Being an older veteran in remote Southeast Alaska isn’t easy. Access to health care, transportation limitations and the high cost of living are a few of the big reasons why. But in Haines, services – from housing to therapy – are becoming easier to find, in part because of support from the local American Legion post.
Ralph Strong is a 78-year-old Alaska Native veteran from Klukwan, a village outside of Haines.
“I was in the Army, and I served a year in Korea and two years in California,” he said.
Strong is one of 300 veterans in the Haines Borough: Population 2,000.
He moved from Klukwan to Haines to a veteran’s apartment complex after his eyesight went bad. And between the recently-opened Veterans’ Village and his volunteer duties at the local American Legion post, he can’t complain.
“Some of us who are a little bit older, I don’t want to say old veterans, but a little bit older, we would appreciate the younger ones coming out and participating and helping us out,” he said.
Strong’s been a member of the American Legion for 32 years. In Haines, the Legion is the only veterans’ organization in town. It offers events and helps veterans and active military however it can.
He’s also among the 73,000-plus military veterans living in Alaska, which boasts the nation’s highest percentage of former armed services members. Twenty thousand, close to a third, are 65 or older, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
The Haines Borough, north of Juneau, is among the top five municipalities with the largest percentage of vets in the state. And many are in their golden years.
“I think it’s really telling that these folks are survivors,” said Paul Gaines Jr., a behavioral clinician with the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium. “And so what we have is a high number of Vietnam-era veterans who have served who are approaching 70 and sometimes older.”
Gaines has worked with veterans across the country for years.
“How do we care for them? What services, what resources do we have in rural Alaska that can adequately support that population,” he said.
In the past few months, the local post has enlisted Gaines to host informal meetings. He runs what he calls a process group at the local Legion hall. He said veterans can pick a topic to chat about or simply get together and watch a movie. He added that isolation after time in the service can often lead to depression, alcoholism and more.
“They learn to trust one another in the service. You learn to trust someone else with your life and you’re ready to lay your life down on someone else,” he said.
“When they come home, that sense of camaraderie isn’t shared with civilians. They don’t know us, they don’t trust us. They have no reason to. And so they go into survival mode. And because of that, they learn to trust themselves and very few others.”
Local Legion commander John Newton said only about a third of vets living in the area are members of Lynn Canal Post 12.
“We’ve got four members of World War II, several Korean members and then we have quite a few Vietnam members. But after Vietnam, we don’t get too many young people. For some reason, the younger generation doesn’t want to get involved in the military organizations yet,” he said.
The reason, Newton surmised, is because the younger soldiers are trying to forget. Newton, who is 72, is himself a Vietnam veteran of the U.S. Army.
“I was the same way when I got out after being in ‘Nam. You come home, you just don’t want to remember it and you just don’t feel like you’re not welcome anywhere,” he said.
But sometimes simply getting to the myriad of events hosted by the Legion can be challenging. Newton said the taxi service is no longer running and the senior van service only runs during daylight hours. Legion members chip in and help.
But transportation further away to Juneau, where vets can access VA medical care, is whole different ball of wax. With stripped-down ferry service and weather-delayed flights, getting to the state’s capital for doctors’ appointments can be a week-long affair. And the costs associated with that add up quickly. Access to care is a theme that runs throughout Southeast Alaska.
Patterson served for most of the ‘70s overseas as a code-maker and breaker and he said establishments like the Legion offer a safe outlet for vets. Or just a friendly place to have a beer.
“As we know, it only takes one generation to skip something and it’s done, it’s history. And we could be that key generation,” he said.
Through increased outreach efforts, Newton and other Legionnaires are hoping to attract more members. They know they’re out there and they’re getting older.