Vets Town Halls return after pandemic with first event at Camp Meade

By Jennie Mull | Community News Service

The sweltering weekend heat and midday sunshine didn’t deter a dedicated collection of U.S. service veterans along with friends and community members from gathering recently on the lawn at Camp Meade in Middlesex for a unique storytelling event.

Veterans and audience members sat before the stage in plastic adirondack chairs in 90-degree heat for a Vets Town Hall, the first of its kind to be held in Middlesex and the first of a 2021 series after a break last year due to the pandemic.

Started several years ago, the events provide an opportunity for veterans to share personal stories of their service for community members to listen. At the June 27 town hall at Camp Meade, nearly a dozen military veterans took part, telling their stories from multiple conflicts from Vietnam to Afghanistan.

Speakers displayed a range of emotions. Some expressed a desire for war to end, while others spoke of gratitude for their time in the military. “There’s people who are very proud, then there’s also people who are very angry,” said host Jon Turner, a U.S. Marine veteran who served from 2003-2007 and was deployed three times, twice to Iraq. The Middlesex event was the third he hosted, introducing each speaker and helping them up the stage if needed.

Richard Czaplinski of Warren served in the U.S. Navy in 1964 in order to go to college. He worked in an office to maintain submarines and their missiles. After returning home, he protested the war.

“I’m not the only one who sometimes objects when people say ‘thank you for your service.’ A lot of veterans I run into object to it, because we know what we’ve done out in the world,” said Czaplinski.

Czaplinski requested a minute of silence to think about what it means to thank a veteran. Bird song became the only sound in the grassy enclave.

Turner proposed an alternative to thanking veterans for their service. “I’ve always kind of considered, ‘welcome home.’ There’s a lot of vets that weren’t welcomed home when they returned,” he said.

Turner now runs a 10-acre homestead educational farm in Bristol called Wild Roots Farm Vermont. He also helped launch the Vermont chapter of the Farmer Veteran Coalition, a national nonprofit dedicated to steering former military service members to farming.

Kristen Eaton, the primary organizer for Vermont Vets Town Halls said the idea originated from Sebastian Junger, author of “Tribe.” In 2015, Congressman Seth Moulton, (D-Ma.) was the first to organize such a town hall in Massachusetts, and Eaton thought the format would work well in Vermont.

There are nearly 37,000 veterans living in Vermont as of 2019, according to Veterans Data Central. Vermont Veterans Fund and the Community College of Vermont contribute funding for the events, and the Vermont Veterans Outreach Program provides support as well.

Ahead of each town hall, notices are circulated in the community to invite veterans to attend and sign up to speak. Individuals are also welcome to decide on the spot if they would like to take part.

Maureen L. Dwyer said she worked as a nurse in the 67th evacuation hospital in Qui Nhon, Vietnam at the trauma and surgical intensive care unit. As a nurse with a bachelor’s degree in 1968, Dwyer said, “My question to myself was, why wouldn’t I help take care of these wounded, who had no choice—they were drafted?”

She worked 12-hour shifts, six days a week caring for allies, U.S. soldiers, Vietnamese wounded and Vietcong soldiers. Dwyer said they all shared the same light in their eyes.

Looking back, Dwyer reflected on the similarities between frontline workers in COVID-19 and her time as a military nurse. Hospitalized soldiers in Vietnam couldn’t see their families much like people in hospital suffering from COVID-19 could be with loved ones due to their contagiousness. COVID nurses and Army nurses both served as surrogate family to their charges. “Many of us were the last ones who would see them alive,” said Dwyer, who today works as an acute-care nurse practitioner at UVM Medical Center.

When Dwyer returned from Vietnam to Vermont, she said she struggled with the adjustment. “A lot of the PTSD for women veterans wasn’t recognized until much later compared to the men, and I went through a major depression in my mid 30s,” she recounted.

It wasn’t until a friend from the same hospital went through a checklist of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms with Dwyer that she realized it applied to her. Women meet PTSD criteria more frequently than men, who instead report experiencing more traumatic events, according to a PTSD training from Veterans Affairs.

Lynn P. Johnson, a sergeant first class who served for 40 years, stayed in the same Qui Nhon hospital that Dwyer worked in twice. “I never got a chance to thank them for helping me when I was there,” said Johnson. He then thanked Dwyer in person.

Veterans represented and advocated for multiple organizations, including Veterans for Peace, Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports, Veterans Affairs, and Vermont Veterans and Family Outreach.

Johnson said he goes to Vermont Veterans Affairs for weekly meetings. Organizations such as Veterans Affairs are available to veterans seeking support, yet ultimately it’s up to individuals to make the choice to keep going to appointments, said Turner.

“It’s really difficult when you don’t speak to some of your guys for years, and then you hear about someone who took their own life, or someone who drowned in the bottle,” he said.

For veterans returning from deployment even today, it can be difficult to adjust back to civilian life. “They had endured so much adrenaline in close quarters combat that it’s very difficult to kind of turn that off once you return home,” Turner explained.

Misha Pemble-Belkin, a retired staff sergeant, said he spent his deployments in Afganistan’s Hindu Kush mountain range, at 4,000- to 7,000-feet altitude. When Pemble-Belkin arrived, he said there was a 90% casualty rate. “I look up there, and there was a full on fire fight,” he said.

Pemble-Belkin made the choice to enlist after watching 9/11 unfold on a TV in high school. Despite averaging three-to-five firefights a day, he still didn’t complain. “We didn’t have shelter for six months. I slept in the snow, rain, everything. But I didn’t care, I remembered why I went to fight,” he said.

Upon returning home, he recalled how many people didn’t realize soldiers were still in Afghanistan. The last U.S. soldiers are in the process of leaving Afghanistan now, marking the near-end of the longest U.S. conflict in history.

During the town hall, multiple speakers mentioned U.S. military spending and the distribution of those funds. In 2020, the U.S. spent nearly $720 billion on the military, according to Statista. “That money’s never making it to us on the frontlines,” said Pemble-Belkin.

An infantry soldier makes around $44,000 per year, according to U.S. Army data.

The next Vermont Vets Town Hall events will be held in Newport on July 18, Rutland on Aug. 8, and Burlington on Sept. 19. More details are online at vtvetstownhall.org.

The Community News Service is part of the Reporting and Documentary Storytelling Program at the University of Vermont.

Image courtesy of Public domain
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