Virgilio and Gooding, ex-Marines, trudge up the dark, cold sidewalks of Anacostia, hunting for survivors.
First stop for the two Vietnam combat veterans on the snowy winter night: the Safeway parking lot. They approach a small crowd of men in green Army fatigue jackets, huddled against a wall.
"Any of you been to 'Nam?" asks Don Gooding, 33, a Veterans Administration readjustment counselor. "We're from the Vets Center across the river, and we want to know how you been treated since you got out . . ."
"How we been TREATED, man!" snaps a veteran who pulls the green Army jacket tight to ward off the chill. "I've still got nightmares," he says, whiskey breath surging fast and frosty in the shadows.
Gooding, who caught two slugs from an AK-47 in Vietnam -- one in the shoulder, one in the hand -- offers a card. "Drop by the center," he says.
The center is a screened-in storefront [WORD ILLEGIBLE] H St. SE. one of two VA counseling centers just opened in the the city. They are among 87 nationwide that are part of "Operation Outreach," the government's non-traditional $9.9 million last-ditch attempt to resurrect disheartened and disaffected Vietnam veterans seven years after the war.
Virgilio and Gooding -- among 300 counselors hired to staff the centers, many of them Vietnam combet veterans fluent in the ways of war -- deliver a low-key litany. Their mission: rescue a share of the 700,000 Vietnam veterans that the VA estimates have given up on the system and on themselves. v
While most of the 9 million Vietnam-era veterans have reentered the mainstream without a hitch, the VA claims, there are the others who are nowhere to be found amidst the reams of government statistics on the casualties of war.
No one knows who they are or where they are or precisely how to measure their pain. All the VA knows is this: they are out there, somewhere; they do not trust the government after past run-ins, and they still hurt far more than they admit.
"No one knows this group very well," says Don Crawford, director of the outreach program and a Vietnam veteran himself. "But our best estimate is that there are 400,000-700,000 Vietnam veterans -- primarily combat veterans -- who have not made any kind of adequate readjustment. They're still troubled by their combat experience. It's affecting their marraiges, their relationship with their children, their ability to hold jobs . . . But they're not schizophrenic or paranoid or flipped out -- they're not crazy -- they're just troubled people who need some support in dealing with their problems. The group we're looking at don't have very self-satisfying lifestyles."
Indeed, many are still fighting the bottle or getting high, hopscotching from marriage to marriage and job to job, living off welfare and each other, having long ago given up getting what they feel is due them. They have retreated, like termites in winter, deep into the urban woodwork.
"Our job is to dig them out," says Ken Virgilio, 28, a GS-9 outreach specialist, PhD candidate at the University of Maryland in rehabilitative counseling and a former Marine sergeant. "Everywhere you look out here, you see the consequences of the war on the street."
In Washington, the rescue missions are launched from inside an old brick building on H Street across from La Bonita's Beauty Shop, a shabby, run down neighborhood where store windows remain boarded up against bad 12-year-old memories of the riots and the war. The center accommodates amputees in wheelchairs with a special ramp designed to make disabled vets feel at home.
The decor is government surplus chic: linoleum floors, gray metal desks, whitewashed walls, an everboiling pot of coffee. There are no posters, touting the VA, or the program, nothing at all, in fact, that identified the storefront representing Uncle Sam.
Branding the center as just another VA effort to reach the Vietnam veteran, say officials, would instantly turn off veterans who already are turned off. "We don't want to reflect the system," says Virgilio, 'because the system has victimized the vet. We have a functional allegiance to the VA, but we owe our real loyalties to the vet and to ourselves."
Courting danger and disgust on some of the meanest streets in town, Gooding and Virgilio move out. Across the Anacostia River, on this bitter night, they deliver the message -- in liquor stores, on sidewalks, in bars -- that fellow veterans want to help others obtain psychological counseling, discharge upgrading, educational benefits, jobs.
Within three blocks, they find eight Vietnam veterans -- in alleys, in McDonald's, in Clancy's, a bottomless go-go joint up the road, drinking beer and hustling pool.
