By Matthew C. Durkee
Special to the Triplicate
SMITH RIVER Frank Richards is proud of his service to his country in World War II. Richards is a Howonquet Indian and member of the Smith River Rancheria.
He was injured during his tour of duty, but because of a new veterans' outreach program, he has been able to receive assistance from the Veterans Service Office in Crescent City.
Richards was a bottom turret gunner on a B-24 bomber that flew missions from Italy to Germany and Austria.
While still in training, he hurt his back on a train transporting troops to Florida. In a minor derailment, three cars went off the tracks, but Richards, standing in the crowded train, could not brace himself, flew over the seats and suffered a blow to the back.
He was in so much pain that other soldiers carried him off the train.
"I didn't want to tell anyone, though, because I wanted to stay in the service," Richards said.
However, the next morning, he was severely reprimanded when he couldn't get up for roll call. Once his commander understood that he was injured, Richards was sent to the hospital and given light duty for two weeks.
Richards' back continued to hurt throughout his tour of dutyit was painful getting in and out of the bottom gun turret during his time in European skiesbut he kept his pain to himself so he could continue to fight in the war.
As a result, he never found out what, exactly, was wrong with his back, but the pain has troubled him his entire life.
Another time, while flying at high altitude, Richards' heating suit failed and he suffered frostbite on his feet.
As men of his generation age, injuries tend to have a greater affect on their quality of life. Health may falter, and many veterans turn to the Veterans Affairs Department for assistance.
"A vet could have hearing loss. As long as they're honorably discharged, we can sign them up for access to a VA medical center," said Linndell Scarbrough, who works in Del Norte County's Veterans Service Office. It is her job to help veterans sign up for the health or monetary assistance they need.
"Low-income veterans who fought in a war could get a non-service pension," she said. "If they are dead and their spouse is low-income, they could also apply for a non-service pension."
Veterans Services, a county department which is, as Scarbrough puts it, "between the veteran and the VA," can also provide burial assistance for deceased veterans.
Scarbrough's typical workdays consist of sitting in her Crescent City office, meeting with local veterans who come to her in need. But public transportation in the county is scarce, and for various reasons, some Del Norte veterans can't make it to town.
Richards, for example, receives VA medical care and a pension, but recently he hasn't been able to come into the Veterans Services office to file the necessary paperwork. His wife, Lestie, has fallen ill and Richards must care for her full-time, making it difficult for him to leave the house.
Richards' daughter, Denise Padgette, works in Smith River's United Indian Health Services medical clinic and serves on the Smith River Rancheria Tribal Council.
Padgette heard that Scarbrough was going to start making semi-monthly trips to Klamath to counsel less mobile veterans, and she asked Scarbrough to do the same for veterans like her father in Smith River.
As a result, Scarbrough now takes her office on the road four times a month, twice to Klamath and twice to Smith River.
At some point, Scarbrough hopes to extend the visits to Gasquet as well.
The most common problem she encounters is hearing loss and post-traumatic stress disorder.
In fact, when Richards went to the VA office in Roseburg to finalize registration for health services, a licensed nurse practitioner asked him if he had PTSD.
Richards didn't think so, but the LNP told him that in her view, all war veterans should see a counselor for PTSD, and Richards decided to give it a try, which, to his surprise, has been a very beneficial experience.
"I don't have as many nightmares about it anymore, but I used to have some dandies," he said.
Richards, who worked in the woods until he was 72, receives a pension for his PTSD, and it helps him care for his ailing wife.
"They give me a little bit for my stress," he said. "It's helped me a lot."
Only wartime veterans can apply for VA non-service pensions, but all veterans qualify for every other VA service, Scarbrough said.
At this point, her number one challenge is simply to get the word out that the Veterans Services Office is here to help.
"We're still getting World War II veterans who don't know we exist."
"The toughest thing about my job is when a veteran passes away without getting help," Scarbrough said. "Sometimes we don't know about them until they're hospitalizedor at Wier's (Funeral Chapel)."
NOTE: Frank Richards and other local Native American World War II veterans will share their experiences on "Original Patriots," airing Sept. 30 on Channel 13 KEET.