A Gift Given
By Justin Murphy
News21 / Syracuse University
One thing about Ed Bush: He knows how to laugh.
It’s a hoarse belly chuckle that goes along with good news and bad. His gray ponytail and prodigious stomach get to bobbing; his small, sparkly eyes sparkle more brightly, casting about for someone to draw into the joke.
Ed didn’t always laugh like this.
Not as a gunner in Korea during the Vietnam War, when he rappelled from helicopters into a hail of midnight bullets with a simple task: eliminate.
Not when he woke up on New Year’s Eve, 1985, leaning drunkenly against his wrecked Lincoln Continental, its front wheels dangling over a one-mile drop.
Not when his wife Linda — his fourth wife — threatened to leave him if he didn’t face up to his post-traumatic stress disorder.
It’s been a long, hard road of prayers and potholes, but now, Ed Bush laughs freely.
“People ask how I’m doing, I tell them, ‘Just peachy, because here we are with the Lord,’” he says. “Every day is a blessing to me.”
NOBODY TO HELP YOU STAND BACK UP
Ed and Linda live in the mountains of northeastern Washington, just a few miles from the Canadian border.
Their home is on Sqove Road, which is actually more of a steep dirt driveway. They don’t know where the name came from, but it is a romp of a road as roads go. It is a mile long and cannot be tamed without four-wheel drive: the ruts are too deep, the boulders too bountiful, the incline too sharp.
This remote, wooded land is home to many Vietnam-era veterans who came here from around the country for refuge, quiet and the support they felt they did not get upon their return to mainstream society.
They are sometimes called ‘trip-wire’ vets because, like a trip-wired bomb, they can be easy to set off. It’s impossible to say for sure how many there are in Washington, much less across the country. In this sparsely populated 500-square-mile area of northern Okanogan County, Ed estimates there are up to 1,000 veterans living in seclusion in the mountains.
Rick Francis served in the Navy in Vietnam and lived without electricity or running water in the mountains of Ferry County from 1981 until 2002. He runs the Blackdog Foundation, which aims to help veterans and their families deal with PTSD.
Trip-wire veterans are characterized by “that panic that sets in our souls,” Francis says.
“Nuances in life that don’t bother anybody else, like a door slam or a book falling off the shelf — everyday things you just glance at or don’t even notice — each of those is the opening to a conflict, as if for that startling second — even though it passes — you’re on the front line,” he says. “With trip-wire vets, that span of time — the pendulum swing from ‘in the mix’ to back out — is a lot longer. Sometimes it can last all day or all week.”
John Driscoll, president and CEO of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, said that many Vietnam-era veterans retreated to the woods because there was nowhere else to go. There are other isolated communities in the upper Midwest, the Gulf Coast, the Southwest and Upstate New York, he said.
“If you needed help to get certain issues under control, whether it’s agitation or PTSD, there was nobody there to help you stand back up,” said Driscoll, who served in the Army from 1970 to 1980. “You did what you had to do to survive, and that’s something Vietnam vets did very well.”
PTSD was not even officially recognized until 1980 by the American Psychiatric Association. It encompasses earlier terms like soldier's heart, shell shock and combat fatigue.
WE'LL HELP YOU GET SET UP
In Washington state, some of these veterans live in falling-down shacks and trailers, while others have built mountain homes with indoor plumbing and electricity. Ed and Linda help them to get along in ways small and large, and they help Ed and Linda, too.
For instance: on a sunny morning in early July, Ed and Linda are down the road at the Bonaparte Lake Resort to meet John Ritchie, a Vietnam vet who cooks there, and help him fill out paperwork to get VA benefits.
Ritchie drove a tank in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea from 1972-73. He says he has written to the VA at least five times asking for his medical records, without success. He is divorced and lives in a 49-year-old GMC school bus parked on a mountain. He’s a good cook.
“Here’s the main reason we’re trying to accomplish this,” Ritchie says. “I’ve had five heart attacks. I’ve got degenerative back disease, I’ve got COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and emphysema.”
They talk over coffee in the restaurant after the breakfast crowd goes through. In the parking lot, Ed gives Ritchie a two-handed handshake. This is something Ed always does. It feels good to shake hands with him.
“I could use a little help right now,” Ritchie says.
“We’ll get you set up,” Ed tells him with a chuckle. “God bless.”