John McCoy, 45, owner of J & J Market on Good Hope Road, offers to help put out the word. Over the years, he says, he's come to know the dilemma of the poor, black Vietnam veteran. In the late 1960s, thousands were drafted off the streets of Washington, many of them high school dropouts who viewed the army as an opportunity to finish their education later on the GI bill.
Many gave up their dreams after the war and returned to the streets, where they had grown up.
"They talk about it, even now," says McCoy, leaning on the counter. "They come in here and claim they got hooked on drugs over there. I've heard that story so much, I believe there's something to it."
Where do the guys hang out? Gooding asks.
"You want to contact 50 Vietnam vets a night, you just stand right here at the counter," says McCoy. "At first, when they tried to explain why they couldn't get a job, my first reaction was, 'Lazy bum.' Then I might give the guy a few dollars and he's work like hell in the store. When he leaves, there'd always be another to replace him. And he'd have the same story: 'people won't hire me because I'm a Vietnam veteran.' They think that makes him automatically a junkie or a baby killer. Which isn't true.
"What can I do to help? You want me to put up a sign? I'll put up a sign."
Many Vietnam veterans -- by the hundreds of thousands, claims Cleveland psychologist John Wilson who has studied the phenomenon -- are suffering from readjustment dilemmas.
Among many Vietnam veterans these neuroses -- known as "Delayed Stress" or "Survivor Syndrome" -- typically are found in combat veterans who return home, elated at surviving, yet feeling guilty over close friends who died perhaps feet away.
They are welcomed home by hostile or indifferent communities; citizens bristling at the veteran as a reminder of an unpopular war; veterans of other wars shunning them as the only American soldiers who ever lost.
They experience nightmares and cold sweats, which diminish over time, turning into edginess and irritability. The veteran submerges the war, rarely discussing it, trying to forget, taking care of business. Then, like a time bomb, the experience finally explodes, leaving him bewildered, and resulting in divorce, alcolholism, drugs, loss of job and self-esteem.
"The ones who have never dealt with the trauma, the personal horrors of Vietnam, are for one reason or another, speeding through life, running and not knowing why," says Vietnam veteran Shad Meshad, who, as an army social work officer in Vietnam and regional coordinator for Los Angeles' Operation Outreach, has personally interviewed perhaps 10,000 Vietnam veterans. "The guys are dying on the streeets. Their engines are blown; their tires are flat and they want to know if there's any way they can check out [commit suicide] with pride.
"The ones I run into are angry and bitter and resentful, and behind their eyes is a lot of blood and guilt and murder at what they had to do. And they are angry no one has helped them deal with it."
"The challenge is not only to try to reach these guys, but to bring some of the proper suspicions they have into the process of government and politics and in shaping the values and direction of society over the next decade," says Bobby Muller, a decorated, disabled Marine who heads Vietnam Veterans of America, a lobbying group that aims to mobilize the disgruntled vet on the street. "You can't realistically look to bring back the draft in any shape or form without readdressing the recognized failure of the draft throughout the Vietnam war -- or the way the Vietnam veterans were treated afterwards.
"you have to rehabilitate a sense of trust and confidence among citizens that the government will not abuse them, as is so widely perceived among Vietnam veterans."
The government claims Operation Outreach is just such an attempt.
Outside McDonald's, a tall, thin man with shaky hands pushes through the door. He wears a black turtleneck and a dark raincoat, and has abdicated a hallowed spot amidst a huddle of men tugging at a bottle of cheap wine across the street.
"I heard someone say 'Vietnam," so I came on over," says Amon Emanuel Myers, an ex-Marine on 100 percent disability. He touches his head, "All I'm left with is what's up here, and there's not a whole lot . . . I'm unemployable . . . Nerves. I've done a whole lot of things and God is my judge."
He was beaten unconscious and thrown in the brig, he says. He doesn't remember what, if anything, he did to provoke an attack by the MPs, only that he "woke up in the back of a truck, handcuffed."
