While serving as a fixed-wing crew chief in the U.S.
Army in the jungles of Vietnam, Robert Gustafson dodged enemy rockets for two years without suffering serious injury.
While walking down the street in Hillsboro more than 40 years later, Gustafson found himself in need of serious medical attention.
I was walking on a sidewalk and my right knee just gave out, he said of the June 2013 incident. I laid there for about 10 minutes. The pain got progressively worse.
Gustafson, 63, damaged three of the four tendons in his right shoulders rotator cuff.
For nearly a year, the Beaverton resident, whose health care benefits are limited to what the Veterans Administration chooses to approve, endured intermittent levels of pain and limited range of motion. When he heard a presentation at the Tualatin Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3452 about Save Our Veterans, a brand-new program to assist veterans with medical needs, it was music to Gustafsons ears.
That was it, said Gustafson, while taking a load off at the VFW, where hes served as commander since June. That was something
I wanted to participate in.
Under the leadership of Dr. Richard Edelson, a Tigard-based orthopedic specialist, the Oregon Outpatient Surgery Center launched Save Our Veterans on July 4. The program donates one day per quarter to local veterans with pressing medical problems who meet basic qualifications for outpatient surgical care.
The first complimentary surgeries were administered to three area veterans, including Gustafon, on July 7.
Price of freedom
Located at 7300 S.W. Childs Road, suite A, in Tigard, the Outpatient Surgery Center includes five orthopedic surgeons, a foot and ankle specialist and a hand and micro-vascular specialist. The office can take on 15 surgeries in a day. To qualify, veterans have to provide proof they were honorably discharged.
Edelson, whose father was a World War II veteran, decided the time had come to provide struggling veterans with a new way to ease their medical and financial burdens.
Ive always had tremendous respect for veterans and always understood the sacrifices theyve made, he said. A lot of things we enjoy today are because veterans fought for our freedom. That always struck a chord with me.
Edelson heard about problems with care access through the Veterans Administration and realized he and his fellow physicians could help the situation.
Its more a problem of access than quality of care, Edelson said of the V.A. hospitals. Theyre not able to handle it in a timely, efficient manner. This fits in with what we do. Were willing to donate time to help these guys. Our priorities are individuals who were injured while in service or as a consequence of their time in service.
Gustafson, who served in Vietnam in 1971 and 72, said while hes grateful for all the benefits hes received from the Veterans Administration, the Save Our Veterans program plays a much-needed role for veterans of all ages and backgrounds.
The surgery program is great, he said. Veterans, they need more resources. If the V.A. is overwhelmed, its nice that other places are stepping up and helping out. As long as people dont start to take advantage of it.
A retired owner of an auto repair shop in Tacoma, Wash., Gustafson moved to Beaverton in 2009 after marrying Stephanie, a former girlfriend whod left him after he shipped off to Vietnam (see accompanying story). He was elected in June as commander of the Tualatin VFW Post 3452, where hes been a member for five years. He was living in Kent, Wash., when he got his draft notice for Vietnam.
The same day I got my draft notice, I enlisted, he said. I decided Id do an extra year and have a choice on what kind of job I had rather than just being a grunt on the ground.
A battery of tests revealed Gustafsons mechanical ability, sending him in the direction of aviation maintenance and repair with the U.S. Army. While he was productive and managed to return home in one piece, Gustafson admitted the experience was not something most people himself included have been able to easily shake.
It absolutely was life changing, he said. When you get out, you dont realize how much affect it actually had on you while you were there. Youre busy raising your family and that kind of stuff, but as things start to slow down, it starts to come back to you.
In addition to the wear and tear that likely resulted in his bad knee, Gustafson, the father of four grown children, has experienced many of the classic manifestations of post-traumatic stress disorder, including flashbacks and survivors guilt.
As I became more involved with the VFW in 1995, I had more people to reach out about it. As I talked about it, more things started to come out anger and that kind of stuff.
A week after his two-hour shoulder surgery, Gustafsons right arm is hoisted up in a sling, while an ice-water pump machine intermittently circulates cold water through tubes to keep swelling down around his affected areas. Hell wear the contraptions for six weeks, after which his shoulder should get back to normal. Unfortunately, repairing the knee that led to his fall in the first place will require more care than outpatient surgery can provide, Edelson informed Gustafson. So that repair will have to wait.
At this point, I dont have a plan for the knee, Gustafson said. Well see what we can do with the V.A.
Stephanie, who is happy to help her husband with duties at the VFW, called the surgery through Save Our Veterans a blessing.
Its been a hard road, she said. Weve gone through a lot of ice since his surgery.
Internet brings long-estranged couple together again
He had to wait about 40 years, but timing finally worked in Robert Gustafsons favor when he reunited with Stephanie, the woman who left him after he shipped off to Vietnam in 1971.
She sent me a Dear John letter, the veteran recalled. Whats funny is, I worked with the guy she ended up marrying. They both swore I was in the wedding.
While that was unlikely, alls well that ended well with the Beaverton couple, whod both been divorced for 20 years when they reconnected in Sacramento, Calif., in 2009. They married soon after, and Gustafson followed Stephanie to Beaverton when she got a job at Anthem College.
The couple met while high school students in Tacoma in 1968, but were separated first physically, then emotionally when Gustafson enlisted into the U.S. Army and was assigned to a fixed-wing aircraft repair role in 1971.
After getting his heartbreaking Dear John letter from Stephanie, Gustafson married another woman, whom he divorced in 1979. He remarried in 1981 for nearly nine years. On his own once again, the veteran decided to get back in touch with Stephanie.
For $29.95 on the Internet, you can find anybody, he said with a chuckle. So I did.
While time and expanded technology helped him connect with the woman he never forgot, he remains ambivalent about what he got out of his military experience.
There are times when politicians make you feel like you wasted your time there. It makes you just think, For what? Why? he said. You dont go into a war and not commit to it. I think thats whats going on now.