It was night. Phillip White lay in the mud and the rain in a Vietnamese village, trying to rest before taking the midnight watch.
The explosions woke him. An Army medic, he grabbed his aid bag and ran to help a solider wounded in the attack. As he labored at his task, a grenade bounced off White’s head and burst.
The shadows, mumbling and pain came next.
His eyes had filled with blood from the percussion. White was blind. His ears rang constantly. White was deaf. Damage to his brain left him partially paralyzed and without coherent speech. He was filled with rage.
That was 27 years ago. Sit at White’s kitchen table today. Watch him pour strong black coffee into a mug. Listen to him talk and laugh. The past, the injuries, the disabilities are nearly invisible to a visitor.
“I could barely speak because of the brain damage,” he said. “I worked for years to become articulate because I didn’t want anyone to know.”
Now he speaks for more than himself. He speaks for those who don’t have homes, for those who may have no reason to laugh.
White is co-president of the Inland Empire Allied Veterans Council, an umbrella group for many area veterans organizations. He’s been president and vice president of the council, which has focused on helping homeless veterans.
“He was a medic. He was out there trying to treat soldiers then, and he still is now,” said Gus Fabbe, council co-president. “He’s never given up.”
In recent years, White’s passion has been the “Stand Down” for homeless veterans in the Spokane area - a time when veterans can get flu shots, medical checks, a warm meal and pick from hundreds of thousands of dollars of government surplus clothing. During the most recent Stand Down, 217 veterans sought help.
White has helped with Stand Downs in Idaho and assisted other eastern Washington groups to help homeless vets.
“If nobody else will do it, Phil will,” Fabbe said.
All this from a man who is legally blind. Who has a steel plate in his head as big around as a softball. Who still has things he can’t bear to remember.
“It is our job, each one of us as an individual, to make a difference in the world. It doesn’t matter if I’m trying to make a difference as a veteran or as a human being,” he said.
For White, helping others was part of his own healing. He spent 17 months in a hospital and more than a decade wrestling with his anger and horror from the war. He hid the fact he was a Vietnam veteran. He kept his medals “in a box, in a drawer, far, far away.”
In the mid-‘80s, he literally came out of the woods of northwest Montana and volunteered at the Vietnam Veterans Center in Missoula, a place where he had originally sought counseling.
Helping other vets filled an empty spot in himself.
The 1980s brought something else. The Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, D.C., changed how American looked at soldiers from that war, White said.
He remembers returning to the United States on a stretcher and watching as other wounded veterans had to walk past a crowd of war protestors. They spit and cursed at the soldiers.
“In the ‘70s, the Vietnam veteran was a dog, a cur, somebody people didn’t want around,” White said. “It was a hard time to go through.”
The Wall changed that. After waiting more than a decade, Vietnam veterans got parades. People shook White’s hand. They said thanks. It felt good.
Where once White privately observed Veterans Day, he now makes it a point to wear his medals and be seen.
“Veterans Day is sacred to me,” he said. “I’m proud of everybody who’s been in the military.”
And he wants others to be proud too. “It’s important that the community remembers and respects and knows what veterans have done for our nation,” he said.
“On Veterans Day, just say thanks,” White said. “The veterans of our nation have done a hell of a job in keeping our nation free.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo