I recently read an article about a Vietnam veteran, who passed away in Colorado around Christmas last year. Tom Sweetnam was born in Canada, and joined the American Army to fight in the Vietnam War.* He became a Green Beret who earned a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts. Once he returned home, he had a hard time adjusting and moved around often enough that he lost touch with most of his family and friends.
He died alone, in his trailer nestled in the Rocky Mountains, his body left alone for 10 days before it was found. The article pieces together different parts of his life, with interviews of his siblings, Vietnam buddies, and old friends. There’s a short video about his life, and a wealth of old photos.
His story mirrors that of many American veterans. Though he suffered from nightmares, depression, anxiety and more, he didn’t seek treatment until 1995. A doctor at the VA in Palo Alto diagnosed him with PTSD, named it responsible for his isolation, and declared him “totally disabled.” His diagnosis is certainly not uncommon. The VA estimates that about 15% of Vietnam Veterans have dealt with PTSD at some point in their lives, and as many as 20% of Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Enduring Freedom (OEF) veterans may suffer from it.** Though this issue is much discussed now, it wasn’t in the past, and many like Sweetnam went undiagnosed for decades.
Not long after the diagnosis he left California and eventually made his way to Colorado, perhaps because of its similarity to British Columbia where he grew up. That’s where his body was found in 2015.
When interviewed for this article, his friend and Vietnam buddy David Hazelton reflected on the situation, saying that although Sweetnam survived the Vietnam war, it may still have been responsible for his death.
The story may seem overwhelming, and something an average citizen can’t do anything about. But one part of the article struck me. “Studies since the war have shown that social supports — family, a social network to lean on — are among the greatest protective factors against the development of PTSD.” As a community-focused organization, Elks can certainly help by being a social network for veterans.
Last year at the Elks National Convention, I met an Elk who was telling me about her participation in the Adopt-a-Veteran program. She’d heard about it at the Lodge and expressed interest. She was matched with a veteran in a local facility who staff had identified as needing visitors. Though he wasn’t enthusiastic about the first visit, she persisted and a friendship blossomed. She learned that before she’d shown up, the veteran hadn’t had a visitor in years. Not months: years. Now she makes sure to visit and contact him often, and he looks forward to seeing her.
Reaching out to a veteran once a month may be a small thing for you to do, but it could be the anchor they’re looking for. A phone call, a card, or an invite to the Lodge could be all someone needs to feel connected to the community. Visit our Adopt-a-Veteran webpage to learn more about the program, and how you can get involved.