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A Long Time Coming

Vietnam Veteran Johnnie Collins, in Army dress uniform, served two tours in South Vietnam

Vietnam Veteran Johnnie Collins, in Army dress uniform, served two tours in South Vietnam

Monday, March 26, 2018

National Vietnam War Veteran Day

March 29 has been proclaimed National Vietnam War Veterans Day by President Donald Trump.  VA has joined forces with the Department of Defense as part of the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War.  Throughout the nation, a series of events will be held to honor all Veterans who served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces during the U.S. involvement in Vietnam—November 1, 1955, to May 15, 1975. We are honored to share the stories of some of the Vietnam Veteran who receive their care at the Washington DC Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

National Vietnam War Veterans Day

Vietnam Veteran Johnnie Collins, Jr., AMVETS D.C. Post 0008, Department Executive Director

Johnnie Collins, Jr. enlisted in the United States Army in 1962 and served two tours in South Vietnam.  He recalls arriving there late at night in July 1967.  “We got off the plane and it was so hot, hotter than any place I’d ever been.” He was just 23 years old.

He describes it as a difficult time. “It was hard over there, but it was bad here too.”  He recalls anti-war sentiments and blatant racism.

Collins remembers ordering one of his soldiers to clean up his area, and the young man pointed a rifle at him and threatened to ‘blow him away’.

For his first tour to South Vietnam, he served in the Central Highlands as a squad leader of the 40th Infantry Platoon (Scout Dog) attached to 3rd Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division. It was a very dangerous job as the dogs and their handlers were the “eyes and ears” of the infantry. The dogs were used for locating early warnings signs of ambushes, detecting land mines, trip wires and punji pits (a type of booby trap made from sharpened bamboo).

In the middle of his first tour in 1968, he contracted an eye infection and was medevacked to Japan.  “What a blessing that was; it got me out of there, cost me my sight in one eye though.” 
He came home in 1968 and in spite of the anti-war sentiment, “Fort Myer felt like heaven.” Collins married his wife Patricia, served a total of 21 years and earned numerous military decorations including: Meritorious Service Medal, Army Commendation Medal with two oak leaf clusters, the Bronze Star Medal, Good Conduct with a silver clasp, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal and Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal (Korea), Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal, Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross Unit Citation with palm, Drill Sergeant identification Badge, and the Combat Infantryman  Badge.

He returned to South Vietnam in 1970 and served in the 4th Infantry Division Post Office. After it closed he was reassigned to 39th Base P.O. at Cam Rahn Bay on the South China Sea. His last two months he managed the post office in De Lat.  He remembers it as being one of the safest places to be in South Vietnam. Soldiers did not carry guns there and some even had their families with them. 

“Johnnie Collins made it through,” he laughs.  He credits his success with having a strong family and great friends who looked out for him. “If you have a good foundation, and a good core, you can get through anything,” he says with absolute certainty.

He retired in 1983 with the rank of Sergeant First Class and started a second career as an automotive sales representatives. He retired from the U.S. Army Health Clinic at the Pentation which has recently been renamed for his boss, the Colonel Anthony DiLorenzo Health Clinic.

In 1998 he was elected AMVETS National First Vice Commander for Membership for 1998 and 1999. He continues to serve AMVETS as a member of the Johnnie Collins Jr. AMVETS Post 0008 and he currently serves as AMVETS Department Executive Director for AMVETS - D.C.  He works closely with Voluntary Service and other departments of the Washington DC VA Medical Center.

Wayne Miller: Helping Veterans Get Back What’s Good in Life

Wayne Miller is Marine uniform holding a gun in Vietnam

 Wayne Miller in Marine uniform holding a gun in Vietnam.

When he was 18 years old, a mortar round in Vietnam wounded him so severely; he and his fellow Marines thought his life was over.  He was temporarily paralyzed from the neck down, his leg was completely severed, his other leg and his hand were almost gone; along with his hopes of being an athlete, a performer, a husband and a father.

But he and his fellow Marines were wrong, Wayne Miller had a lot of life left and would go on to become all the things he dreamt of and more. He would eventually help thousands of other Veterans recover from the internal and external wounds of war. He would perform with artists like Shania Twain and Lee Greenwood and serve as an inspiration and role model for the next generation of Veterans.

His road to recovery was not easy and there were many dark days.  “Back then there were no Vet Centers, and no place to go really for psychological or emotional support.”  He recounts a turning point in his life.

“I was going to college and having a really bad day and a man came up and asked me if I wanted to learn to ski. I lifted my pant leg and showed him my prosthetic leg, he lifted his and showed me his two prosthetic legs.”

The fellow Veteran introduced Miller to the Recreation Therapy Program at the Washington DC Veterans Affairs Medical Center. He went on to compete and earn gold, silver and bronze medals in the VA Winter and Summer Sports Clinics, the National Wheelchair Games, the National Creative Arts Festival and later on, the Golden Age Games.

In 1989, he joined the Vet Center program as a peer counselor and worked his way up to become the Director of the Silver Spring VA Vet Center. “I love my job, I love coming to work everyday.” 

He and his colleagues help Veterans learn to readjust after combat, something he and his fellow Vietnam Veterans had to learn the hard way. “We teach them to reframe, how to put things aside—not forget—in order to make room for good things.  It’s great to watch Veterans get back to what’s good in life and learn how to trust again.”

He knows that if it weren’t for the injuries he received in Vietnam, he wouldn’t be where he is today. 

It’s important work that professionals like Miller are preforming at Vet Centers and clinics across the country.  “I wish all Veterans could know that they are not forgotten. There is always a place to go, always someone like me who understands them and knows what they are going through.”


A Chance Meeting

Vietnam Veterans Curtis Tucker, Dan Dennison and Vincent Garnett enjoy a moment of camaraderie at the Washington DC Veterans Affairs Medical Center.


Vietnam Veterans Curtis Tucker, Dan Dennison and Vincent Garnett enjoy a moment of camaraderie at the Washington DC Veterans Affairs Medical Center

Vietnam Veterans Curtis Tucker and Vincent Garnett who served together with the 173rd Airborne Brigade had a chance meeting at our medical center in late January. While discussing 1968, elephant grass and leeches, they met Dan Dennison (pictured in the center), a helicopter pilot with the 4th Infantry Division, who directly supported them during the Battle for Hill 875 and during the Tet Offensive. What are the odds of this reunion after almost 50 years?

For these Veterans, it was the revelation that coming to the DC VA Medical Center is far more than just health care.  For them, it was an opportunity to reunite as brothers who served together. It was an opportunity to share first-hand accounts and look back at their contributions to defending our nation. The Washington DC Veterans Affairs Medical Center is truly more than just a hospital, it’s a unique place full of camaraderie- men and women who have something in common. They have all served to protect the freedom we enjoy.

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