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About Utah: Helping other vets is priority for Vietnam vet

Published: Sunday, May 13 2012 10:29 p.m. MDT

Vietnam vet Andrew Wilson stands at the construction site of the new Utah State Veterans Home in Payson.

Lee Benson, Deseret News

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PAYSON —

Forty-five summers ago, when he was 20 years old and full of more answers than questions, Andrew Wilson was sure of two things.

One, he was deaf in his left ear, and two, he was no fan of the Vietnam War.

The sum of those parts added up to a third thing he was also quite sure of: he would never go to 'Nam.

Within a year he found himself in NhaTrang, riding shotgun, quite literally, in a helicopter in the middle of the Tet offensive.

Forty-five summers later, 65 years old and full of more questions than answers, Andrew Wilson gives one of those rueful what-are-you-going-to-do? shrugs.

And adds:

"Ah, the incredible irony of stupid youth."

But that's not why he's standing here at a construction site on the west side of Payson on a perfect spring morning, wearing a smile as wide as the Wasatch Mountains in front of his gaze.

He's not here to talk about the past. He's here to talk about the future.

The construction site, he explains, will soon become a full-service residential nursing facility for military veterans. With the federal government providing $12 million and the state government $6 million, the $18 million project will provide 108 private rooms for vets requiring skilled nursing care.

Wilson's pitch is simple: He wants to turn the institution into a home.

He's doing everything he can to help the Central Utah Veterans Council raise an additional $432,000 — $4,000 per room — that will provide such amenities as upgraded mattresses, furniture, TVs and appliances for each unit.

When the veterans move in, Andrew wants them to feel both cared for and comfortable.

"So we don't leave anyone behind," he says as he provides the address for anyone wishing to help with contributions: Utah Dept. of Veterans Affairs, 550 Foothill Dr., Salt Lake City, UT 84158-0897.

It's clear that helping vets is priority one for Wilson. His car has "Utah Vet" personalized plates. His email address starts with "utahvet." At 65, he's ostensibly retired but promoting veterans causes has become his de facto full-time job.

Pressed for an answer why, he explains that it all goes back to Vietnam.

The war he went into reluctantly and never did agree with — including when he was in the middle of it — gave him PTSD and that is what turned him into the man of empathy he is today.

PTSD — Post Traumatic Stress Disorder — has been around as long as warfare. It's gone by different names. In the Civil War they called it "soldier's heart," in World War I it was "shell shock," in World War II "battle fatigue."

In Vietnam, they didn't quite know what to call it. Andrew called it the "readjustment blues."

For years he fought it without knowing what it was. For even more years he's fought it knowing what it is.

And he'll be the first to tell you it's never been easy. It cost him his first marriage, all sorts of jobs, a fortune or two and any number of relationships. At times it's put him at the mercy of alcohol and drugs and on the edge of suicide.

But it has also made him as compassionate as anyone you'd ever want to meet.

If he could have any wish granted, Andrew will assure you, that wish would be that veterans suffering from PTSD — and it's estimated that the disorder afflicts as many as 30 percent of all soldiers who have served a single tour of duty in a combat zone — would realize that genuine recovery is possible. That with proper family and community support, the symptoms of PTSD can become undiagnosable.

"It's taken me many years to realize this," says Andrew, "And I understand that recovery is a process, not a destination. But if every veteran knew there was help out there, and there was hope, it would be unbelievably liberating.

"They would know that they do not have to become old without their children."

Thus, it has become this unwitting warrior's life to promote high-quality medical care at every turn, to wrap his figurative arms around every veteran he can reach and make sure they know they're not forgotten and they're treated with dignity.

"My mission," says the Vietnam vet before he drives away in his beat-up old Volkswagen, "is to focus on the recovery, not the conflict."

The pay's crummy, but the benefits are great.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday. EMAIL: benson@desnews.com

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