He rambles, chain-smoking Winstons. His eyes are vacant, brown pools, dark and distant as he remembers the brig. "So I say, 'Hey man, why am I in here?' And someone slides a tray of food under the door, and tells me to take a shower . . . I want to know why, I always did my job . . . I came from 'Nam and got a meritorious promotion at Quantico. You can look it up . . ."
"Coffee?" asks Gooding.
"Naw, man I just want some peace, some love, some understanding," says Myers, who passes his days alone in the woods with his dogs and his guns, his nights on the corner. He slides into a dreamy smile and eases into a booth beneath a poster of Martin Luther King Jr. "I get $900 a month disability, man. I been in and out of hospitals. I just want my freedom. I don't want some present [from the government], I want some breaks. And I don't want to be sweeping no floors.
"What am I supposed to do?"
"We'll work on it," promises Gooding proffering a card and inviting the vet to bring his records to the center. "I was wounded twice up in the DMZ. We can identify . . ."
"I was medevacked twice," says Virgilio.
"I don't trust you," says Myers. "There's a whole lot of paranoia floating around. I know what the system can do to you."
"In your own time and space," says Virgilio.
"Hey, man," says Myers, "just take a little time, it'll be all right."
The word goes out: two dudes asking about 'Nam. Others approach the booth.
"I got a bad discharge," volunteers Robert Humphries, 31, a divorced roofer with five children. "I was stationed at Fort Belvoir, but I kept coming home to see my family. Stayed in the stockade six months. I'd like to get it cleared up so I can get a job in the government. Can't do much roofing with the snow . . ."
"You work with us; we'll work with you," says Virgilio.
Don Crawford's greatest fear is that teams like Gooding and Virgilio will be so successful at spreading the word and raising expectations that "we will overload these teams, build up a backlog and not be responsive."
VA critics like Bobby Muller, a 35-year-old lawyer, say the $9.9-million program is not only too little and too late, but so little, so late that it is predestined to short-circuit before it even plugs in.
The jury is still out.
Tardiness aside, VA Administrator Mac Cleland, a decorated Army captain from Georgia who returned from Vietnam minus both legs and a right arm, calls the program "the most significant step forward for Vietnam vets since the 1974 upgrading of the GI Bill."
Already, he says, the outreach team in Birmingham, Ala. has responded to five suicide attempts by Vietnam veterans. They saved four. Aside from funneling veterans to other organizations designed to deal with specific plights, he says, the concept could well evolve into "crisis intervention" centers, a "role we did not foresee."
For years, legislation to provide readjustment services to Vietnam veterans bounced around Congress. It was the wrong issue at the wrong time. "It proved," says Dean Phillips, special assistant to Cleland and a former paratrooper with the 101st Airborne in Vietnam, "how a country can train you for war, but do a lousy job training you for peace -- especially psychologically. Most of us who have so-called 'readjusted' have only done so because we had families, friends and other veterans to help."
"I can't believe I'm working for the government," says Don Saunders, 38, out of the H Street storefront. "The war educated me to hate the system."
As an ambitious, rising 26-year-old manager of a Kentucky Fried Chicken carry-out in Lou isvelle, he was drafted into the Marines in 1967. He spent six months pinned down in the mountains around Quang Tri, taking incoming fire. Just before Chirstmas 1968, he was hit by a rocket. He rubbed mud on his wounds. He was medevacked and had surgery for a ruptured disc. They sent him back to the front. He lost his girlfriend when he came home. His feet still hurt from a fungus he's been unable to shake, after 12 years. He fears he was exposed to the controversial defoliant, Agent Orange. He's still trying to get his life together, he says, just like the other veterans he counsels.
I'm not going to be used to lie to the veteran," says an angry Saunders. "This program had better work -- or else." CAPTION:
Picture, Ken Virgilio, left, encounters another veteran, Samuel Hogan, on 14th Street NW. By Fred Sweets -- The Washington Post