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Valley Voices Article - Sheriff James Van Beek: Walk Your Talk

An all too familiar veteran’s story …

The heat was oppressive, with a whiff of chemicals in the air. The road, thick with brush. Mosquitos considered me their buffet of choice. And there was my best friend, singing old Motown hits. I’d tease him that my dog sounded better, but we all knew that one day he’d be a star. 

We had to cover the next 10 miles before dark. I glanced at the sky, unusually blue, reminding me of last year’s Independence Day picnic with my wife. Even though we were just out of high school, we married just before I was deployed. I wonder what she is doing right now. 

As we continued, I could hear a strange whistling in the background … not a bird and getting louder. The next thing I know, I’m on the ground.

I’m not sure how long I was out, but when I came to, I looked around. Blood was everywhere, no one was moving, and Mr. Motown had the lower half of his torso blown away. 

I hear yelling in the distance. I can’t understand what they’re saying but they are getting closer. Are they a rescue squad or the enemy? I attempt to stand but realized that I could only crawl. 

Thankful for the brush I was complaining of just moments earlier, I crawled under. I don’t know how many were killed by the bomb, but the rest were taken away. I was 18, alone, injured, scared, and 10 miles away from anywhere. It was my first month in Vietnam. 

I had what appeared like an eternity left on my deployment and while none of my other missions were nearly as tragic, we never knew if our next breath would be our last. We were trained to listen for unusual sounds or movements, which kept us continually on high alert, our senses ultra-heightened. 

Upon returning home, the training was still intact, and the images vivid.  Even a walk in the park on a humid day would bring me back to that foreign jungle.

A trip to the butcher shop brought back the carnage of that day and the final look on Motown’s face. High-pitched sounds reminded me of enemy communication whistles and my heart would start racing. A car backfiring would instinctively cause me to duck and those Independence Day fireworks that I once loved sent me into a panic attack.

The grateful reception that I anticipated back in the states never happened. In fact, I was called a baby killer and may other horrible names. People would curse at me and even throw things. I suddenly began to question who I was and why I was so hated. It all became so overwhelming. At 22, I just wanted it all to end.

Holding a job without overreacting to common noises and events became a challenge. My wife said she didn’t recognize me any longer. Honestly, I didn’t either. 

Ultimately, unable to earn a living and being so reactionary, cost me my marriage and my home. Living on the streets, I realized how invisible I had become … like I didn’t even exist. I needed help and went to the Veterans Administration hospital which was a two-hour drive away. Luckily my friend offered a ride.

They said that they needed to schedule appointments with departments, and each doctor was on a different day. Approval for testing needed to be conducted separately and then evaluated. Individual appointments were weeks apart and scheduled separately. 

One day it took me six hours, taking public transportation, to make it to my appointment and the doctor had an emergency, which caused him to cancel at the last minute. 

I just wanted help. I just needed someone to listen. I just needed the pain in my body and head to go away. I alternated between anger and helplessness. I just needed it to be over and that thought began consuming me. 

I’d lost my job, my home, my wife, my life. They called it PTSD — post-traumatic stress disorder. I called it hell. 

And, so it is in varying degrees for so many vets, from Vietnam to today.  How can we help?

Along comes William Shuttleworth, a 71-year-old Air Force veteran, with stamina that many 20-year-olds would envy.  I had the privilege of hosting him last Friday night. 

A psychologist by trade, he loved running a California campsite in the summer. This past year, it hit him how many “campers” were actually homeless vets. He heard their stories, all different, yet many with a familiar theme. They needed help and no one was listening.   

Shuttleworth researched; there were very few resources available to homeless vets. He was happy to discover that Congress (which used to consist of 75% vets, now with less than 8%) had approved $264 million for the VA, designated for homelessness. 

Currently, none has been spent on veterans, only on administrative costs.  What if he could raise $100K for homeless vets and deliver it to Congress, demanding, “If I can do it, so can you!”

As an avid hiker, he’d go 20 miles per day. He decided to make that hike in a straight line, across the United States, raising money for each mile traveled.  He has met with veterans of all ages and has documented their stories, which he will publish in a book.

Walking his talk, he encourages those in power to do the same. 

Mr. Shuttleworth, thank you for reminding us of our humanity and for continuing to be an American hero. 

To keep tabs on Shuttleworth’s adventurous journey, head to his website: http://www.VetsDontForgetVets.com and please be inspired to donate on his GoFundMe page: https://www.gofundme.com/vets-don039t-forget-vets/donate.

James van Beek is the Eagle County sheriff. You can reach him at james.vanbeek@eaglecounty.us.