Forgotten Heroes —
It all started with a glass of champagne — sparkling white wine for those who will argue that champagne can only be produced in that region of France. The Domaine Chandon vineyard in Napa Valley, California, is known for its "champagnes" and as my wife and I live less than an hour away, we sometimes make our way up there. On a relaxing Sunday afternoon, glass of champagne in hand, sun beating down, I suddenly noticed some buildings on the other side of the vineyard perimeter. Curious, as ever, the wine tasting was cut short and I drove out to explore. I soon realized that The Veterans Home of California-Yountville Hospital was adjacent to the vineyard. I had passed the sign for it many times but had never really absorbed its presence. Now I was suddenly eager to find out more.
I was immediately struck by an appreciation that all these veterans were from World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Current news was focusing on veterans from the conflict in Iraq, wounded soldiers coming home to rehabilitate and, in many cases, learn how to adapt to artificial limbs. It seemed too easy for our veterans to quickly become forgotten – they serve their time in the military with honor, dignity and, often, heroism, but after the news has moved on, the medals have been handed out, and the parades have been swept up, what happens to them? That is what I wanted to find out.
As I wasn't a former U.S. military serviceman, I had to be escorted everywhere I went. At first I thought that this would be a challenge but the PIO (Public Information Officer) could not have been more helpful. Jodi opened doors for me that I didn't even realize were there. She explained the extent of care that goes on at the hospital and helped me understand the potential scope of a story. I also quickly realized that one visit to the Home was going to be far from sufficient so I turned my first visit into more of a reconnaissance and arranged for a day to return.
Another veteran in a hospital room could not talk very much but held up a picture of himself as a U.S. Navy pilot. In the bed next to him was another Navy pilot who allegedly shot down 28 enemy aircraft and now had to deal with the aftereffects of a stroke, paralysis down the left side of his body.
At an annual event that I was invited to attend, veterans from throughout the Bay Area are eligible to get together in a large outdoor area, to be given clothes, shoes, medical treatment, social services, a haircut, hot food, entertainment and camaraderie. These veterans do not need to be residents at a vet's hospital and many will leave this gathering to return to living on the streets.
It is sad to observe the cycle of veterans coming in to the hospital and leaving it. Whereas a veteran can leave at anytime, many only leave when they pass away. Some veterans came to the home out of choice; others were brought by family that has since forgotten them. Many live out their days recalling their military service, a time that they were living in a style that they identify with respect and honor and a time when they were the heroes on the front pages of newspapers and magazines. To be given the opportunity and the access to photograph these forgotten heroes is a rare privilege.
[More of Mike Fox's work on this project, as well as some other stories, can be seen on his Web site (including a slideshow of some of the veterans' pictures set to music) and at www.photojournale.com. Write to him at mikefoxphotojournalist.com.]
© Mike Fox
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