BRATTLEBORO—Staffers like to say that every day is Veterans Day at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Community-Based Outpatient Clinic (CBOC) in the Exit One Industrial Park.
But when the official Veterans Day comes around, the clinic likes to offer a special tribute to its clients.
So the waiting room in the clinic was transformed into a buffet line, with staffers and local restaurants contributing entrees and desserts for veterans and their family members.
Richard Orlan, the clinic’s medical director, said it was the second year they’ve had the noontime buffet on the Friday before the Nov. 11 holiday, and that both the staff and clients appreciate it.
The clinic has been in operation in Brattleboro for more than four years. It is one of five CBOCs that the VA operates in Vermont, and the primary care services they offer help many veterans avoid traveling to the VA’s White River Junction hospital for routine care.
Art Slate of Wilmington knows the trip well. The Korean War veteran served in the Navy on a destroyer — “the tin can Navy,” as Slate called it.
Slate said he’d been going to White River Junction for various ailments since 1956. “I’ve spent a lot of hours up there,” he said. “I’m glad this clinic is here.”
Robert Boudreau of Guilford also served on a destroyer. He joined the Navy at 17, in the waning days of World War II, and served with the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean Sea. It was there in 1946 that he had a harrowing experience that he said haunts him to this day.
His ship, the USS Robert L. Wilson, was en route to Greece when it was caught in a ferocious storm. Somehow, the “powder cans,” the metal containers holding the explosives that propelled the shells shot from the five-inch guns on a destroyer, had come loose from their storage racks and were rattling around in the ship’s magazine.
A stray spark could have ignited the explosive powder and blown the ship apart.
Boudreau volunteered to secure the explosives. Stuck in a confined space, with dozens of powder cans filled with high-explosives rolling around as the ship tossed in the storm, he managed to corral and secure them.
The young seaman was commended by his superiors and promised a medal for heroism. But Boudreau was discharged from the Navy before he received any decorations, and he was left with the memory of a harrowing moment at sea where a wrong move would have meant certain death for him and his shipmates.
Now 86, Boudreau says he struggled with that experience for years and that he comes to the clinic to talk to a therapist about it. Like Slate, he’s been receiving care from the VA for decades.
Boudreau told his story to Alex Craven, an aide to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Craven came to the clinic to deliver a message to the staff from Sanders and to conduct constituent outreach. Craven promised Boudreau that he would have Sanders work to get him the medals he deserves.
Russell Willette Sr. of Hinsdale, N.H., served in the Army with the 101st Airborne Division during the Vietnam War era, and did one tour in Vietnam in 1970. He’s a relative newcomer to the VA system, having enrolled after he retired from his job.
“Even with Medicare, there was no way I could afford health insurance if I retired,” he said. “The VA insurance enabled me to retire and still get coverage.”
It also may have saved his life. Willette said he was recently experiencing leg pains, and the VA doctors discovered a massive blood clot that ran the length of his leg.
“I spent a week at White River,” he said. “If they didn’t spot that clot, who knows what would’ve happened?”
Keeping the promise
The message that Craven brought from Sanders to the clinic and its clients was simple:
“I want to thank you for your service to our country and let you know that I will continue my efforts to make sure that we keep faith with the promise that was made to you: that you receive the benefits that you earned and most importantly, that you deserve,” Sanders wrote.
Sanders, as chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, was instrumental in securing the money to open the Brattleboro CBOC and the other Vermont clinics.
With Republicans gaining a majority of seats in the U.S. Senate in the Nov. 4 election, the party will control the chamber when a new session of Congress convenes in January. Sanders will lose his chairmanship.
Craven said that even though Sanders will no longer be in charge of the committee, he will continue to advocate for Vermont’s veterans.