Ongoing service defines Vietnam vet’s patriotism

 While many war veterans hang up their uniform once their service time ends, for Darien resident Phil Kraft, the fight for freedom has continued decades after he left Vietnam. This fight, however, is not against Communism or terrorism or other foreign entities. It’s a battle for American veterans’ rights.

From a well-healed desk overflowing with white papers, colored folders and books about American veteran policy, Kraft oversees operations at the National Veterans Service Fund, a Darien-based advocacy group that helps veterans with support services. For Kraft, assisting his service brothers and sisters is paramount, especially when the federal government does not meet its obligations.

“There should be a tacit agreement between veterans and the country,” Kraft said. “I agree to serve the country, and in return, we’re taken care of. That’s what we thought it was.”

But often that’s not the case. Veterans’ claims are often challenged by the government, leading to long wait times, rejected claims, and frustrated vets, sick of the hassles and sick of being sick. Some vets have even resorted to suicide because they weren’t getting the psychological services needed to cope with post-war stresses, he said.

So Kraft decided to do something about it. Since 1989, he has devoted his professional life to ensuring that veterans get the help they need and deserve. His organization led the lawsuit against the manufacturers of Agent Orange, the now-banned herbicide that was sprayed on Vietnam jungles from 1961 to 1972, and subsequently sickened thousands of U.S. troops and millions of Vietnamese and caused birth defects in their offspring. Kraft has taken phone calls from veterans thinking about suicide, and he’s even helped get a name changed on a Civil War veteran’s headstone.

In the little spare time he has, Kraft somehow manages to organize the town’s annual Memorial Day Parade, he leads the Monuments & Ceremonies Commission and is the commander of the Darien Veterans of Foreign War post. It’s all service, all the time, for this 63-year-old Pennsylvania native.

“This generation of children and parents know there’s only one way to treat veterans,” Kraft said. “Supporting our troops is primary — it has nothing to do with feelings about war.”

The draft

It was the winter of 1969 when that infamous letter appeared in the mail drafting Kraft. With a mixture of self-preservation and national pride, Kraft decided to enlist. “I figured I’d hedge my bets,” he remembered. By enlisting, Kraft had more control over his assignment, so he focused on what he had wanted to do before his country called — be an entertainer.

Kraft had a passion for acting and music, so he became a quartermaster, serving in the 59th Signal Company in Long Binh, where he served as escort to a number of famous faces at that time, including George Peppard and Anne B. Davis, who played Alice on the “Brady Bunch” TV show.

He would take the famous guests through hospital wings, where wounded soldiers with missing limbs and burned faces painfully convalesced under fluorescent lights and the watchful eyes of overworked medical staff.

“Seeing guys with limbs missing and tubes sticking out of them — you try and brighten their day any way you can,” Kraft said. “You can’t undo what’s been done… I tried to divert their attention from the realities of war.”

Often, his famous guests would ask him for a quiet place to reflect, where they would then weep from the terrifying casualties of war. “That touched me more than anything,” Kraft recalled, adding that these “stars” showed an empathy and humanity that broke through traditional stereotypes that claim famous people are full of hubris.

During his three years of service, Kraft never carried a gun, and instead armed himself with a guitar and vocal cords while he walked the desolate halls of the recovery wards, trying his best to bring smiles to otherwise sullen faces.

“I had to go (to Vietnam),” Kraft said. “How could I hold my head up if I didn’t? It’s what you do. It’s what you were supposed to do.”

Roughly 284,000 men were drafted in 1969, mostly to serve in Vietnam, according to the Selective Service System. In total, 1,766,910 American men were drafted to serve in Vietnam between 1960 and 1972.

“The draft hung over everybody’s head,” Kraft said. “Many people didn’t want to go.” Approximately 70,000 men fled to Canada to evade the draft by 1972. President Gerald Ford granted these men amnesty in 1974.

Then and now

Vietnam veterans were arguably the most disrespected soldiers of all American veterans. As the war’s popularity waned, veterans were dealt with increasingly hostile home receptions.

“It was the ’60s and we were participating in an unpopular war,” Kraft said. “A lot of people were drafted out of situations they shouldn’t have been.”

Kraft had a roommate who had served four years in the Peace Corps and ended up getting drafting to fight in Vietnam. Some soldiers would serve in one branch of the armed forces, complete their years of service, only to be drafted into another branch. They would then come home to spit and insults, being called baby-killers and murderers.

For many Vietnam vets, it only got worse. Substance abuse and homelessness were rampant. Suicides increased. The soldiers were taking the blame for policies they had no control over. To many soldiers, they were serving their country — they were doing what they knew was right, regardless of why they were there.

