To the editor of THE EAGLE:
With the current problems with veterans hospitals and the delays in treating our servicemen, I thought of the following experience our family had after World War II.
My uncle, Thomas Zarraga, in the heat of patriotic fervor at the tender age of 17, enlisted in the Army, much to the anguish of the entire family. His only brother was in the Merchant Marine. I believe it was 1940. He was the youngest of seven siblings.
He ended up a staff sergeant in Europe, finally in the Battle of the Bulge with Patton's tank corps. I remember so well when he returned from the war. Nightmares every night, shouting during the night and bouts of terror. Then he would wake up and be our familiar and fun Uncle Tom again. He must have experienced some pretty terrifying things.
He told us how he managed to survive two near misses. Both times, the tank next to his was blown up but he only suffered concussions. We all thought in later years about those concussions.
After the war, his life continued happily. Marriage, a beautiful little daughter, a good job. But he was always plagued by headaches. One day during a severe one, he collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. He had suffered a cerebral aneurysm. He was 30 years old.
The entire family came to help but there was nothing anyone could do. One doctor told my praying grandmother to pray that he die as he had too much brain damage. But he didn't die. He ended up in private nursing facilities as there was no room in a Veterans Administration hospital.
It was 1956. His feisty sister, Margarita, wrote an impassioned letter to President Eisenhower about their inability to get him in a VA hospital, their only hope. One day, they were finally notified that he would be admitted to a VA hospital in New Jersey. By then, Thomas had had too many bad experiences with nursing homes and refused to go. My father told Thomas the white lie that Eisenhower had ordered him to go.
With great trepidation, they went to New Jersey hoping they could pull it off. Thomas asked the admittance nurse if indeed the president had ordered him to go. They tried to signal her to say yes. She went over to her desk and handed them a telegram. It said something like: "REQUEST IMMEDIATE ASSISTANCE FOR STAFF SERGEANT THOMAS ZARRAGA. FROM THE OFFICE OF DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER."
He was there for about two years. When he arrived he was in a wheelchair and had double vision in one eye. Forever a broken man, after about two years of therapy he could get around his immediate neighborhood in his braces and see enough with his bottle-bottom glasses to buy groceries and visit his neighbors.