When President John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” my heart was instantly pierced. These words stayed with me throughout my final year in high school and when I graduated in 1962, my mind was made up. I joined the United States Air Force at 17 years old.
The Civil Rights Movement was at its peak at that time and the impact on the Air Force was the same as everywhere else in this country. The Black and Latino Airmen had their jobs in the mess hall and in supplies. Women were in the WAFS, the Women’s Air Force. My best friend in basic training was a black man who loved jazz as much as I did. We were not allowed to celebrate together on our first pass, though, as we were based in Texas.
I came from an Italian descent but it never dawned to me that I joined the military to protect only Italian-Americans. I thought we were all in this together. When the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, everyone started coming together without a struggle and I was so proud to be a part of it!
I was trained as an aircraft mechanic and was assigned to an Air Defense Command Unit. As I saw it, my job was to keep our pilots in the air. I took my duty very seriously and at the age of 19, I was an expert Crew Chief! When the war in Vietnam escalated in 1964, my job was to provide OJT (on-the-job training) to new recruits for assignments in Vietnam. For the next two years, we flew many soldiers daily to simulate combat conditions. Working 12-hour shifts six days a week was stressful. We were not combat veterans but we earned our Honorable Discharge.
When I came home in 1966, my younger brother was drafted. He served during the Tet Offensive, one of the worst battles fought by American soldiers. We went as teenagers and returned as men. I remember tracking his battles and “body counts” every day on the news. Tension about the war increased every day.
To understand what was happening, I went to talk to my uncle who fought in World War II. He had become an alcoholic, losing his family, home and career. I found him living on skid row in Chicago, along with over 2,000 other combat veterans. He never told anyone what happened unlike most combat veterans. He was assigned in Sicily as a sniper and his job was to call the Italian soldiers during the night using his Sicilian accent. When they got close to him, he shot them between the eyes.
He never overcame the terror of what he did. It wasn’t until 20 years later when the Vietnam Veterans returned from the war that this condition was diagnosed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I did bring him home so my father and his sisters could be reunited with their little brother. We bathed and shaved him, something homeless men don’t experience often. We had home cooked Italian food and plenty of hugs and kisses. Shortly after, he died as a very happy man. We discovered the treatment of choice for PTSD was intense love and attention. He served his country but his country did not serve him.
I continued to work with homeless combat veterans living on skid rows in Chicago for another 10 years. All of them were on their own, living in alleys and on curbsides. Their hygiene was poor, toileting behind truck docks without toilet paper. They drank wine made from chemicals and smoked as many cigarettes as they could. Occasionally, they had a meal of bread and soup at a local mission. Winters were hard, sleeping in cardboard boxes and sometimes crushed by trucks rolling over them. Summers were difficult when alley rats would eat their toes. They all needed love and attention especially at the end-of-life. I am a believer that no person should die alone especially when they are homeless.
I thought who are we to leave a man behind? I knew there were Vietnam War MIAs and POWs that never came home, but these men did! It was a heartfelt experience that I could make a difference in their lives. After 10 years of serving the homeless, I worked as an Adult Educator, teaching human service workers how to share compassion with the less fortunate people. Throughout the remainder of my career, I served as a Nursing Home Administrator, paying special attention to my dying residents.
After I retired, I had the opportunity of a lifetime. Going back to school and working as a Hospice Chaplain are my peek experiences. The end of life is coming to all of us but we should not go through it alone. If I learned anything from my military service, especially because of our diversity, it is that we are all in this together. I carried that thought with me all through my career. JUST AS OUR PILOTS TRUSTED US TO KEEP THEM UP THERE, WE HAVE TO TRUST ONE ANOTHER TO GET US THROUGH TO THE END.
Written by Joe Agnello
Joe is a Veteran who served the United States Air Force until 1966. Coming home from service, he got involved in Human Services and has been in the field for more than 50 years. Now retired and a Chaplain for Transitions Hospice, Joe enjoys doing volunteer work for the American Legion and Fox Valley Hands of Hope on his free time. Joe is a also a beaming grandfather of 9 grandchildren and 1 great grandchild!