LITTLE DEMONS JUMP IN YOUR PATH
Ed knows about needing a little help.
He was a weapons specialist in Korea, serving from 1972 to 1974. He only knew the others in his unit by their nicknames, Linda says.
“He said so many of them would be dead and gone, you didn’t want to know them,” she says. “You tried not to know them.”
That’s all Linda knows about her husband’s service. Ed won’t talk about it. He spent 24 years working as a prison guard and living in the mountains of Oregon, fueling his anger with drugs and alcohol.
“I enjoyed working in the penitentiaries because I knew eventually I could walk into somebody’s cell or go out into the big yard and get stupid,” he says. “It’s a lot of pride and PTSD. You got to learn how to leave it behind.”
Ed started leaving it behind in 1985. After narrowly escaping a horrific car crash, he embraced religion and swore off drugs and alcohol.
“I knew from then on somebody had me by the seat of the drawers, and it wasn’t me,” he says.
It hasn’t been easy. He married Linda in 2001, and they have spent long hours fighting, talking and praying.
Since 2007, Ed has been a volunteer outpost leader for Point Man Ministries, a faith-based veterans outreach organization. He helps other veterans in the area get signed up for benefits and makes sure they and their families have the food, water and shelter they need.
His anger has subsided, but it won’t ever leave him.
“Even though I believe in the Lord, sometime the little demons jump in your path and you want to use them,” he says.
A few years ago, a neighbor was supposed to do some work on Ed’s truck. He didn’t do it right, and tempers flared.
“This guy over here did not back off; he started calling Ed names,” Linda says. “Ed — it was scary … Ed started walking really slowly toward the guy with his hands straight down. You could see his face started to turn red, but with a blank, scary look like a mask.”
The neighbor walked away.
“Ed did not punch him, but I was pleading with him, saying, ‘It’s not worth it,’ and I felt like he didn’t even hear me,” Linda says.
AIN'T GOT MUCH FOR NEIGHBORS
Not all the veterans in these mountains have faced their problems the way Ed has. He knows who they are, and he can get to them if he needs to.
A few miles away from Sqove Road, hidden in a thick low-lying forest, is another bad road — a long, pockmarked gravel track with cattle guards that rattle the brain — and it comes to a fork.
To the left is a hand-painted sign in red and black lettering: “IS THERE LIFE AFTER DEATH ENTER AND FIND OUT.” Past the sign is a gleaming, chest-high pile of crushed beer cans. Past the beer cans is the trailer where Gary LaShelle lives.
LaShelle is missing a leg, either from combat in Vietnam or from a fall he took while he was drunk, depending on whom you ask. He has bright blue eyes, a bushy white beard and a pistol tucked conspicuously into the waist of his camouflage pants.
Inside his trailer, LaShelle pours a drink from a jug of whiskey lying under a table on the matted green and yellow carpet. Two rifles lean on the door jamb; another pair stand behind the easy chair. A box of ammunition sits beside a jar of Reese’s peanut butter cups on the bookshelf.
“Ain’t got much for neighbors,” LaShelle says.
To the right, the fork leads to Frank Walaczek, whose past is full of exciting but unverifiable adventures.
After three tours with the Green Berets in Vietnam, he left the service in 1966 and became a deep-sea diver, then worked for the U.S. government training guerrillas in Central America, he says.
“Knowing someone is hunting you is the greatest rush in the world,” Walaczek says.
In the Chesaw Tavern, where he’s a regular, the barflies call him Crazy Frank.
Around his house are power tools, lengths of hose, tipped-over garbage cans and a collection of beat-up pickup trucks. He cuts firewood and does construction jobs for a living, and gets his news from a shortwave radio.
Walaczek has a thick furrow between his eyes and bristly hair like the end of a push-broom. He takes a look around his property and sneers. He’s lived here for nine years.
“I’ve been hauling junk and kicking stuff and I don’t care about none of it,” he says. “One day I’ll get tired of it and throw a match in it. Let it burn down and walk away.”
ALL KINDS OF 'DINGS' LIVE UP THERE
Ed and Linda live in a sheltered mountaintop valley on Pontiac Ridge. They moved here in 2001 after Ed heard of the property through a land agency and bought it sight unseen. Thirteen rabbits cower in hutches and a spectacularly ugly guinea hen parades noisily around the yard.
