Jun 27, 2017
Photo above: Brian and Pam on an anniversary trip
Graton, Sonoma County and the larger Veteran’s and disabled community lost a valuable friend and advocate this May when Brian Augustine passed away after a valiant cancer battle.
Brian, a 3rd generation Concord boy and 5th generation Californian leapt into life at 17 by joining the Marines. After bootcamp he was sent to Hawaii, the Philippines, Japan and Korea; heady stuff for a Concord kid. Then he was asked to choose: stay in Asia or a return to a domestic base. He stayed and six weeks later in 1963, he was in one of the first Marine divisions to enter Vietnam. He was a grunt for 3 months and then volunteered for search air rescue. His last year there was interrupted by an 11 day leave after his father suffered a severe stroke.
Once home, he married and adopted twins with his first wife. One of several jobs was shipping bombs to Vietnam via the Concord Naval Weapons Station. While there he was part of a discrimination suit filed against the federal government. The GI bill first took him to Diablo Valley College then Cal State Hayward and lastly graduate school at Cal Berkeley and UCSF.
Brian served many veterans at the VA Hospital Martinez at an inpatient drug rehab program until a threat to close the program; Brian refused to author a report that would have shuttered it. Then a call came from a previous coworker at the VA Hospital. They had worked side by side for years but never discussed their service in Vietnam where she had been a nurse at Cho Lai. She is the model for the nurse at the Sacramento Vietnam Veterans Memorial. They started the 3rd largest center in the country, Concord Vietnam Veterans Center. Brian served for 15 years before retiring in 1997.
The Augustines relocated to Grass Valley where Brian worked at Nevada County Mental Health for 10 years. Brian counseled Veterans suffering from PTSD before it was even really recognized - and did mental health outreach and home visits to people with extreme behavioral health challenges, including in isolated rural parts of California.
Brian was there on the day in 2001 that Scott Thorpe walked into the office and shot and killed a 19-year old employee (Laura Wilcox, namesake of Laura’s Law) and a visiting caregiver and wounded others. Then Thorpe entered a nearby Lyon’s restaurant fatally shooting restaurant manager and wounding a cook. Brian quickly called 911 that day, recognizing well the sound of gunfire.
Brian retired (again) shortly after the shooting and went into private practice with the chronically mentally ill. He discovered the opportunity to serve once again and took a job as an MFLC; Marriage, Family, Life Consultant providing mental health services to active military. He worked all over the world for 6 years including in Germany, Italy, Africa, England, American Samoa and Japan.
When he returned home he worked for the Council On Aging in Santa Rosa as the volunteer coordinator and resumed his private practice.
Coworker Arlene Irizari at the COA shared, “I had the privilege of being a co-worker at COA with Brian who was manager of mental health services & peer support services there until he went on medical leave earlier this year to focus on his battle with cancer… I attended workshops he presented about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Veterans & among other trauma/abuse survivors….these included Brian’s personal journey as a Vietnam War Veteran seeking explanations for mental health symptoms/behaviors he & his peers were having… This was during a time when earlier the VA & other medical providers had not yet acknowledged PTSD or its devastating effects upon returning war veterans & their families. Brian was a man of courage, deep insights, respect for those he served, always balanced by a sense of humor”.
In a shocking ironic oversight, Brian and his family received no help with his care despite his history as a Veteran. He experienced back pain and had a fusion in his neck, and had diabetes for 20 years. Additionally, he suffered from pneumonia, shrapnel in the eye and typhoid while in service.
This January, he was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer to the bone and liver. During a home visit from a social worker (who was also a veteran and worked at a Vietnam Veteran Center back east) he was asked about his service and if he had received veteran services. Brian had been erroneously denied because of income restrictions; that was not the correct criteria to be used for eligibility because he served in Vietnam. He should have been getting medical services without any regard to income. He had never applied for any benefits in the belief that he would not qualify.
The social worker then dropped a bomb - explaining that lung cancer and diabetes are presumptive conditions resulting from agent orange exposure which Brian had experienced. Under revised “dates of exposure” Brian now qualified for exposure to both and had never been advised this.
His wife was told by a Veterans Officer (VSO) that Brian’s DD214 discharge forms did not reflect “boots on the ground” service, but only identified him as a Vietnam era Veteran, unbeknownst to Brian. He was forced into a very painful in-person visit a month before he passed, and three months later his family is still waiting for correct records.
Brian could have received assistance throughout his illness and potentially discovered his cancer sooner, as more frequent lung x-rays are part of Agent Orange follow up.The family would have received assistance with his care including home health care, nursing, transportation for free instead of paying a $5500 deductible and an hour visit each day - all that was offered through private insurance and hospice.
Brian could have been receiving benefit payments for having diabetes 20 years ago. His children could have received a free college education and no point VA loan. His family would have benefited from additional income throughout his life. Pamela says, “I would encourage every veteran to make certain their DD214 reflects their service correctly and meet with their local VSO and veteran’s clinic”. She says she will receive no retroactive medical reimbursements and no benefits prior to their belated filing date.
Brians life’s work stands as an extraordinary example of empathy, service and caring, and as a call to alertness for all veterans to check and double check their paperwork status. VA reform has begun but has a long way to go.