Every Day is Veterans Day for These People

By Judith Platt / Photo by Richard Sachs

Old Soldiers Never Fade Away

John Lohmann

John Lohmann escorting a veteran

The eyes of a D-Day veteran, let’s call him “Ted,” light up when John walks into his New Hampshire home.  Estranged from the son he lived with and losing contemporaries as many octogenarians do, Ted is lonely. He not only appreciates the companionship of someone who can relate to his military experiences, but anticipates the weekly visits with uninhibited enthusiasm. John Lohmann of Eastman is a good listener, and he is eager to bring a sparkle to an old man’s eyes as the vet recounts some of his proudest moments in the U.S. Navy.  It is a perfect match—courtesy of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Ted tells John story after story of his experiences as a fresh-faced 17-year-old sailor from South Boston who landed on Utah Beach on D-Day in June 1944. John spends a year listening attentively, picking up vivid details, and making mental notes of what he needs to do before he returns the following week to minister to his elderly charge. Each week, John returns home and goes to work on his computer to search for photos to take to Ted—photos that light up Ted’s eyes as if he were seeing his personal military history written for him.  Photos like the ones of the luxury liner in which Ted crossed the Atlantic to Wales to train for the invasion. Photos of Sainte Mère Église, the small town in France where his unit was sent after the landing in Normandy, and of Okinawa, where he was sent after Normandy to prepare for the planned invasion of Japan. Others show Ted’s high school and the surrounding area in Massachusetts.  In the year that Ted and John spend together before Ted passes away in 2014, Ted has a new visual perspective of his time before, during, and after the military, thanks to John.  It is such a small gesture—the listening and the photo search—but so meaningful for the Navy veteran and satisfying for the veteran-volunteer.

John Lohmann is quite matter-of-fact when he talks about the time he spends in the volunteer work he has been doing through the Volunteer Services Office at the VA Hospital since 2011. He would rather talk about Ted or about 83-year-old Lois who has been volunteering at the VA Hospital for 12 years than talk about himself, despite his over 1400 hours as a volunteer there. When asked why he does it, he simply says that now that he is retired, he owes something back to the men and women who have seen combat for our country.

Service seems to run through his veins. An ROTC scholarship introduced him to life in the Army, and after graduation from Boston College in 1969 he went to Fort Benning for both Jump and Ranger schools. His 21-year career in the service included tours in Germany and Korea, tours in intelligence units overseas and in the States, and a tour in Special Forces.  He continued to serve his country when he retired from the Army in 1991. Conversant in Russian and able to survive in German and French, John joined the Central Intelligence Agency in 1992. While in the CIA, he worked on five continents in addition to serving as a liaison officer to the Joint Staff in the Pentagon, where he was working on 9/11, and as a liaison officer to the FBI in its HQ for a year.  He turned in his CIA badge in 2004 and then began to write the next chapter of his life with his wife Mary when they built a home on Anderson Pond.

After decades in intelligence, there are still things that John cannot talk about. An affable man with a ready smile, he silences questions about his duty with the familiar line, “If I told you, I would have to kill you.” But, then he might add, “Of course, since I also served in the FBI, I’d have to arrest myself after I did.”

However, he might admit to being on the first plane permitted into Siberia on July 2, 1988 to inspect Soviet intermediate-range nuclear missiles under the INF Treaty. Or to sharing a house with a Special Forces A Team when he was assigned to Afghanistan in 2002. However, lest one get an image of an American James Bond, John makes it clear that he worked on the overt side of the Agency.

These days in his volunteer work at the VA Hospital, he escorts patients in wheelchairs and on stretchers and asks them which service they were in, what they did, and when they served. He hears histories of fighting in Korea, of combat in France and Germany, and of a recent tour in Guantanamo Bay.  His job, as he sees it, is to make the veterans comfortable and let them know that someone values their service and sacrifices.

Clint Bean, a Greensward resident, who also volunteers at Escort Services, has taken a different route than John to his volunteering. After four years in ROTC at the University of New Hampshire, Clint was commissioned in 1967 and served four years in the Air Force as a Transportation Officer for a 200-man squadron during the Vietnam era. But a different type of moving people around now occupies him on Monday afternoons. Many veterans come from long distances and often schedule multiple appointments in a single day. Clint and others in Escort Services make sure that the patients know where they are going and help them safely navigate the large VA Hospital campus in White River Junction.

