Hopeful disabled vets gather in Las Vegas

When many of the 4,000 Disabled American Veterans and spouses converged Friday for the DAV and Auxiliary National Convention in Las Vegas, their arrival was marked with the promise of new hope.

The Cabinet office that administers their health care has a new leader. He will speak to them for the first time today.

The exhibit hall at Bally’s Las Vegas that greets them offers a new platform for meditation to ponder and hopefully heal some of the wounds of war. The exhibit features a collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning combat photos and a panorama of faces of service members who died in the post-9/11 era.

And, philanthropist Lois Pope will tell them about the new memorial she spearheaded in their honor opening Oct. 5 in Washington, D.C.

She said the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial was purposely built within sight of the Capitol.

“I want to remind Congress and our federal government of the human cost of war and the sacrifices of disabled veterans made in defense of our liberty,” Pope said Thursday. “I want them to think twice before this happens again.”

THE MEMORIAL

The $80 million American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial was designed and built with private donations over 14 years after then-President Bill Clinton signed a bill authorizing it, two years after the nonprofit foundation that bears its name was established.

It features a star-shaped fountain to represent the Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard. In the center of the unbroken surface is an eternal flame to signify injury, loss and renewal. Cypress trees will stand as sentries on the 2.5-acre site to provide shade and comfort along the memorial’s main paths.

Pope, the widow of National Enquirer founder Generoso “Gene” Pope Jr., also established her multipurpose charitable foundation LIFE — Leaders in Furthering Education — and a center for neurological research. Along with disabled veterans themselves, Pope is the memorial’s top donor. She persuaded other influential people to join the cause, including businessman Ross Perot, who donated some $3 million, she said, or $1 for every disabled veteran.

She said her inspiration for the memorial dates back to the Vietnam War era of the mid-1960s when she performed for disabled veterans at the Rusk rehabilitation center in New York.

“I walked into a room and it was full of men with the most horrible disabilities that you can imagine,” she said. “Some of them were burned beyond recognition. Some of them had no eyes where eyes should be. You could see just the sockets. Some had no ears. Some were paralyzed. Others were just lying on gurneys.

“I stood there and I froze. … It was so shocking I couldn’t stand it,” Pope recalled. “I thought, ‘If they can stand it and smile at me walking into this room, then I can do my part.’ I came here to do a job. And I’ll do it.”

Although she was “blown away,” she proceeded to sing songs from the musical, “West Side Story.”

“The song that changed my life was ‘Somewhere.’ I came to a line … ‘Hold my hand and we’re halfway there.’ I happened to look down and there was this young soldier who had no hands for me to hold. That changed my life.”

When Pope left the room, she vowed that someday she would “do something to help these people. They were all disabled veterans. Young, young boys. I was a struggling artist. I had no money myself. I was broke. Then I got married, worked, had children and many years passed,” she said.

Pope said she also was motivated by the death of her cousin, who was shot by a sniper at age 21 in Vietnam.

At the funeral, when the honor guard folded the flag and gave it to Pope’s aunt, instead of accepting it, her aunt told them, “ ‘I want my son back.’ That was another moment in my life that had a tremendous impact.”

MEDITATION ON WAR

The photo exhibit at the convention, “Always Lost: A Meditation on War,” projects that same type of “tremendous impact,” said Amy Roby, the project’s manager.

She has been on board since it evolved from a class she attended in 2009 at Western Nevada College’s campus in Carson City.

The “Always Lost” exhibit went on national tour in 2010 at the University of Wisconsin-Marinette and has been on the road since, with the national DAV convention at Bally’s its 22nd stop.

The exhibit features photos of the faces of 6,720 U.S. war casualties since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The Nevada Department of Veterans Services teamed up with Western Nevada College to bring it to communities throughout the state as an official Nevada 150 Sesquicentennial exhibit.

Although there is a master list of the casualties, Roby’s classmate, retired Marine Maj. Kevin Burns, suggested that photos on the Wall of Dead panels shouldn’t be organized alphabetically or chronologically.

“They are all mixed together, because war is not some nice parade ground where everyone marches on in perfect formation.”

Roby, 44, of Gardnerville, said at first she was reluctant to get involved in the project because as a civilian she didn’t have as close a connection to the post-9/11 wars as those who were directly tied to the military.

“Then I realized that all the reasons that I didn’t want to do it were the reasons I need to do it,” she said Friday. “I didn’t feel any personal connection.”

As the project became a reality and has gone on tour, “it has totally changed the trajectory of my life,” Roby said. “My world view has changed, my awareness and gratitude.”

Today, the body of the DAV and Auxiliary Convention will hear from new Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald.

He will make his first address to a veterans service organization since taking the reins July 29 of a department rocked by scandal and public uproar over long waits by veterans nationwide for health care.

Later today he will tour the $1 billion VA Medical Center in North Las Vegas where some of those long waits have been blamed on a shortage of doctors.

McDonald’s predecessor, retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki, resigned under pressure in May after reports of VA employees covering up months-long wait times for appointments at other VA facilities across the nation, with some receiving bonuses for falsified records sent to headquarters.

Some of the Disabled American Veterans conferees landed in Las Vegas while the ink was still drying on a $16.3 billion bill President Barack Obama signed Thursday to correct some of the problems by hiring more doctors and providing more timely care for veterans at facilities outside the VA system.

Contact Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308. Find him on Twitter: @KeithRogers2.

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