Sunday, December 20, 2015

Vietnam veterans in Cambodia

Vietnam veterans make good life for themselves in Cambodia

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The scent of burning marijuana mixes with the pungent odors from food push carts and garbage piles.
Scantily clad women lure tourists to bars that offer ice-cold beer to stave off the steamy heat.
Cambodia has come a long way since the brutal Khmer Rouge massacred more than 1 million people in the infamous “killing fields” in the 1970s. Yet it also remains a nation rooted in the past, a land of friendly locals and immense cultural beauty with darkness and debauchery lurking beneath the surface.
Phnom Penh, its capital, is a place where the business of survival never sleeps — panhandlers carrying babies meander in a seemingly endless parade, motorized rickshaw drivers offer cheap rides at all hours, fast-talking children peddle homemade wares, and nearly every price is dirt cheap — and negotiable.
In many ways, it’s frozen in time, reminiscent of Saigon at the height of the Vietnam War.
For a handful of American Vietnam veterans who left a little piece of themselves behind during the ferocious jungle war and say they were vilified when they went back to the states, Phnom Penh has become home.
“The war was the worst thing that ever happened to me,” Andy Richards, 65, said as he sat in a bar booth, swirling wine in a glass. “I’ve had three open-heart surgeries.”
Richards, a bar manager with a handlebar mustache and sunbaked skin, generally attributes his heart problems to the war. He is warm, friendly and easygoing.
“I like Cambodia,” said Richards, who arrived in 2002. “I like the lack of rules. There’s more personal freedoms here than anywhere else. It’s inexpensive. The people are very nice.”
The Madison, Wis., native joined the Army in 1968 at 18 because he expected to be drafted. He spent a short time in the storied 82nd Airborne Division but disliked it because it was “too spit-shined.” He transferred to the 101st Airborne and headed for Vietnam’s jungles.
Richards went from a paratrooper to a bandana-wearing grunt, like something out of the 1986 film “Platoon.” He and his fellow soldiers spent time in the most northern part of South Vietnam, the region with the highest concentration of North Vietnamese Army forces. They operated near Khe Sanh, in the highlands, and made forays into the demilitarized zone.
Richards left the Army and Vietnam behind in April 1971 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin. He worked at small local newspapers but battled the bottle and his anger for years.
“They considered us whiners,” Richards said of his return stateside. “We were a pariah.”
In 1999, at the prodding of a friend, he went back to Vietnam to “release the ghosts.”
“I was scared,” Richards said. “I was apprehensive. But after my first day in Saigon, I was talking with ex-NVA, telling war stories. I got that monkey off my back. It was the best thing for me.”
In southern Vietnam, Richards got the thanks he never received at home. They were kind to him; they shook his hand and thanked him for trying to help them. He then traveled to Thailand and Laos.
After briefly returning to the U.S., Richards went back to Southeast Asia for good in November 1999, living first in Thailand, then Vietnam and Cambodia, where he decided to put down roots. After years of searching, he had found a home.
John Muller, 66, from Seattle, told a similar tale. He joined the Army in 1969 and spent the next year in Vietnam.
“I wish I’d never gone,” he said. “It was a real waste of lives and a huge expense.”
After the war, he returned to the States and, like Richards, went to school, earning a political science degree. He, too, felt that he and his fellow veterans were treated like criminals, and, after several jobs, he decided to leave for good as well.
Muller had visited Southeast Asia several times beginning in 1976 and returned there to live 10 years later.
“I wanted to come back and do something good,” he said. “That’s my whole motive for why I’m out here.”
Muller, who runs a private security company, said his legacy has been working with the Cambodian government to regulate the industry, taking guns off the streets and providing jobs to ex-troops.
“It’s easy to work here,” Muller said. “There is a lot of opportunity. It’s easy for me to get around and do business.”
For legendary and eccentric photographer Al Rockoff — portrayed by John Malkovich in the Academy Award-winning film “The Killing Fields,” which he derides — his continued work in Cambodia is the next chapter in a love affair that began when he was an Army combat photographer in Vietnam.
Rockoff was known to go to extreme lengths to get his iconic images that today adorn the walls of the U.S. Embassy and the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Phnom Penh. He said he once died on the table after a piece of shrapnel pierced his heart while taking pictures at the front as the Khmer Rouge advanced through the countryside. A Swedish surgeon saved him.
He splits his time between Florida and his adopted country, and can still be seen riding around Phnom Penh on the back of a moped, camera in hand, snapping pictures of the colorful people he encounters.
“This country has opportunity like Thailand did 20 to 30 years after World War II,” he said. “It has a good nightlife … The police deal with people all right. I’m getting back to where I left off in the Army. I want to show people what’s going on.”
Richards, Muller and Rockoff belong to a small club. While Thailand has many Air Force and Army veterans living there, and Vietnam has a growing number, Cambodia still has few.
Richards said Phnom Penh draws him partially because it is a big city with a small-city feel, and has become almost “cosmopolitan” in recent years. Rockoff likened its charm to Monaco.
Yet, despite all the growth and development, which was inevitable as Cambodia came out of the dark Khmer Rouge period in the early ‘90s, the men say their adopted country will never lose its luster.
“I will stay here,” Richards said. “I wouldn’t live anywhere else. This is the end of the road, dude.”

