Landover resident starts support group for area veterans

By Natalie McGill
The Gazette
Thursday, March 3, 2011

In the 1960s, so many of Jerry Staggs' neighbors went to war in Vietnam that he said the conflict just about cleaned out the young male population of Fairmount Heights in those days. And the soldiers who returned often did not come home with a clean bill of health, said Staggs, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1970.

To aid other area veterans who might be suffering the ill effects of combat, Staggs, 63, of Landover launched the Fairmont Heights Veterans Association in October 2009. The group is designed to act as a resource and support group for local veterans, Staggs said.

Staggs, a 1966 graduate of Fairmont Heights High School, said about 95 percent of the group's 28 members are Fairmont Heights graduates, adding that it began with four members and spread through word of mouth. The group holds it meetings mostly to share information on how veterans can receive health benefits through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

"I just had a dream," said Staggs, who suffers from hypertension as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder. "I just said, we have to do something for the other veterans."

The group meets at 2 p.m. monthly on the last Saturday at the Glenarden American Legion Post #275, 8201 Martin Luther King Jr. Highway. Staggs said the group uses the phrase "pass it on," meaning to share any information that might help as many veterans as possible.

Silver Spring resident Michael Black, 65, a 1963 Fairmont Heights graduate, said the group has one member who fought in the ongoing war in Iraq but that most are in their 50s, 60s and 70s and served in conflicts such as the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Staggs said the group is not limited to Fairmont Heights graduates; anyone who knows a friend who has served is encouraged to bring him or her to a meeting.

"We're not a diagnostic group, but we want to help people that have got the same circumstances," Black said. "We're trying to be a pathway for people to get the help they need."

Michael Marshall, a 1963 Fairmont Heights graduate and U.S. Air Force veteran who did not see combat, said the group tries to reach out to veterans who might be keeping to themselves.

For example, on Veterans Day, members drove to the homes of men they knew had served in the military to encourage them to ride with them to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in the District.

"Some are in[to] alcohol, drugs, various things," Marshall said. "It goes the whole nine yards. We try to maintain the person's privacy in these things and work with them the best we can and get them to the best locations they can get treatment."

Black said the group is in the process of applying for nonprofit status. In the future, he hopes to have information on burial arrangements and to have a van to pick up veterans who need transportation.

Staggs said he also hopes to educate residents about the effects of Agent Orange, to which he was exposed.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Web site states that the herbicide Agent Orange was sprayed to kill vegetation and help the U.S. military better locate enemy forces from 1961 to 1971. Those who were exposed to the chemical are susceptible to illnesses such as prostate cancer, Hodgkin's disease and chronic B-cell leukemia, a blood cancer that attacks white blood cells, the Web site says. Other effects include respiratory problems, liver disorders and numbness in the toes and fingers, Staggs said. Staggs said his hypertension also is connected to his exposure to Agent Orange.

Veterans and their spouses can receive a free Agent Orange registry health exam and might be eligible for a referral to the War Related Illness and Injury Study Center in the District, which provides expertise on illnesses that are difficult to diagnose, the Web site says.

For information about how to join the Fairmont Heights Veterans Association, contact Staggs at 301-773-8938.

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