The Wrong War

In 1956, when he was 21, Tommy enlisted in in the U.S. Air Force, where he trained as a radio operator. Eventually, he rose to the rank of Corporal and was stationed in Japan until honorably discharged in 1959.

I didn’t know Tommy in his youth; we didn’t meet until 1996, and then married two years later in a Las Vegas ceremony officiated by an ecumenical minister. But, I often pictured that affable boy in those long ago days-- trim in his uniform, cap atop his military crew cut, proud to serve his country.

Those images surfaced recently when I dug through my husband’s papers to learn if he would be eligible for a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs benefit called “Aid and Attendance.”

If he passed the test, the V.A. would pay up to $1,644 per month to hire a home health aide. The application for benefits required a copy of Tommy’s separation papers, medical evaluation from physician, and current medical issues. The Air Force papers were in my hand. His 2009 diagnosis of Primary Progress Aphasia, a form of dementia affecting the brain’s language center, was filed in the folder marked “Brain.”

For nearly a year, my daughters -- who live in Los Angeles and Boston -- had been urging me to find someone who could stay overnight with Tommy. They were disappointed that I halted my travels after I believed it was no longer safe to leave my husband home alone. I knew he could handle normal activities, but what if he had to call for help? His aphasia would have rendered him powerless in any emergency calls to 911 or neighbors.

When he was well, I travelled to either coast at least three times a year. Tommy, a stepfather who became bored at my desire to do nothing but stare at my grandchildren, or shadow my daughters, opted to stay put and housesit the dog.

While away, I would call him nightly. “Get your butt home,” he’d tease. Then, I knew all was fine. But, eventually that phrase was absent. Or, if he did manage a few words, they were dangerously frayed.

So, I saw that $1,644 monthly benefit as my salvation. That would be enough money to enlist the services of a home health agency to give me an occasional break, and to be assured Tommy would be safely tucked in his own home if I travelled to fawn over my offspring and theirs.

I studied the amount -- one thousand, six hundred, forty-four. I imagined the check directly deposited into my bank account each month. Envisioned myself handing a set of house keys to a trusted aide who would bid me goodbye with, “don’t worry about a thing. He’ll be fine.”

Then, I looked at this V.A. eligibility caveat, “Any war veteran with 90 days of active duty, 1 day beginning or ending during a period of war.”

Period of war? Quickly I searched for the descriptions. Here’s what I found of recent conflicts:

World War II. December 7, 1941, through December 31, 1946, inclusive. If the veteran was in service on December 31, 1946, continuous service before July 26, 1947, is considered World War II service.

Korean conflict. June 27, 1950, through January 31, 1955, inclusive.

Vietnam era. The period beginning on February 28, 1961, and ending on May 7, 1975, inclusive, in the case of a veteran who served in the Republic of Vietnam during that period. The period beginning on August 5, 1964, and ending on May 7, 1975, inclusive, in all other cases.

Do you see 1956-1959 in that list? Neither do I. My boyish Tommy, trim in his Air Force uniform, earnestly communicating with his static-filled radio, gung-ho in his military exercises, had served in the wrong war. There would be no $1,644 check slipping monthly into my bank account; no packing of suitcases for the coasts.

Okay, so the V.A. won’t come to my rescue. But, no retreat for this caregiving spouse. I’ll gather ammunition, devise a battle plan, and tramp ahead. Surrender isn’t an option.