Gordon Alexander Graham is an advocate for military veterans.
The 64-year old Vaughn resident, who goes by Alex, peppers his conversations with names of faraway places ––some long-forgotten, some totally unfamiliar.
They’re names of towns in Vietnam where Graham served in the early 1970s ––Ban Muong Soui, Ban Na, Ban Sam Thong, the Plain of Jars and a place simply called “LS”which stood for “Laos Site.”
Graham followed in the footsteps of his father who had been an Ace fighter pilot in WWII.
But he hadn’t planned it that way.
After graduating from high school in 1969, he was ready to register at Hartwick College in New York.
“Four days into my summer vacation I got a little buzzed and my buddies and I started throwing eggs at a bunch of cars,”Graham said.
“One of them happened to be police car. I got charged with a bunch of things but most of the charges were dropped ––[if] I signed up for the military.”
He quickly signed up for the U. S. Air Force, went to basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas and then was sent to technical training to learn telephone maintenance and cable splicing.
His first overseas assignment was in Thailand, near the Laotian boarder
“The war was really hopping when I got there in 1970,”he recalled. “It was a real war zone and as soon as I got there I sort of had to learn to dodge aircraft.”
When the Air Force learned that Graham could speak French, his orders were changed from participating in the invasion of Cambodia to an assignment at Tan Son Nut AFB, near Saigon, where he “was all set to go on Operation Rustic ––a classified operation.
“I was going to be a back-seater, instructing Cambodian Air Force pilots where to drop their bombs along the Ho Chi Min Trail,”he said.
“I was on the flight line poised and ready to go and I was suddenly told that my orders had been changed and I was being sent to Laos as an interpreter.”
That was July 1970.
“Two days a week I was assigned to USAID –– the United States Agency for International Development. I didn’t wear a uniform and I had a USAID ID card saying I was a French teacher,”he said.
His job was to fly with the Royal Laotian Air Force, finding targets and telling the pilots where to drop their ordinance.
In September 1970, Graham took a bullet in the leg from enemy fire. He was on a classified mission in a place called Palace Dog, technically working for USAID that day.
“We were in the air when we got hit by Pathet Lao, an indigenous force that was in league with the North Vietnamese communists that were trying to take Laos back from the U.S. We were near a tiny village called Ban Na. That meant “building”or a village in Laotian,”he said.
“My job was to have a microphone and a stack of propaganda leaflets and throw the leaflets down into the villages and encourage the people to switch over to our side.
“I didn’t even feel the it when the bullet hit me.”
Later, in a small field unit hospital where Graham was treated, he was given two pints of blood from local indigenous people, as was customary.
Not long after that he came down with hepatitis.
Soon it was learned that Graham’s father was a Lt. General in the U.S. Air Force “so I wasn’t even supposed to be in a combat zone because I was the sole surviving son of a military person,” he said at his Vaughn home.
As it turned out, that didn’t matter much given the circumstances, and Graham was sent to another secret base to fix telephones and drop telephone wires out of the bottom of a low-flying plane to string them over the jungle canopy.
On one of those flights, Graham’s plane crashed into a mountain. Everyone survived, but there were serious injuries.
When Graham got back to the U.S. he didn’t get a hero’s welcome.
“The military told me my hair was too long and my shoes weren’t shiny enough and that I wasn’t military material.
“Well, where I had been (in Southeast Asia) we were more like Terry and the Pirates and the important thing was how well you shot ––not how well polished your shoes were.
“They wanted us to be like Casper Milquetoast and I just couldn’t do it. So they demoted me a stripe and busted me down from E4 to E3 and kicked me out on Feb. 23, 1973 and said I was an antisocial personality with passive-aggressive tendencies. Of course, they were full of crap,”he said.
He received a general discharge under honorable conditions, but when he got his Certificate of Service paper, it was an empty sheet.
He was given only one medal, which basically showed that he had served in wartime. “Everybody got that medal,”he said. “There were a whole lot of other medals that I had earned and should have gotten ––like a Purple Heart ––and I didn’t get them.”
As a civilian, Graham became a journeyman electrician and started his own electric business.
In 1989 he moved to the Key Peninsula and started building houses. He also discovered that he had several Agent Orange-related diseases and that medication he had been given for hepatitis had exacerbated his Crohn’s disease. “The VA rated me 100 percent disabled for two different diseases,”he said.
Still, he didn’t have his medals.
He started filing claims against the VA and his wife Debbie suggested he write a book about his situation. It was called “Veterans Administration Claims: What You Need to Know to be Successful.”
With help from Rep. Derek Kilmer, Graham got most of his medals in 2014 ––except for his Purple Heart and his air medal. “Apparently, that’s because when I got hurt I wasn’t technically flying for the U.S. Air Force, but for USAID,”he said.
Now he’s working on a second book called “Win or Die”and he’s growing things in a new $150,000 greenhouse the VA gave him under its independent living program.
“The new book talks about all the things that have transpired for me with my VA claims since the end of the first book,”he said.
“What I’m doing is advocating for veterans, helping my fellow veterans get the medals they deserve ––especially the vets that don’t know how to do this stuff for themselves.
“It’s not about me. It’s about veterans, all veterans, even the ones that serve during peacetime. Now that I’ve won, it’s even more important to me to share what I know and to help others,” he said.
His message to others is simple: Never leave anyone behind. “The hardest thing I ever did was have to leave a fellow airman behind in Laos because we’re almost out of gas or whatever. That’s what I’m doing with my advocacy work ––trying to make sure no one is left behind,” he said.