It is said that it takes a special person to be in the military, but it also takes a special person to be the supportive spouse of the enlisted. Bonnie White - wife, mother, and patriot – stays involved with veteran organizations even though she is now widowed.
“It is my passion to help veterans and particularly veteran survivors,” Bonnie insists.
Chattanooga born and raised, Bonnie is one of 11 siblings. She grew up with three sisters and the rest were brothers. “Having seven brothers for us girls was like having a football team as guardians. We didn’t have the problems the other girls might have. One of my brothers was 6’4” and he would always introduce himself to my suitors,” she laughs.
It was a natural-born instinct for Bonnie to stand up for her younger brothers when they were too small to fend for themselves. “I was kind of fierce,” Bonnie says.
It is this same approach when Bonnie assists veterans or their survivors, when they aren’t sure what benefits are available to them.
Bonnie attended college at UC (currently UTC) and went into accounting. She married her husband Stanley after he was already out of the Marine Corps, but the effects were still very much a part of his life.
Stanley had joined the Marine Corps reserve and immediately after boot camp he was sent to Korea. Failure to hold free elections throughout the Korean Peninsula had broadened the division between the North and the South. The 38th parallel became a political border between the two Korean states. Although negotiations continued after the war, cross-border raids at the 38th Parallel continued. The situation intensified when North Korean forces invaded South Korea on June 25,1950.
“As the conflict worsened he landed above the 37th parallel. He drove a supply truck with weapons and he carried the men’s bodies back,” Bonnie states. ”In mid-November things got rough and there were rumors that the Chinese were there, but the military didn’t think it was possible because ‘we had the atomic bomb and they just wouldn’t do that’ …Stanley had nightmares about it. When we got married I didn’t know how long he had been going through it.”
Stanley was 15 years older than Bonnie. When they married, he was working for the railroad and later owned and operated tractor trailers and leased them.
“Anytime we saw another Marine and they found out he had been in the Chosin Reservoir, he always got a salute and a pat on the back and it embarrassed the fire out of him – he didn’t like to talk about it,” Bonnie says.
Suffering with PTSD, Stanley continued to have ongoing nightmares and flashbacks for years. “He was never upset with me, but one time he tried to choke me without realizing who I was and I pushed him off the bed. It terrified me and he just sat there like he was dazed - he just didn’t realize it. Then one night I woke up and he was in the closet pulling clothes down, ‘hiding from the Chinese’. Eventually, he went to counseling,” Bonnie declares.
Stanley was discharged without disability and it was said that he was in ‘perfect health’. During the time many PTSD or shell shock symptoms were pushed under the rug. Also ignored was the fact that frigid cold temperatures had frozen Stanley’s feet and hands.
“He walked funny the rest of his life. We would tease him and tell him that he was just prissy, but he would say, ‘I can’t be prissy - I am a Marine’,” Bonnie chuckles.
A study had later declared disability for the veterans who served in the Chosin Reservoir and the temperatures they faced and later when Stanley’s health declined rapidly, he was at 260 percent combat-related disabled.
“It took a lot of fighting with the VA to get that. He was in his early 60s when we started. He wanted to give up a lot, but I wouldn’t let him. We had to prove everything was combat-related. Stanley had COPD, but he had never smoked before he went in the service. In 1998, the VA decided that if anyone had COPD because of smoking, they were no longer going to consider it a service-connected disability… but I kept fighting it. The VA would say ‘It’s probably genetic’… we had to go back and prove that he had a twin and an older brother who never smoked and never served in Korea. We had letters from his doctor who treated him for years and that he felt that he would not have smoked. For Stanley, it was a way at first to keep his hands busy because he no longer had a rifle and was given free cigarettes. They were in their rations and …‘it was a manly thing to do’,” Bonnie says. “Being just 19 years old, they had this idea that if they smoked while they were in Korea, it would keep their lungs from freezing. You are very naive at that age.”
