred with us to the next world.
Willing to chance it, I tentatively emailed for help from the Pagosa vets. In a few days, Lynn from Vets4Vets arranged for payment of many thousands of dollars for a crown and root canal. Had I needed transportation, Dorothy or Niara from Veterans Outreach would have given me a lift; had I needed gas, Raymond would have handed me a $75 travel voucher. And Rick, elected president of Vets4Vetsfor two years now — well, there’s so much that Rick does for his fellow vets, for his fellow man, that a separate essay altogether is required to explain.
My mom and dad have both passed on now and I have had no further need to visit Quantico. I don’t see dogwood anymore from our north-facing rear windows, but I do have a fair view of the austere ridge of Pagosa and her sister peaks. We are getting older, but we have friends now. Once a week, we are privileged to hear unbelievable reports of courage amid mind-numbing adversity from Vietnam era vets, from Desert Storm, from men and women who have given themselves in ways that utterly defy the ordinary. We hear them on Tuesday mornings at the Tennyson Building Event Center when sleet drills smartly on foggy windowpanes or, alternately, when bright squadrons of sun shafts mark time in the parking lot. We listen then, listen to the best folks ever, folks who have given their lives to serve their country, folks to love in this arid environment, where the dogwood would never grow without much water, attention and protection.