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Sonoma County Vet Connect wants to resume services for local veterans

In the moments after an exploding mortar shell sent him flying 52 years ago, James Casey looked down at his badly injured right leg.

“Being a former altar boy,” recalled Casey, at the time a 20-year-old Army second lieutenant in a Vietnamese jungle, “I said an act of contrition, in Latin.”

After completing that prayer, he looked around for a weapon. Casey, the commander of a rifle platoon, was concerned the enemy might overrun his position.

Now 72, the former Sonoma County deputy district attorney expresses genuine surprise that he got out of the jungle alive.

He almost didn’t. His extensive injuries that day included a severed femoral artery. A courageous medic, wounded himself, put a clamp on the artery, saving Casey’s life. After 18 months at the Walter Reed military medical center in Bethesda, Maryland, Casey was released.

The story has a happy ending. He went to college and met his wife, June, with whom he had four children. After earning his law degree, Casey spent three decades as a prosecutor, retiring from the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office in 2011. While he doesn’t try cases anymore, Casey keeps his law license active to provide pro bono legal services for veterans at Sonoma County Vet Connect, an outreach program for former military service members and their families. An estimated 35,000 veterans live in the county.

Falling through the cracks’

Vet Connect provides a wide range of assistance, from cellphones and sack lunches to haircuts and help for veterans navigating the bureaucratic labyrinth in order to claim their benefits. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the agency has canceled its weekly Tuesday morning meetings for the past eight months.

That’s hurt a number of veterans who rely on the nonprofit’s services, Vet Connect CEO Richard Jones said. Those Tuesday meetings, which took place in Santa Rosa’s Veterans Memorial Building, are forbidden by the county’s public health order, which limits gatherings to 12 people.

As a result, Jones said, it’s much harder to connect veterans with people who can aid them. “A lot of them who need help desperately are falling through the cracks,” he said.

Vet Connect “does so much good for veterans who need a hand up,” said Ross Liscum, a retired Marine who sits on the Sonoma County fair and exposition board, which oversees the Veterans Memorial Building. “But the hard part is, the rules for the county say you can’t have events inside these buildings.”

On Wednesday — Veterans Day — Liscum and county Supervisor Shirlee Zane organized a socially distanced gathering in the parking lot outside Veterans Memorial Building, to thank those who’ve served “from the bottom of our hearts,” said Zane, the daughter of a decorated Marine.

Some of the hundred or so in attendance treated the event as a protest, to voice their objections to being denied entrance to the veterans building. Ken Holybee, president of the Redwood Empire Chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America, reminded the audience that losing access to the building and its services has limited their ability to raise funds, “and to watch our fellow veterans’ backs.”

Old soldiers, Holybee said, can tell when other old soldiers “need more than just a ‘How are you?’ ”

Decency and respect’

Casey’s transition back to civilian life was rocky, at first, he recalled. For a year, he slept with a loaded handgun under his pillow. “But I finally got over that.”

He has deep empathy for the veterans who seek his legal counsel. They come to him for a variety of reasons, including bankruptcy filings, wills and trusts, drunken driving arrests and their hopes of getting prior convictions expunged.

While they’re usually straightforward issues, “first-year law school stuff” to Casey, those matters can loom as major obstacles to the veterans he’s helping.

“They aren’t looking for a handout,” he said. “They’re just looking for some decency and respect.“

Regardless of the branch of service, all veterans “speak the same language. We understand them, they understand us,” Casey said.

Blood-soaked ground

Casey has been speaking that language since his late teens. One of nine children in an Irish Catholic family from Plainfield, New Jersey — “there was a picture of the pope in every room” — he attended a Jesuit prep school, but didn’t go straight to college. In 1966, at the age of 18, he enlisted in the Army.

A contrarian and maverick, Casey quickly realized that his career would not be in the military. But soldiering came naturally to him. He was selected for officer candidate school, and given command of a platoon. They were sent to the A Shau Valley, a 25-mile-long bottomland along the Laotian border, 600 miles north of Saigon. It was a major conduit for North Vietnamese soldiers and supplies.

As platoon commander, he was “mother, father, priest and confessor” to 40-some infantrymen, most of them around his age. Casey led by example. “I walked the point sometimes, and went out on night ambushes,” he said.

He would crawl into tunnels, searching for enemy soldiers, “because I would ask my guys to do that.”

The loneliest time, he recalled, came after helicopters dropped them in the jungle. He would listen to the departing choppers until they were out of earshot. “It was like an umbilical cord had been severed, and I could hear the jungle saying, ‘Now you belong to me.’ ”

Desire to help others

Of the 15 or so men in his ward at Walter Reed, Casey recalled, he was the only one who remained “intact.”

“Everybody else was missing something: eyes, legs, arms, you name it. So when I started feeling blue for myself, I’d just look around, and then slap myself upside the head,” he said.

For close to a year he was in a bed across from a triple amputee named Max Cleland, who went on to serve as a U.S. Senator from Georgia.

“Max and I used to lay in bed and bulls--- with each other,” Casey recalled. “He was an extraordinary guy who went on to do extraordinary things.”

As was Casey. After earning his law degree at San Francisco Law School, he entered private practice but found it dull, and became a prosecutor. He spent nearly a decade as a prosecutor in Alameda County, working under Carol Corrigan, now a California Supreme Court Justice, before joining the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office in 1990. In 2010, he mounted an unsuccessful campaign for Sonoma County Superior Court judge. The following year, Casey retired, right around the time he started volunteering at Vet Connect.

“In many ways,” he said, “I have remained that young soldier throughout my life” — formed by qualities developed during his service, including self-discipline and “the desire to help others.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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