Now, however, the tide has changed. Vietnam veterans played a key role in ensuring that future war veterans never have to experience such hostility from their own country. “When (Operation) Desert Storm came around, we adopted platoons,” Kraft said, noting that this was the first time civilians had undertaken such a role. “From Desert Storm on, supporting the troops has been primary.”

Support for troops requires not words but action, and Kraft is a man of movement. Coming home from the war, Kraft tried his hands in commercials and movies, but he was drawn back into veteran advocacy. After moving to Darien in 1982, he joined the Veterans of Foreign Wars. In 1989, he started work as a counselor at what has become the National Veterans Service Fund. In 1996, he was the VFW State Veterans’ Services Chairman, and in March 2008 was appointed to the National Veterans Care Committee at the VFW Washington Conference. Since 2002, he’s taught classes on veterans’ benefits.

Kraft is also a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, and is a lifetime member of the Veterans of the Vietnam War and has served as its National Agent Orange Advisor since 1995. He was elected into the Connecticut Veterans Hall of Fame in 2011.

Kraft is not one to rest on his laurels. He sees the fight for veterans’ rights as an ongoing battle against an imposing, inefficient and often impenetrable bureaucracy — one that requires soldiers to prove their ailment was caused by war.

“Veterans should not have to prove a causal relationship between his or her military service and his or her military disability,” Kraft said, his eyes piercing with intent. “’You served, here’s your card.’” The card being insurance that whatever the veteran needs, it is taken care of.

The government likely spends millions appealing claims of veterans, Kraft said. One World War 2 veteran who fought at the Normandy invasion ended up with bad knees from airplane jumps, but he had no documentation from that period indicating his problem was caused by the war, so the government appealed his claim and won. One man died while waiting for his appeal process to conclude, Kraft said.

Gulf war veterans are still settling cases, with the government wary about acknowledging Gulf War Syndrome, a chronic illness that some believe was caused by nerve antidotes given to soldiers as a precaution against chemical weapons. Some 250,000 veterans are said to be afflicted with the illness, according to a Veterans Affairs report.

The government also only recognizes three out of four types of the birth defect spina bifida as being caused by Agent Orange exposure. Kraft said now birth defects are showing up in the grandchildren of Vietnam veterans, and the government has yet to take full responsibility. A class action lawsuit against the chemical companies that created Agent Orange, including Dow and Monsanto, ended with a $180 million settlement in 1984, although an unsuccessful appeals process kept the money at bay for another five years. The federal government, however, has taken little responsibility over its use of the chemical herbicide.

All things considered, the Veterans Affairs department has come miles from where it was 40 years ago, Kraft said. “They do provide aid and attendance for veterans and spouses with Alzheimer’s,” he said. “They have hearing aid programs, eyeglasses. They do do a lot.”

People have also stepped up to the plate. In Darien, the high school started Support Our Soldiers, which placed American flags on the lawn of the high school as a reminder of those who died in battle. Many in town adopt platoons to send them needed toiletries and other supplies, and Soldier Socks was started in Stamford to help soldiers keep their feet healthy.

Even though at least one veteran organization is under investigation for fraud, claiming to help veterans when they’re only out to make a buck, the overall tone of the country toward veterans has improved drastically from where it was decades ago, Kraft said.

“There have been many improvements,” he said.

Farewell

After 12 years as the Memorial Day parade’s organizer, Kraft hopes to pass on the time-consuming duty to the next generation. The town is still waiting for that generation to step forward.

The commission’s youngest members are in their 60s and it includes members over 80. The work to plan the parade has become too time-consuming for the volunteers who are responsible for maintaining the town’s many monuments and the several ceremonies held each year, including the Memorial Day ceremony held at the state Veterans Cemetery on the Post Road.

“It has just become too much of a physical demand on me and the other members of the commission, of which, at 63, I’m the youngest member,” Kraft said. “First Selectman Jayme Stevenson is seeking to organize a parade committee to operate for about five months to plan the parade.”

So Kraft is hanging up his spurs… but he’s not quite done riding. He’ll stay on Monuments & Ceremonies, and continue to advocate for veterans services. He might find a bit more time to spend with his wife, Peach, and their two children, Abby and John — both graduates of Darien High School. But as long as the country keeps making veterans, Kraft will keep vigilant.

“My experience with acting helps me be whoever they need me to be,” Kraft said of his interaction with struggling veterans. “I’m not pretending — I just get a sense of what they need and how to help them. If they need a shoulder to lean on, if I need to be tough, that’s what I do.”

While his dreams of becoming a famous entertainer were sidetracked by the Vietnam War, he holds no regrets, as the deeper meaning of his current work would be difficult to experience had his career path been different. “I haven’t wasted a single talent,” he said.

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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