My father died in 1986. He had been diagnosed with lung cancer as he was a heavy smoker starting in his military years just over 18 years old. Ironically, the chemotherapy and radiation treatments he underwent worked and his cancer was in remission. However, after one of those “make-sure it’s all gone” full body scans, doctors found a strange and unexplainable growth in his head, in other words- a tumor. It was shaped like a sloppily made octopus and growing. His motor skills were deteriorating rapidly and after three years of the cancer treatments, he would spend another year and a half bed ridden and incapable of movement or speech until he finally transpired. He was buried at Fort Rosecrans Cemetery in San Diego overlooking the Pacific Ocean. His plaque reads SSgt Virgilo M. Di Pietro 1936-1986 followed by a cross to indicate he was Catholic, then what wars he served in; Korea – Vietnam. He was a US Marine for 22 years.
He was an imposing 6 feet 3 inches tall, dark skinned, first generation Sicilian, born in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, New York to immigrant parents. He was a movie buff and he did what my sisters and I thought were fantastic, spot on imitations of the great actors from the 40’s and 50’s. He married a divorced Irish woman nine years older than he was, who had two children from a previous marriage. Kind of taboo for a Roman Catholic Italian kid at the time. We were a blue-collar Southern California family of six when complete. Being the last born, I never knew that my fair haired, freckled faced older sisters were my half sisters. That was because he treated all the kids the same: with stern and stoic benevolent kindness. He wouldn’t tell stories about the wars he served in; rather he’d tell tales about growing up in the Brooklyn hey-days of the 1930’s and 40’s complete with characters like “Jimmy Cheech” and “Jimmy Knothead”. I guess there were a lot of Jimmy’s running around Brooklyn back then; and the bootlegging Italiano’s next door. Yes, that was really the neighbor family name with the patriarch making homemade wine in the cellar. He loved living in California. The sunny weather and the cool ocean breezes made him a west coast man for the rest of his days, never to return to New York. And man, oh man, did he have the sweetest left-handed swing you ever did see. It was a gift. He could loft a ball like a satellite over any fence, followed by a home run trot of humility. To be fair, I only got to see him blow softballs out of the park, but later when I met his old Brooklyn buddies, the first thing they would mention was how far “Ace” could hit a baseball, and always with an old school, wooden bat.
“He would hit ‘em over the building!” came the same emphasized remark, again and again. At 18 he was drafted by the Chicago Cubs, but decided to join the U.S.M.C. with his buddy instead. During that time this was maybe just as glamorous a decision.
Some doctors speculated his tumor was a result of breathing in Agent Orange during his tours of Vietnam, but there was no real way to prove that. As a child, I remember him being away for long stretches, then coming back for a bit, and then another long stretch. This pattern seemed to go on till I was in double digits. If it was the Agent Orange, he probably inhaled a lot of it. In Korea he was a grunt, but by the time Vietnam rolled around he had specialized as a cook. Stateside, every work morning he was up at 3:00AM and on base by 4:00. Prepping three squares for thousands everyday is no easy feat. This was his routine for many years. When he retired from the Marine Corps he took a job as a manager of food services at Scripps Hospital in La Jolla. When the cancer caught him in 1982 he was studying for a certificate in nutrition at a local community college in order to rise in the ranks at the hospital. I was living in New York City, another sister was in Oklahoma and my other two sisters were both local, but were also brand new mothers. When something like this occurs, is anyone ever ready for it?
The reason I am sharing this personal information, is because thankfully, WWII, Korean and Vietnam Veterans and their spouses have options in 2018 that weren’t available back then. This article is meant for you.
Let me do the math… Back then, the pension for my father’s pay grade was somewhere between $1600 to $1800 a month. My parents bought their house in 1973. From what I can remember and piece together, they probably had two mortgages, some debt, taxes and general bills. Just making the “nut” as my dad would say, with a little to spare each month. While the V.A. took care of my father’s medical expenses, he could no longer work due to his illness. My mother had to rejoin the workforce at 59 years old to supplement their income. Later, when it was clear that my father would need full-time home care, life became very difficult. My father used to say, “Do your job.” Growing up I had a list of chores that were mine, designed for me, because I was the only boy, like mowing the lawn, or taking out the garbage. My sisters didn’t take out the trash. I took out the garbage because it was one of my jobs. As a military man, my father believed that pieces fit where they fit and that’s how things were accomplished. But life gets sloppy sometimes. There was no money to hire a nurse and so my sisters and mother took turns caring for my father during that last year and a half. At the time, none of us were in any financial state that would make a dent in the daily assistance needed to care for my father. The other problem was we were grossly unqualified. None of us knew how to administer medications, give injections or care for someone who really needed professional help. Another factor that played into it was my father and his dignity. Though he couldn’t express it due to his illness, I knew that the last thing he wanted was for his children and wife, reinserting his catheter, giving him sponge baths or changing his adult diapers. There are people trained for this kind of care, we just couldn’t afford it.
In 1985 there was no Aid & Attendance benefit available. From what I can glean from research, the V.A. had some budget increases about 10-12 years ago and saw the need to provide more care to the aging veteran population. In ’85, my father may not have even been eligible for the Aid & Attendance benefit as he was too young. Though they do have a “special circumstances” clause that he could have qualified for. I know, without a doubt, that all the members of my family would have been grateful for such help that the A&A benefit could have provided; especially my father.
If you are a veteran or a veteran’s spouse from WWII, Korea or the Vietnam era and may need help with daily activities due to age or illness, I implore you to investigate this little known benefit. My father was a proud Marine. He served his country, worked his entire adult life, and provided for his family as he carved out his tiny piece of the American dream. However, even the toughest-tough guy may need help as age catches them or illness strikes. He or she most likely won’t express that they need help, but the truth is, it is a way of expressing thanks and helping them maintain a sense of dignity through trying times. If you find yourself or someone you know in similar circumstances, the V.A. Aid & Attendance benefit is there for you and it’s available. Investigate or apply for this benefit through American Veterans Aid. This organization can help speed the process of application and overcome obstacles that may arise. Reduce the long-term financial burden and get professional help.