VA Boston Healthcare System
Viet Nam to VA Boston; a Volunteer Journey
“One minute, I’m in the middle of a mortar attack on LZ Evans, the next I’m being loaded onto a chopper with the green body bags of the dead. I arrive somewhere, I’m taken out, measured for clean uniforms, given a steak dinner, put on another plane, and I find myself standing alone, in the middle of Logan Airport. How the hell did I get here? What now? It was all so very surreal to me.”
Ron Orazine, now a resident of Norton, joined the Marines in 1966 but ended up in the Army with his best friend on the buddy system. They wanted to be part of something bigger. “The buddy system failed me as my friend served his entire tour in the states,” and Orazine served a year in Vietnam and a year in Germany waiting for the Russians to cross over from Czechoslovakia.
Originally from Cambridge, Orazine hails from a long line of family members who served their country in the Navy, Army or the Marines. He wasn’t a product of the draft though, he and his friend volunteered to join. He enlisted as a commo specialist, but ended up being routed to Vietnam and assigned to the 1st Air Cavalry Division as a member of a Provincial Barrier Rifle Team, guarding a piece of wire on Landing Zone Evans. LZ Evans was close to the DMZ and constantly under attack.
“I basically lived in a hole in the ground, and I remember thinking, if I only had a lukewarm Coke or lukewarm beer, I’d like that.” said Orazine. We ate mostly C-rations, and uniforms couldn’t get through to us, so we scavenged for whatever we could find. The experience was surreal according to Orazine who lived virtually underground, and occasionally slept in graveyards when on convoys as the headstones offered good cover from the enemy.
He recalls after a particularly bloody encounter on the LZ, the media back home broadcast that the entire unit had been wiped out. “A day later, a field phone was set up on the LZ and we were patched back to the US. I called to say “hey mom and dad, I’m okay. Over!” it was the only live communication I had with anyone back home for the entire year. Orazine was discharged and returned home only to find that his service wasn’t exactly well received by the people he fought for. He felt pretty much on his own.
Fast forward a decade or so. Having sustained some health issues while deployed, Orazine didn’t enroll in the VA until about 6 years ago. When asked why he waited so long to come to the VA, he thought a moment. “There just weren’t programs in place back then to deal with Soldier issues,” he said. “And people didn’t get treated well after that war, it was something better left forgotten. Some of my friends died over there, and some were found dead in the streets two years after coming back. It wasn’t a good time, we wanted to be left alone, which pretty much left us in charge of our own recovery.” said Orazine.
He went on to become a consultant for regional high-end communications dispatch systems. He married his current wife after a ten month courtship and has 3 grown children. “My wife had to put up with a lot of the baggage I carried around.” he said. “She’s a saint.”
About four years ago, he began to cut back his hours on the job. Always an energetic, restless sort, he approached his doctor at the VA where he now gets services, about volunteering. He reached out to VAVS where they did an intake with him to assess his skills, knowledge and interests in volunteering. He previously taught marksmanship so was a natural to train the Veterans competing in the “2nd Annual Owen “Mickey” Emery Wheelchair Air Rifle Tournament” an annual event. “These Veterans are extremely competitive!” he said. Orazine also assists with the bowling program and has been regularly volunteering for the past four years. “I’ve gotten to know a lot of these patients and I’ve been coming for so long now, it’s not unusual for me to just drop by for a visit!” He said.
Orazine also volunteers in the Spinal Cord Injury Unit a few days a week and reaps the most enjoyment when interacting with male and female Veterans of WWII, Viet Nam and OIF/OEF. “It’s interesting to see interaction among all the vets. I notice some communications breakdown from the younger generation to the older Veteran population. I’ve had the younger Vets tell me they shy away from interacting with the older Veterans because they understand the struggles of combat they went through, and also know that many more programs and technological advances exist today to help them, that weren’t around then to help the older Veterans.” Orazine tries to bridge those gaps by bringing the eras together over a checkerboard or a meal.
When volunteering at the VA, there is no hard and fast time commitment, you come as often as you like and offer as much as you want of yourself. “There are things here you can support and there’s things you can’t, it takes time to learn patients abilities and restrictions here. There is a subculture of caring that goes on here that goes above and beyond anything I’ve ever seen in the corporate world.” He said. “It’s good to be working with people and helping and they often give me more than they receive. Sometimes I get support and leave here feeling better than I did when I walked in. I get thanked often and patients go out of their way to let me know how much they appreciate my time.” He said. “I give them my cell phone number and sometimes they call just to say hi or just at the time I need to hear from them, there’s a mutual relationship here, it’s not one way.” said Orazine.
Every day is different for our Veterans at the VA, just as every patient is different. Not all have injuries resulting from combat but the camaraderie is evident in the interchanges that occur between the patients and the volunteers. “Volunteers have to remain flexible to go with the flow, encourage when needed and sometimes just lend an ear” said Orazine.
“The value in volunteering is that it frees the professionals and caretakers to tend to what they do best, the many needs of our Veterans, it frees them up to improve on patient care. And for me, well, I see and hear how grateful they are for volunteers to spend time with. They don’t even realize that it’s I, who has received the greatest gift.”
To learn more about volunteering, visit VA Boston Volunteer Service.