Forgotten Warrior: Native Vet Waits 41 Years for Medals
Theodore Harvey's a modest man that lives simply. His bed is properly turned out--crisp sheets are stretched tautly across a single frame without a visible wrinkle, though his hands shake with each querulous movement. His magazines, National Geographics for the most part, lie stacked neatly against the windowsill, next to a shadow box celebrating honors won in Vietnam.
Those honors, simple bits of metal and cloth to the outsider, mean more to Harvey than nearly anything else in the room.
Neither young nor old for his years, Harvey looks all of his 78 hard-lived years--nearly a quarter of them spent fighting, training and waiting on foreign soil.
Harvey was 19 when he enlisted in 1954. He fought--valiantly--for 17 years before he was discharged in 1971.
He then waited 41 years and three days to receive decorations he should have received half a lifetime ago.
He would have waited in vain, were it not for a chance encounter.
A social worker at Harvey's care center, Ann McConathy, one day asked Harvey what happened to his medals from the war: "I never got them," Harvey replied.
So McConathy went looking, fighting through piles of convoluted, cryptic paperwork from the Veterans Affairs office.
"And then, I don't know if it was the hand of God or what, but in walked Harold Oakes [commander of American Legion Post 79]," she said.
Oakes, chasing a rumor about another Native American veteran, was intrigued by Harvey's case. He and another member of Post 79, Doug Sabo, service officer, decided to look a little further to find out more--months later, they had their answer.
"It takes about a month to get [a veteran's] full, official record," Sabo said. "When I looked them over, my God, it was impressive. He was an airborne ranger deserving of a Bronze Star, and it said, right on his records, that he was never issued it. He was a jumpmaster, a ranger--he was a warrior."
That was the start. From then, Sabo went on for months, tracking down records and filling out forms, until, finally, confirmation came in that Harvey would receive his overdue honors. With the help of neighboring Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1062, veterans, community members and political figures gathered, toasted, orated and, finally, pinned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart on Harvey's coat.
Harvey missed most of the conversation, his hearing shot from years in the infantry, but the ceremony wasn't just for him.
Around the tables set up in the Mescalero High School Gymnasium, veterans of different wars--Vietnam and Iraq to name the usual suspects--watched, their individual stories and questions writ large in their expressions and movements.
For the young 1Lt. Daniel Hance, recently returned from the sands, the ceremony was a day of honor, glory and well-deserved recognition. Hance's eyes shone and his hands were steady as he pinned on the Bronze Star.
For Jerry Ligon, commander of VVA 1062, there was a hint of sorrow as he fastened the Purple Heart, a match for his own medal, on Harvey's coat.
Theodore Harvey is a Native American veteran that lives quietly in the Mescalero Apache Reservation just outside of Ruidoso, and his story is, unfortunately, far from unique.
Native Americans, percentage-wise, serve in greater frequency in the armed forces than any other ethnicity, according to Department of Defense statistics.
An estimated 12,000 Native Americans stepped up in World War I, with that number rising to about 44,000 soldiers in World War II--roughly 1/8 of the population at the time. About 42,000 willingly marched in to Vietnam, only 10 percent conscripts, according to the Naval History and Heritage website.
There are an estimated 190,000 Native American veterans today, according to the DoD.
Yet recognition for these warriors, as well as other critical benefits, lags behind other veterans, many of whom already are struggling to collect their dues.
According to statements from VA officials, wait times for benefits are nearing one year for most all veterans, up to perhaps two years in major population centers. The numbers of those waiting also have skyrocketed since 2009, up from 11,000 to a high of 245,000 waiting in line by the close of 2012, CNN's Jennifer Rizzo reported.
Yet Native Americans are only half that lucky, according to a 2011 report from the National Center for Biotechnology Information, "Healthcare Disparities for American Indian Veterans in the United States."
"AIAN (American Indian/Alaskan Native) veterans have 1.9 times higher odds of being uninsured compared with non-Hispanic white veterans," the report states. They also are "significantly more likely to delay care due to not getting timely appointments," they are unlikely to get through on the phone and frequently have transportation problems.
Sometimes people help--Sabo almost always has a crusade to occupy his spare time. Whether its wading through VA paperwork or even driving veterans to appointments, he's there for them.
"I have a son who's an ex-Navy Seal, he has PTSD," Sabo said. "I have a stepson who's in the Army now. When my son came back from Afghanistan, he had major problems. There are veterans out there that need help."
Sabo has helped many individuals--from a police officer in the community that couldn't move with pain after retiring from the Coast Guard to a disabled paratrooper left without income, Sabo's been there.
But he's just one man, and the lists of those that slipped through the cracks seems to grow by the day, "because there just isn't anyone else to turn to," he said. "You have to know how to work the system. You have to word things properly so the VA understands. The bureaucracy of the VA is so thick, I swear they want to tell you, 'no you don't deserve it,' just so they don't have to deal with you anymore."
Small gestures throughout the years - this veterans bill, that veterans monument - may make for nice showpieces, but, in most cases, they miss the mark for veterans that only want what they have already earned--life after service.
"A lot of people coming out of Vietnam were spit upon, ridiculed, ignored," Sabo said. "Like many other service members, myself included, Harvey has [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder]. At times he has violent fits, depression--some people turn to alcoholism. He was found a number of years ago, half-dead, lying in a vacant house. He was basically thrown away by society. Part of the reason I did this, I explained to his daughter, to his niece; he was an honorable, respected warrior who served his country. What happened afterwards was because of PTSD. His daughter, who hadn't talked to him in years, cried. She didn't know all of this. Now she came back and honored her father. That's the story behind this--because of PTSD, and some of the real problems, the crap that we go through, families don't know what to do with soldiers coming back."