After serving more than eight years in the military, including two tours in Iraq—where she saw mortar and rocket fire almost daily—Marine Sgt. Molly Howe is beyond grateful for the benefits provided to her as a veteran.
The Gilroy native graduated a semester early from Gilroy High School and was excited to join the Marine Corps in 2004 at just 17. Howe retired from the Marines in 2013, and at 31, she is continuing her education at Gavilan College under the Post 911 GI Bill, formerly known as the Montgomery GI Bill.
Howe says this program offers an amazing resource for veterans.
“The VA pays the school directly for the tuition,” says Howe. “The GI Bill also gives a housing stipend each month. It’s a really good thing. If it wasn’t for the VA, I’d be in a much different place.”
Howe’s experience with the Veterans Administration is a vast improvement over those who came before her.
“When you got out of the service they didn’t tell you anything about your benefits, or where you can go, or where you can get help, or anything at all,” says Gilroy resident Robert Armendariz who was drafted into the Army at the age of 19 in 1970 during the Vietnam War.
Armendariz, 66, has been happily married for 45 years. He’s a father, grandfather and Commander of American Legion Post 217.
Armendariz credits the recent improvements in the system to the Obama administration.
“I’d say Obama as President helped the veterans more than anyone else has. He has done a lot. He’s done a lot more than Trump has,” says Armendariz.
Damien McGee, director of public affairs with the VA Palo Alto Healthcare System, says there are 85,000 veterans living in Santa Clara County. The U.S. Census lists 4,000 veterans in the South Valley: 1,953 in Gilroy, 201 in San Martin, and 1,809 in Morgan Hill.
Vietnam-era veterans encountered very different VA experiences than veterans of the wars in the Persian Gulf, Iraq or Afghanistan.
Gilroy resident, Ted Viola, 76, enlisted in the Army in 1959, and had a similar experience to Armendariz regarding the VA. He’s hopeful that today’s returning veterans receive better treatment.
“The only application I ever made for the VA was to get a health-card benefit, and they wouldn’t give me one because I’m a category eight, which means I’m the lowest category,” says Viola. “I cannot get VA services. I applied for them but they turned me down. I did my part, I gave you three, and three stand-by—what do you want from me.”
Joe V. Gonzales, was drafted into the Army at the age of 18 in 1965, then served 13 months in Vietnam as a machine gunner. His bravery and selflessness resulted in his being awarded not one, but two Bronze Stars, honoring his valor on the battlefield.
After 44 years of marriage, Gonzales, 71, who lives on the San Martin/Gilroy border, is a widower. His daughters and grandchildren keep him busy, as does his involvement with the American Legion post.
“Back in those days nobody knew we had cares, nobody ever told us anything,” says Gonzales. “We found all this out by ourselves. That’s why we fought the government many, many, many, years to get what’s going on to everybody now. We pushed the government to do right.”
Gonzales says he and other veterans lobbied the city of San Jose for the institution of the Veterans’ Clinic.
They won their fight in 1996, with the opening of the clinic, which ensured that returning veterans had a place to go for help and support—something Gonzales and other veterans of his era say they never had.
Gilroy resident, Jose L. Delgado, 71, was just out of high school when he enlisted in the Marines in 1964. After six years, Delgado left the military, then returned in 1978 to enlist in the Army, where he remained for 16 years. Delgado shares Armendariz’ experience with the VA.
“They didn’t do nothing, so I quit going there,” Delgado says. “Thank God, President Obama came up with the Veterans Choice Program, where you can choose your medical doctors. That saved my life.”
Another top concern for these veterans is President Trump, who they say presents a real risk of war.
“I think he’s playing around with this gentleman over in Korea too much,” says Armendariz. “Mr. Trump—he’s forcing the U.S.’s hand against theirs by sending all these ships over there, sending everybody over there.”
“He doesn’t have any military background,” he says. “And he doesn’t surround himself with people that have the military experience. The 25th amendment requires the President to have a psych evaluation—I think he needs that, the gentleman needs that.”
Delgado’s disappointment with President Trump has gone so far as to affect the veteran’s health.
“Some of the presidents of the past, you would follow them to the ends of the earth because they were the commander-in-chief, says Delgado. “Then you go to this guy. I’m very disappointed and it angers me. It’s activated my PTSD. Since he took office it’s getting worse and worse. From day one, when I saw what he was doing, it brought it up again.”
Viola has mixed feelings regarding President Trump.
“I’m not a fan of his because of the way he is, only as commander-in-chief, that’s OK with me,” says Viola. “By him allowing the commanders in the field, the military, to do their job, I like that. I feel like he’s taken the gloves off, as far as getting permission to do everything, and not having any of this measured response stuff. I don’t think he should be making comments all the time, and every time ‘Rocket Man’ does something Trump comes back and does something. That’s not presidential to me. He should just shut up—alright, just shut up.”
Howe is concerned for her fellow Marines, because she believes that Trump doesn’t understand the gravity of the situation, or what his power means.
“It really worries me,” she says. “I have friends that are still in active duty and I have friends that are staying for another 10, 20 years. As soon as something happens, they’re involved.”
Their personal experiences and feelings about the current president aside, Gonzales and Armendariz are both strong proponents of the draft.
“What the kids need is leadership,” Gonzales says. “The military will provide that, and show them respect and responsibilities. I think if the draft was activated again, and you served two years—hey, two years will teach you a lot.”
“I personally feel that if we were ever to go to war again, the draft should be a system that should come back into play,” Armendariz says.
As for Gonzales, his loyalty and devotion for his country has never waned and if given the opportunity, he says he would join in any war that threatened his country.
“I still have the same old feelings I had when I was young,” says Gonzalez. “I’m still ready to go, to take it as it comes.”
Veterans looking for information regarding veterans claims can contact Santa Clara County Veterans Service Office at 68 N. Winchester Blvd. in Santa Clara, Monday through Friday, 9am-noon and 1-4pm. Or call 408.553.6000. For health services, contact VA Palo Alto Healthcare System, the San Jose outpatient clinic, 80 West Oaks Dr. in San Jose, For more information, go to paloalto.va.gov or call 408.363.3000. For information regarding benefits, visit va.gov.