Wednesday, December 9, 2015


Sudden drop-off in VA hepatitis C treatments alarms veterans community

The Veteran Service Organization (VSO) community has been pleased and even relieved to see several new drugs come onto the market over the past two years that can now cure most veterans who were unknowingly infected with hepatitis C virus (HCV) during the course of their military service. Congress responded quickly and generously to the Department of Veterans Affairs’) (VA) requests for emergency supplemental appropriations to allow the department to offer these new life-saving and long-term cost-saving treatments to veterans infected with HCV. 
In fact, the Senate Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs (MilConVA) provided $200 million above and beyond the VA’s initial request for FY2015 supplemental funding for veterans’ HCV treatments, and we remain highly optimistic that the final VA appropriation, whether as a stand-alone bill or as part of an omnibus, will now reflect an even greater level of investment in treating and curing veterans with HCV in light of the recent budget deal. 
Throughout the course of 2015, the veteran community has been pleased to see VA patient data reflect an increasingly aggressive approach to treating HCV within the veteran population. In fact, as we neared the end of the fiscal year in September, the VA was treating up to 1,700 new veterans each week for HCV infection. 
However, as encouraged as we were by this trend, we are equally dismayed and alarmed now by the trend we saw reflected in VA treatment data immediately following the start of the new fiscal year. 
Despite the fact that Congress appropriates VA’s medical services account a full year in advance precisely to avoid a slowdown in VA services and treatment should there be any fiscal uncertainty with the rest of the government at the start of a new fiscal year, VA’s treatment of veterans with HCV dropped astoundingly to less than 400 for the first week of October, and has remained alarmingly low since then. 
Congress has provided and continues to provide every dollar that VA has asked for to offer veterans infected with HCV with the latest breakthrough medical treatments and to generously and fully fund all medical services provided by the VA. Furthermore, until the new MilConVA appropriations bill with supplemental HCV funding for FY16 is passed into law, VA knows that it can borrow from within its medical services account to continue its previously aggressive pattern of treatment of veterans with HCV infections. 
There is, therefore, no fiscal, logical, administrative, or other reason for VA medical providers to be halting or slowing treatment of veterans with HCV following the start of the new fiscal year. The VA should be continuing to treat as many veterans as it is able to with the money that it has currently available in line with established clinical guidelines. 
Good stewardship of the money that Congress appropriates to the VA is of paramount concern to the VSO community and to the veteran community writ large, and we intend to closely monitor this trend over the next few weeks and months in order to observe and publicize, if necessary, whether the Veterans Health Administration returns to acting good faith in aggressively treating cases of HCV. 
In the meantime, the VA should review its own prescription and treatment data for HCV patients and be proactive in ensuring that as many veterans as possible with HCV continue to receive the care and treatment that Congress intended for VA to expeditiously provide. 
Zumatto, a U.S. Army veteran, is the national legislative director of American Veterans (AmVets)