Three Texas Veterans received the COVID-19 vaccine – and something else, something 50 years in the making.
The South Texas Veterans Health Care System Home & Community Based Care (HCBC) team covers thousands of miles of South Texas roads ensuring even the most rural Veterans are given the opportunity to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
For HCBC nurses Sandra Greer and Laura Alexander, their March 26 visits were a bit different. They visited three Vietnam Veterans and not only provided them with their second dose of vaccine, they honored their Vietnam service with the official 50th Commemoration of the Vietnam War lapel pin and a thank you card from the medical center staff.
Greer said these kinds of interactions are a big part of positive health outcomes.
The 50th Commemoration was signed into law in 2008 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act and inaugurated by President Barack Obama in 2012. Its purpose is to thank these Vietnam Veterans for their service and sacrifice and is celebrated annually on March 29.
Purple Heart for severe wounds in Da Nang
The team’s first stop was Bennie Buentello, an Army Veteran (pictured above) who was severely wounded in Da Nang and awarded the Purple Heart for his injuries. He and his family are a regular stop for Greer, who has provided his home health for more than a decade.
“When I see a person over the long term, it gets interesting for them because they see a person that takes a big interest in their health,” Greer said.
Upon entering Buentello’s house, the shared bond became apparent. Buentello immediately broke into a smile seeing her – a smile that was altered by a recent stroke, a complication from the head wound he received in Vietnam.
Buentello’s room looks like a military museum. Photos, a Vietnam Veteran hat and his two Purple Heart medals displayed proudly near his bed.
Greer delivered the vaccine with Buentello showing how he was going to work the arm to reduce the soreness. Then the real purpose for the visit came.
Tears remembering unit members who did not return
“We would like to honor you today,” Greer said. Buentello was taken aback. “This is for your service and from your country and all of us, we thank you,” she continued.
She then presented the thank you card which dredged up some emotions for the 1st Cavalry soldier.
Getting a bit teary-eyed, he fixated on the thank you card. Buentello wiped the tears away and muttered, “Old memories,” referring to fellow unit members that did not return.
He reassured everyone, telling them they were happy tears. He saluted her smartly and the team was on to their next patient.
Nurse Alexander was vaccinating Pedro Lopez, an Army Veteran not nervous about vaccinations. “I remember back in my Army days, anytime something was going around, they would line us all up and give us a shot,” Lopez said with a chuckle.
Lopez was sent to Germany instead of Vietnam during the war. One of nine brothers, he said six of them served their country, two in Vietnam. HIs spouse was glad he served and is eligible for VA care.
Alexander removed the pin from its box.
“This is to appreciate you and the work you did in the service,” Alexander said, pinning it right above the “USA” embroidered on his shirt. She also thanked Lopez’s spouse and said she was also part of the process during his service.
The team’s last commemoration stop was at the home of Army Veteran Gregorio Garcia. Garcia was in good spirits, having a bit of fun with Alexander. Gregorio’s wife Carmen asked if the vaccination hurt and Gregorio affirmed it to the surprise of Alexander. He grinned and gave her a head shake and a boisterous laugh.
Lost his mother to COVID-19
Carmen showed a family photo and pointed out his mother. “She passed away from COVID in February,” Carmen said. “The vaccine has a personal significance.”
Besides getting his second vaccine, Alexander told Garcia that the visit had another purpose. “This will make this day very special for you. Because of what you did in service, this is to say thank you,” she said.
He was then presented with the thank you card. His wife remarked how proud she was of him. Gregorio read out the bottom line, “Welcome Home,” which had him fighting back emotions.
Alexander noted his speech progress after suffering from several strokes and heart attacks the past year. He clutched the card, refusing to set it down. Carmen added that it was the first time his Vietnam service was recognized.
With an elbow bump from Gregorio, Alexander packed up her gear and went on to the next patient.
Steven Goetsch is a public affairs specialist with the South Texas VA in San Antonio, Texas.