A Sad State of Affairs

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It was a warm, quiet Saturday like any other in Gonzales. At the St. James Catholic Cemetery, humidity hung in the air and a short-lived breeze hinted at an approaching storm. Cicadas sang in the trees. Johnny Camarillo pulled his weed eater from the bed of his F-150 and jerked the pull-chord bringing life to the machine.

The two-stroke engine wheezed and blades of grass were thrown in every direction. Johnny cut the power and stood back to assess his work. Fresh, plastic flowers and a trimmed bed of grass now adorned the headstones of his mother, father and older brother. A rain drop fell.  

Johnny rubbed his shoulder, grabbed a bottled water and wiped his brow. 

El Tejano de Gonzales

Johnny, 68, born Juan Rodriguez Camarillo, is the only remaining Camarillo in his immediate family. His father, Nicasio, and oldest brother, Brigido “Brick” Camarillo, died in the ’80s. His mother, Apallonia Camarillo, died in 1992 and his older brother, Eusebio “Cheve” Camarillo, died in 2010. 

“English wasn’t my first language,” Johnny said. “We spoke Spanish at the house.”

A muffled groan escaped him as he explained his school years: old and bitter white teachers, and poor grades. His English is perfect.

On the weekends, Johnny joined his brothers two towns over in Yoakum. That is where he met Beatrice “Bea” Sanchez. They began dating in 1967.

Johnny and Bea make the two-hour drive from Houston to Gonzales frequently to tidy up relatives’ plots in the cemetery. Johnny weeds and edges while Bea places new flower arrangements near the headstones. Afterward, they usually pay a visit to Bea’s mother, Estella, in Yoakum.

Ahead of the draft

In 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, Johnny graduated high school and enlisted in the Marine Corps. 

“I knew I was going to be drafted,” Johnny said. “So I volunteered.” 

Johnny found himself in Laos before the end of the year. A flying piece of shrapnel grazed his head, earning him a Purple Heart, but he recovered and stayed. Johnny, while stationed in Okinawa, came down with Malaria.

“I got out in 1969,” Johnny said. “Nixon pulled me out.”

He returned stateside to Corpus Christi. In January of 1970, despite his Purple Heart, Johnny was discharged — but not as a disabled veteran. A disabled veteran is any person who has served in active duty in the armed forces with a service-connected disability or injury. 

Johnny moved back to Gonzales. In May, he married Bea. His daughter, Paula, arrived in October.

The dogs of war

In a dimly-lit living room in Houston, Bea and Johnny sat on adjacent couches. 

“It wasn’t noticeable at first.” Bea said. “Then after we got married it was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

They both chuckled lightly. 

“Well back then it wasn’t known as PTSD,” Johnny said. “They called it shell shock, but nobody knew what it really was.”

Johnny did not get diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder until 2005 — 36 years after he left Vietnam. 

“I went to the VA only once after I got back,” Johnny said. “I broke my collar bone and went in to get it checked.”

Johnny scoffed as he remembered the visit. The doctor prodded him and asked simple questions. At the end of the exam, the doctor accused Johnny of trying to get out of going to war. Johnny’s response is a wonderful insight to his character and no-bullshit attitude.

He shouted, “Fuck you! I just went to Vietnam!”

Turning the page

“You come home and people are calling you a murderer and a baby killer,” Johnny said. “It was different. It wasn’t easy.”

Three months after Paula was born, the Camarillos packed up and moved to Bellaire — then a budding suburb of Houston. Johnny worked a few odd jobs until October 28, 1972, when he began working as a letter carrier for the United States Postal Service. He worked there for 40 years.

Bea and Johnny’s second son, Juan “John” Rodriguez Camarillo, Jr., was born in 1976. Bea suffered a miscarriage in the early ’80s and in 1984, Alfredo “Fred” Camarillo was born.

The small, yellow, two-bedroom house stood on the corner of Vivian and Baldwin. Cinderblocks held it up to prevent flooding. Two giant oaks loomed at the front corners. Rose bushes lined the facade, and green shrubbery followed the length of the house to the garage. For the family of five, it proved more than enough for nearly two decades. It hosted many parties and even served as a home for cousins, nieces, nephews, brothers and sisters.

Life was normal.

The diagnosis

In 2005, Johnny arrived home after a long day of work and sat down at the dining room table. 

“I felt jittery,” Johnny said. “Almost dizzy.”

Paula arrived to pick up her children and Johnny expressed his concern. Paula, a diabetic, checked his sugar levels. They were well over what they should have been. Johnny scheduled his second visit to the VA.

“Oh,” Bea scoffed. “Don’t get me started!”

Bea recalled her many visits to the VA by Johnny’s side. When he was diagnosed with diabetes and again with PTSD. 

“I think of the veterans who went to war and did their duty,” Bea said. “You see so much disrespect from the nurses and front desk people. It really is so sad.”

Four years late

Johnny began seeing a counselor for PTSD. Other exams proved other injuries stemming from his time in Vietnam, including a bad shoulder that was made worse from almost 40 years of letter carrying. 

Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc., an organization chartered by the United States Congress, released finding in 2015 on a study of Vietnam veterans and PTSD.

Between 2012 and 2013, based on DSM-5 criteria, VVA estimated that almost 300,000 Vietnam veterans still suffered from warzone PTSD — over 40 years after their time overseas.

Johnny made frequent visits to the VA between 2005 and 2012. His disability only increased little by little until it reached 90 percent.

In mid 2016, Johnny requested a hearing to increase his disability to 100 percent. An officer at the VA called in September, to inform Johnny that he received 100 percent disability in November of 2012. The form had been sitting on a desk awaiting its final signature for four years.

A needed overhaul

The Department of Veterans Affairs has been under fire before, but nothing compared to the 2014 oversight report, Friendly Fire: Death, Delay, and Dismay at the V.A., by Sen. Tom Coburn, M.D. 

The 119-page report holds no blows back when it comes to scrutinizing the VA. One headline in bold even reads, “Veterans died because of long waiting lists and insufficient, inappropriate care.”

VA doctors have been accused of sexual assault, selling narcotics to veterans trying to recover from substance abuse and falsely reporting wait times. Employees have even been accused of charging the department for excessive travel and work expenses.

President-Elect Donald Trump made taking better care of veterans one of his strongpoints during his campaign. Former Alaska governor and 2008 vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin expressed interest in the position of Secretary of Veterans Affairs — and may even get the job.

After the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — and with a Syrian threat looming on the horizon — why has it taken this long to work toward a better system? Will Trump overhaul the current administration and bring better care and treatment to the nearly four million disabled veterans? Will Palin play a part?