So here are the characters: a guy named Frenchy and a guy named Sneaky. Does this sound like a 1940’s film noir opening? Let me introduce you to two unforgettable characters, both Vietnam vets.
Although we didn’t meet in person until December of 2014, I’ve known Frenchy since the late ‘70’s when I was working with California’s Veterans in Prison program. Finally, face to face, it was like we had known each other since Vietnam. Almost over forty years we’ve been talking together about one of our fellow vets, dealing with attorneys, etc.
Frenchy was a helicopter crew chief in ‘Nam, injured critically several times but that hasn’t stopped him. Although he’s rated 100 percent disabled by the VA, he’s worked for veterans’ all these long years since he came home. These days he’s part of a group called The Independence Fund, a non-profit that promotes the unified effort “of governmental, private and corporate entities all working together towards a common purpose” of the complete physical and emotional healing of veterans.
Funds they raise are donated to veterans’ health care, however extensive those needs are. Surgeries, prosthetics, equipment…all provided by the Fund at no cost to the veteran. Like the VA should be, but faster and more direct.
And Sneaky? Sneaky is a donor to the cause. Over the past five years he’s raised over $100,000 for veterans. And here’s the thing: he’s done it from prison. Really. From the inside. Makes you wonder what he might have accomplished if the legal system had recognized PTSD years ago.
I met Sneaky in the mid-’70s when I was working with vets in the California prison system. Sneaky, a combat Vietnam vet, was in California’s VIP (Veterans in Prison) program and later became leader of the VIP program in CA. Every time he was transferred in the prison system, he set up another VIP unit. Social worker, priest, police/probation officer, Sneaky was all those things to his fellow vets. Frenchy had been working to have his friend Sneaky released. When I came on the scene, Sneaky introduced us. We started working together on Sneaky’s behalf right away, talking with pro bono attorneys in the 70’s and through the ’80s. And now we’re in another phase of this long journey and it looks like we’re getting close.
For over 40 years the three of us have been friends. Frenchy and I have tried to have Sneaky released based on his service to vets and his community, especially his activism for veterans causes. You might remember that early on, I was involved in court cases defending Vietnam vets who suffered from what we now call PTSD. Sneaky might well have qualified if we’d known about him then, or had The Attorney’s Guide to Defending Veterans in Criminal Court.
The National Veterans Foundation sponsored the first guide, published in 1989. The new updated guide, published by the Veterans Defense Project in 2014, also had backing from the NVF.
From such crazy beginnings, a friendship between helicopter crew chiefs (both later became pilots—Frenchy, civilian and Sneaky, Army), and a conversation between a medic and an inmate, come great outcomes. Frenchy and Sneaky both have devoted their lives to serving the men and women who served this nation. It’s a kind of testament to the comradeship that is forged in combat situations. Unbelievable, that a lifetime of dedication can be built on a few weeks of contact, but the evidence is here.
We three still carry the nicknames given to us in combat. My last name was shortened to “Shad.” Frenchy is Norm La Fountaine, USMC. Sneaky, possibly named for his stealth in combat, is James White, USMC. And we’re still carrying the bond to our brothers and sisters who serve.
If you know a vet that needs help, please contact the NVF at 777.888.4443. I’ll sign off the way I did in ‘Nam…Pax Mentis.
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The worst part of war should not be coming home.