Rheva Acevedo watched as her husband, Carlos, put up a wall of silence around his time in the military. His reticence was understandable—the U.S. Army vet had served in the Vietnam War and may have been exposed to Agent Orange.
“I (saw) Carlos break down at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., (but) when we went to several veterans meetings, he listened but rarely contributed,” she said.
Even after learning he had diabetes, her husband refused to apply for benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
After Carlos’ death in 2009, it took Rheva Acevedo a few years to “get my head back on straight.”
But while others might cocoon themselves in grief and become a pity party of one, the retired Oak View resident decided to add meaning to her life by volunteering.
“I have always wanted to thank soldiers for their service to our country, but saying ‘thank you’ is just words,” she told me with great passion. “I had to do something!”
Exactly what kind of meaning does volunteering add to her life?
“I help veterans and they help me become a better human being,” the 74-year-old Acevedo said.
When I met her at the Gold Coast Veterans Foundation in Camarillo more than a year ago, I was tired of jumping through the hoops of red tape and was at the end of my patience. She showed me that there are people out there who care enough to reach out and hold the hoop so that it is at least a little easier to jump through.
When a co-worker and I mentioned we were considering nominating her for an award for four years of meritorious service, Acevedo was adamant that she wasn’t worthy of recognition.
“None of what I do is heroic,” she insisted. “I sit in a chair with a phone in my hand. That cannot be compared to being in real battle and never should be. I don’t want kudos.”
Acevedo just wants the focus to be on improving veterans’ lives.
“And I have my work cut out for me,” she said.
She told me about how she has learned which veteran resources within the county can get the job done quickly and which are limited by paperwork and rules that can actually end up delaying help for veterans.
I asked about the rewards of her work.
“Getting a veteran who has been living on the street, or in her/his car, a safe place to call home, or a badly needed wheelchair, makes my time and efforts worthwhile,” she said.
Every time she phones or visits with a lonesome veteran, “it shows them that someone cares,” Acevedo said.
Her caring attitude shows in other ways, too, like getting a disgruntled veteran to laugh with her. Or helping a vet sign up for healthcare. She once facilitated the donation of household goods to a veteran who had just moved into their own place.
Many of our veterans just don’t have that kind of personal attention in their lives. And it’s a tragedy. Acevedo mentioned some of the problems she helps veterans sort out. Many live off of their VA and Social Security benefits and don’t have enough to cover the cost of rent. Some government-run programs that subsidize veteran housing disqualify veterans because of their discharge status or because they haven’t been homeless long enough.
Veterans face the same roadblocks everyone encounters in life. However, many veterans are dealing with the added challenge of coping with physical and psychological issues brought on by the horrors of war.
Aside from the scarcity of affordable housing for off-track veterans, one of Acevedo’s biggest frustrations is the lack of resources available for elderly or infirm veterans. Phone calls, she said, are helpful but inadequate for a veteran with serious psychological and physical issues. Some are too disabled, some don’t have transportation, and some are mistrustful of the VA after being mishandled or falling through the cracks.
The sincere care she displays echoes in the hearts of all the dedicated volunteers who work to help veterans in our county.
Acevedo doesn’t dwell on the limitations of bureaucracy. She prefers to keep fighting for veterans’ rights, because anytime she’s unable to assist someone, it keeps her up at night.
“If all the community resources, all the government offices, and all that I’ve tried have failed them—how do I learn to live with that?”
Stoneman, a former homeless veteran, is an intern at the Camarillo-based Gold Coast Veterans Foundation nonprofit. For details, visit gcvf.org.