Clint is inspired to volunteer by having spent time at the hospital both as a patient and an employee. Citing the hospital’s credo of privacy and security, Clint does not share many stories from his more than 500-plus hours of volunteer time, but he is quick to state that as a volunteer, he is “very pleased about what we do.”

Both Clint and John can relate to the Vietnam veterans who are their contemporaries. And John’s recent CIA assignment in 2002 enables him to relate to the vets just returning from Afghanistan. According to Karen Campbell, chief of Volunteer Services, “The VA Medical Center is extremely fortunate to have both John Lohmann and Clint Bean among their volunteers. Both John and Clint can be relied on to come in and help out where needed, always wearing a smile!”

Those smiles are important to light up the eyes that have seen so much in service to their country.

The Trauma Never Ends for Some
The wounds of many of the troops returning from recent wars—and those from not-so-recent ones—may not be physical or visible. But they are very real. About half of the veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from at least one mental health condition, and 15 percent of these suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). George Decker, a West Cove resident, knows all too well the challenges faced by both veterans and civilians suffering from PTSD. Every day he hears from them, either by email or phone, in his work as a public affairs communications specialist at the National Center for PTSD in White River Junction.

George is proud to note that he worked with the staff of Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota to draft a resolution that passed with bipartisan support to name June 2015 National PTSD Awareness Month.  George routinely does outreach to media across the United States to raise awareness of PTSD and of the resources available through the center, which was founded in 1989 in White River Junction by Dr. Matthew Friedman, an expert in PTSD affiliated with both the VA Hospital and the Geisel School Medicine at Dartmouth College.

When not busy with media relations, George responds to the thousands of emails that he receives from people seeking help for either themselves or for their family or friends. Some of the mail the center receives is from prison inmates who may be frustrated with the services received in their facilities. George and his colleagues connect them and others with experts, agencies, and services such as the Veterans Crisis Line.

The emails and calls seem endless. An estimated 9 million adult Americans experience PTSD annually. George has not come to this role of connecting people in need with those who can help from a career in social services. He has a law degree and has worked in various political and communications jobs before this. He describes some of the correspondence that he handles as “heart-rending” and admits to his eyes sometimes welling up as he reads the emails.

It is not easy to draw out of George just how invested he is in serving the people who contact the center each day. Like John, he prefers to talk about his colleagues and those he serves. Although his work is often challenging and filled with tough situations, George finds it immensely rewarding to provide veterans and others with PTSD with information and resources that can help turn their lives around.

History Is Told in Their Own Voices
Phil Schaefer is writing columns for the Dartmouth Alumni magazine as secretary of Dartmouth’s Class of 1964 when he notices that a group of alumni are being underserved in their communications: veterans. He is inspired to send out inquiries to his classmates regarding their military service and creates a database from the answers he receives. He then spends nine months compiling 55 essays in a book entitled Dartmouth Veterans, Vietnam Perspectives, which he describes as “a mosaic of what men in the military had done during wartime.” Along with four co-editors, Phil has devoted his time and heart to it. Not a veteran himself, Phil confesses to being very moved by the accounts that his classmates have written and to developing a deep respect for what they have gone through in their military experiences. The book was published and copies mailed to all members of the class before its 50th reunion in 2014.

Phil has done radio shows locally as well as in Concord and Baltimore, always adding the voices of several of the book’s essayists to the program in each city. He also serves as a panelist in the Dartmouth classrooms where the history of his college-era war is taught. Phil is not a newbie to promoting an appreciation for the travails of veterans. In the Preface to Dartmouth Veterans he writes about an oral history project that he brought to a local elementary school 10 years before the Dartmouth project. That project brought fourth and fifth graders face to face with World War II veterans and culminated in their celebrating Veterans Day together in 2004.

In December, Phil and his wife, Mary Lou, will be taking a two-week tour of Vietnam arranged by the college’s Professor Edward Miller, who wrote the inspiring introduction to Dartmouth Veterans. This will not be an ordinary tourist excursion, but one that will give the Schaefers an opportunity to visit the sites of the literary mosaic with their own eyes.

Many Serve in Many Ways
Many Eastman residents work with veterans and servicemen and servicewomen in the Upper Valley in several private and public facilities, and some through independent projects of their own. The Eastman residents whose works are highlighted in this story were coming of age in a time when they were told not to “ask what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country.” They apparently took that message to heart and extended it to what they can do to serve those who serve their country.

Editor’s Note: Judith Platt is a retired business executive. Daughter of a World War II veteran, she has great admiration for the men and women in the armed services and empathy for those who suffer from PTSD.

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