The Bushes tend to a herd of goats, image #2 image #3read the Bible and haul up their water a few times a month from the community well. Linda makes her own fruit preserves and cheese, and Ed, a full-blooded Cherokee, strings together tiny colored beads to make jewelry and decorations.
Their two-room converted trailer has no telephone, and the electricity is from a battery-powered generator. Living in the mountains is cheaper than being in town, they say, and it helps them through hard times.
“The ground, the air, the hill, it’s not prejudiced,” Ed says. “Up here, all you got to talk to is the Lord and the grass waving high all afternoon. It’s a blessing.”
They also feel a fellowship with other veterans living in the hills, based on an appreciation of solitude and a need for healing.
“People say, ‘Pontiac Ridge, you’re crazy, all kinds of dings live up there!’ No, they’re not dings. They just want their privacy,” Ed says. “They’re always looking for a second chance.”
A simple network of sharing thrives in this community, where few have money or resources to spare. Ed and Linda have accepted a trailer and a 425-gallon water tank that their neighbors no longer needed, and have passed along a wood-burning stove and a television, among other things.
Mike Zorn, the state coordinator for Point Man Ministries, said that working with veterans in rural areas is a particular challenge.
“Guys go there to be isolated,” he says. “To get them to get out and be in a relationship with other vets, which improves their whole mental and emotional well-being, is a real problem. Some of them are just held hostage by their own feelings.”
For Ed, not having a telephone makes his job more difficult. He arranges to meet veterans at church in Chesaw, 12 miles from his home, and gets messages from his daughter.
“Being in a rural area, you have to be willing to do what Ed does,” Zorn says. “Going up to houses, talking to them, meeting them. Going to the mailboxes or the community well, you’ll see a lot of people.”
Ed and Linda are pushing 60, and the drive into town is rocky, but he has no plans to slow down. He sees the outreach as an essential part of his life in the mountains.
“To be able to share and help somebody else out, it makes you feel good,” Ed says. “That’s a real blessing.”
HOW 'BOUT YOU, PARTNER?
In Chesaw the Fourth of July rodeo image #2 image #3 brings in a robust country fair crowd: cowboy types and self-conscious teens, grizzled veterans with pins on their shirts, kids swinging bags of cotton candy, dudes in plaid flannel. The hot summer air smells of popcorn and bull manure.
Ed has staked out a corner seat where the pancake tent meets a table scattered with PTSD pamphlets and books. He sits in the half-shade, fists on thighs and legs spread at a 60- degree angle.
Like a carnival barker, he picks off passers-by on their way to the hot dog tent, drawing them into conversation.
A young man walks past slowly, eying the table.
“How ‘bout you, partner?” Ed calls out.
The man edges over hesitantly and lets his hands drift across the table. He says he’s a Marine.
“Does this have PTSD information?” he asks in a mumble.
Ed nods. “I’m with Point Man Ministries around here,” he says, pulling a business card from the rubber-banded stack in his chest pocket.
The Marine flips through a paperback book, but he has no money on him. Ed gives it to him with a laugh and a warm two-handed handshake.
“Next time you come through,” he says, laughing. “God bless.”
"I see things getting harder"
On a cloudy June afternoon, Ed sits in his kitchen watching the sun move down through slatted windows. The horses and goats poke around the yard, looking for scattered grain, while Linda puts together chicken fajitas for dinner.
Ed’s hearing is going and his left foot swells painfully. His memory is so poor that he can watch the same movie twice in a month and not realize it, Linda says.
He has type 2 diabetes that he believes came from exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange in Korea. He and Linda are currently working on his VA claim to get benefits for his PTSD.
Life on the mountaintop is hard: there is wood to be cut, animals to care for, buildings for storage and shelter. Every trip in the car is a major gas expenditure, and help is not always close at hand. Winter is long, cold and lonesome.
Linda would like to move closer to town. Not in town, but close enough to have running water, electricity and a telephone.
“I see things getting harder as we get older,” she says. “You don’t know when something could happen to either one of us and leave the whole burden on one.”
Ed listens, his knotty hands wrapped around a fat red travel mug filled with the morning’s cold coffee. He’s heard this argument before, and he’s not persuaded.
“The wife, she likes the idea of turning on a switch for the light and a faucet for the water,” he says. “Maybe she’s right. But to move into a lighted, covered city, or a town or a village? I could never see that happening. That’s not in my blood.”