Barely six months after veteran John Fields died of war-related injuries, his house is being foreclosed and his widow and family have to move. “This will be the last gathering at our house,” said Cher Fields, widow of Vietnam War veteran John Fields, as friends came together to honor her husband’s memory following the “unveiling” of his headstone.
John Fields had lived for many years with war-related mental and physical disabilities, dying of cancer brought on by his exposure to Agent Orange during his tour of duty in Vietnam. Since his death on January 15, 2007, Fields’ widow has had to contend with the slow moving bureaucracy of the Veterans Administration (VA), high medical bills, burial costs, and monthly mortgage payments on their house, which is now in foreclosure.
Although John was a combat-disabled veteran who succumbed to combat-related injury, the VA has refused approval of his claim for Disabled Veterans life insurance, benefits which would have eased the family’s transition, allowing his widow time needed to mourn and find employment.
To make matters worse, when Fields died, the government immediately cut off his disabled veterans compensation and social security retirement benefits, on which the family relied. It was weeks before Cher Fields received war widow’s compensation. That compensation was about one-third of their previous income, although her housing costs have not changed.
“We’ll have to move. We don’t know where we’ll live yet. We don’t know where we’ll go,” said Cher, whose 21-year-old daughter Sunny and 23-year-old son Jesse also share the home, where they have lived for ten years and where John died. She questions the morality behind the actions of the VA and financial institutions that make life so stressful for the families of veterans, who fought to protect us from a system like the one that would turn the Fields out of their own home.
“Is this any way for our government to treat the families of deceased veterans who honorably and proudly served their country?” she asked.
At the cemetery on the morning of July 15th, exactly six months after the death of John Fields, a diverse group of disabled and non-disabled veterans and civilians came together to unveil the headstone placed at John’s grave as is the Jewish tradition. A psalm was read, after which those gathered placed pebbles, symbols of the endurance of memory, by the headstone.
John Fields believed his responsibility to country did not end when he left the military; it was then that a greater responsibility began. He dedicated his life to helping other veterans; some veterans who didn’t even know him have benefited from his work. Together with Cher, John had helped start veteran rap groups and twelve step programs for veterans struggling with PTSD and chemical dependency. They also started a veterans peace organization and for some years operated a walk-in center for veterans and their families in transition (aka “homeless”). John died before he saw the full blossom of his work.
Cher Fields can’t help but look down the road to what today’s returning vets have waiting for them. “Today thousands of young people are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with traumatic brain injuries (TBI), amputated limbs, blindness, deafness and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” she said. “How will husbands, wives, children, parents, loved ones and friends be supportive to a disabled veteran when the very institutions these brave veterans fought to protect turn around and deny them and their families the basic rights for decent shelter, economic stability and health care treatment? “
There are no more gatherings planned at the small cemetery in Richfield where John Fields is buried. For Cher Fields, however, the tragedy of her husband’s death and the government’s response to it remain very present, a nightmare playing out in the very same country John gave his life to protect.