Wakeup Call Led to Rewarding Work with Veterans

My life changed immediately and permanently with one early morning phone call on the 15th of August 2007. I had been unable to work—or even look for work—with any energy for over a year. I thought that maybe this was just my version of aging.

Why had I felt so poorly for so long? The call answered my question. It was from the pathologist and it was a Big C phone call—Cancer. I served in Vietnam and this is one of the diseases presumed by Veteran Affairs (VA) to be caused by exposure to Agent Orange and dioxin, its powerful contaminate. Agent Orange was sprayed by the millions of gallons in Vietnam to kill vegetation and save U.S. lives. Well, saving lives was the plan.

After the phone call and over the next few days, I visited an oncologist, I learned that the cancer (non-Hodgkin's lymphoma) was not operable and that there is no cure. Capital B—Bummer.

Some of the news was not quite as bad. The cancer is usually slow growing. It might be years before things would get really bad. It took me a while to absorb and adjust. While that was happening, I pushed for some chemo that might now be what is slowing the growth of the cancer even more.

I wanted time, lots of time. It has been eight years now. That is four and one-half years beyond the average survival for my age, gender, general health, and Stage One diagnosis. I reminded myself and my wife that I rarely strive for average.

Aging and Disability Services received funding from the King County Veterans and Human Services Levy to offer free PEARLS counseling to low-income veterans, spouses and spouse survivors age 55+ who have minor depression.

Slowly, I figured out what I wanted to do with that time that came from what I refer to as "my early wakeup call." My family was doing well—not really needing much from me. But there was another group of special people who might need and appreciate some help—people I felt close to and understood, a lot like my family. Veterans. I wanted to help veterans not as fortunate as myself. This would be my "give back"—my way of trying to ensure that the scales might be tipped in the right direction when I've done all I can do.

I began looking for veteran organizations that I could join and public service opportunities focused on veterans. I found many, and slowly settled in with a few that were the most comfortable and rewarding for me. The rewards have brought many smiles. At times, they brought tears to my eyes—tears of joy. This can happen after seeing someone's life change permanently for the better because someone else took the time to listen, to learn how to help, and to connect them with the support and services they have earned.

Helping veterans understand that they and their family members earned support and services has been a critical first step. Some veterans earned their services and support years or even decades ago—just like me. I help veterans understand that they are not getting handouts or taking something away from someone they might think more deserving. These are some of the reasons many veterans don't ask for what they have earned.

The future of my cancer is unknown. And yet, I feel very fortunate to be here, still doing what I have chosen to do in retirement—serve as a veteran advocate volunteer. I am doing something positive because of my wakeup call.

Assisting veterans and their families in finding support and services and helping people who are looking for ways to help veterans is very fulfilling. Maybe I would have done this without that phone call. Maybe not.

Choosing to volunteer in retirement and help others can be very rewarding in ways different from paid employment. It may take time and multiple trials for a person to find the right fit, like it did for me. I encourage you to give it a try. You will know when you have found the fit that is right for you.


Contributor Curtis Thompson served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam in 1968–1969. Prior to discharge, he was a Specialist with a Combat Medical Badge and an Army Commendation Medal. Curtis is a lifetime member of numerous organizations serving veterans. He serves on the King County Veterans' Advisory Board and as vice-chair of the King County Veterans' Levy Oversight Board. Curtis is the past chair of the Veterans and Military Committee on the Washington State National Alliance on Mental Illness Board (NAMI-WA) and a volunteer with the NAMI-Eastside affiliate. The VA Puget Sound Healthcare System has created a unique volunteer position so that he can work closely with senior staff on employee recognition and patient advocacy and quality of care.