Receiving letters from other Marines and obtaining letters from physicians, Bonnie jumped through all the hoops necessary for Stanley to receive disability income that was due him. Even though he received a percentage of disability for being in the Chosin Reservoir, Bonnie wanted to keep going.
“I got pretty passionate that if my efforts to prove disability helped other Marines we would apply for it. We proved that he could get the COPD disability,” Bonnie states.
While in his 70s, Stanley’s walking was more difficult and he needed an electric wheelchair to get around. His health declined over the next eight years while Bonnie was still working and her insurance would not cover the hospital stays.
“Today, to be in a nursing home, you have to either be very wealthy or very poor. It is so expensive. I had already gone through all the channels for the disability pay, and I started checking on VA benefits. They had two facilities that he could get into and, being over 100 percent disabled, the doors were pretty much open to him. We chose Murfreesboro at the Alvin York Medical Center because our son lives in that area and I could get there every Friday through Sunday. I was there at other times too, but when we took him up there we expected him to last a few months. I planned to take time off and be with him, but he lived another four and a half years. He said he was a tough Marine,” Bonnie says.
Stanley died in January of this year, leaving Bonnie to face widowhood after 47 years of marriage. She was already involved in veteran programs, but joined the Gold Star Wives as their secretary and prepares the American Auxiliary newsletter.
“Since my husband passed away, I have joined the auxiliaries of the veteran’s organizations he belonged to. These include the American Legion, VFW and Gold Star Wives,” Bonnie says.
Gold Star Wives is a group of widows whose husbands died in combat or of service-related illnesses. Many widows are practically destitute and GWS will help them with their claims and benefits. Most, but not all, are well past retirement age.
“My passion now is to inform these ladies about benefits they may be eligible for. Many believe that because they are now, or will likely become, widows they are not eligible for any veteran benefits. Their monthly income is often very low compared to what their husbands have, particularly after he passes. I try to help them find out if they are eligible for more. It is wonderful when we find out they are,” Bonnie maintains.
While at the VA hospital, she had formed good friendships with the nurses and staff.
“They would send veterans for me to help. I always had my laptop and they knew I was fighting for disabilities for Stanley. I decided I wasn’t going to just sit there and I wanted to help other veterans and, not just veterans, but their dependents too. Survivors have benefits they have no idea about. The VA does not volunteer that information. They never lied to me, but they did not inform me of all the options about health insurance and life insurance and other benefits that people don’t know about,” Bonnie insists.
“The VA may have a lot of faults, but they are trying to get their act together on their claim’s service. It seems to take forever, but in all the time that Stanley was at the hospital on the hospice floor he had excellent medical care. He was so reserved, but when he was there around the other veterans, he became Mr. Personality – it was so funny,” Bonnie laughs.
One of her fondest memories after going on a cruise ship with Stanley and their children was when he joked about a cruise for a 50th anniversary.
“He only went on the first cruise because it was a family vacation and the children were giving it to us as an anniversary gift that year. He told me at the time, that we would go on another cruise for our 50th anniversary,” Bonnie explains. “One day up at the VA, I did some little thing that irritated him and he said, ‘Hey Missy, come here a minute… if you keep ticking me off… you know that cruise I promised you? On a week before our anniversary, I might just decide to kick the bucket,’ and I said, ‘Oh please don’t do that - I don’t know who I would get to replace you on such short notice’,” she laughs.
“It’s hard for anyone to understand PTSD. The military is doing more to recognize it now. Back then anyone who had it was considered cowardly, but war is on auto pilot for Marines. Stanley is still my rock, even though he is not here. I will miss him forever, but I feel I have a calling to help veterans and particularly veterans’ survivors,” Bonnie vows.
“I feel it is important to stress to everyone to support our veterans because there is not enough being done. There are homeless veterans that need help. Even if people don’t have time to get involved in the organizations themselves, if they can just support financially,” Bonnie says, “and particularly, if they ever see a veteran …go up and pat them on the back and say thanks.”