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Veterans Day: Reflecting on Vietnam

HANFORD — Ken Boyd had two weeks left of time as a soldier in the Vietnam War when he volunteered to go on a week-long patrol; it was a decision that changed the rest of his life.

Boyd was drafted in 1966, a year after graduating high school, and was sent to Fort Ord for basic training. From there he went to more training in Georgia before being sent to Vietnam in February of 1967.

In Vietnam, Boyd said he was “all over the country” in places like the Central Highlands and Pleiku with the 4th Infantry Division, and Bong Son and Ankhe with the 1st Calvary Division.

On the last night of patrol at around 2:30 a.m., Boyd and the six other men with him were overrun with Vietnamese soldiers.

Right off the bat, three of Boyd’s fellow soldiers were killed by gunfire and grenades. Boyd said he was hit by three satchel charges — a demolition device usually made from gunpowder and nails, rocks and glass — which made him lose his gun and other weapons.

“When those things hit you, it feels like you’re in a garbage can and somebody’s beating on it with a hammer,” Boyd said.

As he was crawling away toward some machine guns, he said he felt something like a rock hit the side of his leg.

“All of a sudden, kaboom,” Boyd said. “I took a direct hit from a grenade on the outside of my leg.”

Boyd said he felt like his right leg was spinning as he tried to crawl away once again and realized it was his nerves coming into contact with the ground. He said he was losing blood from his femoral artery and tried to squeeze it to stop the flow.

He said it grew deathly quiet and he could hear the footsteps of Vietnamese soldiers coming toward him. All he could do was dig a quick hole to stick his face in and hoped they couldn’t hear him breathing.

He said a soldier walked by him and kicked him hard in the side twice before stealing his wristwatch and dogtags.

As the Vietnamese soldiers sat only a few yards away eating the American soldiers’ food rations, Boyd said he began to feel himself slip away from the blood loss. He said he even began saying goodbye to his family members in his head.

“I didn’t give up or anything, but I did say some goodbyes,” Boyd said.

Just then, an American helicopter flew overhead and began exchanging gunfire with the Vietnamese soldiers.

“Bullets were flying all around me on the ground,” Boyd remembers. “I’m thinking ‘oh man, if the hand grenade didn’t get me I’m going to get it from our guys’ bullets coming down.’”

Finally, he said the soldiers began to retreat and a medevac helicopter landed, which is when he started believing he could make it out alive. He was found, put on a stretcher, taken to the helicopter and flown to the hospital.

Boyd now sits in a wheelchair. He used to wear a prosthetic leg while he was employed at Naval Air Station Lemoore for 40 years, but can’t anymore because of knee problems.

He called coming home “miserable,” recalling when he was at an Army hospital in San Francisco and had to deal with people cussing him out, calling him and other soldiers names and spitting at them.

“They we’re talking to the wrong people when they were doing that crap,” Boyd said. “I didn’t go over there for the hell of it, I was told to go over there.”

He said Veterans Day gets him to thinking about his time in the service, though he doesn’t like to dwell on the past. He said he had good times in Vietnam, too, like partying with the other soldiers at base camp and meeting great people.

He’ll never forget the time he went to Hawaii for a week with his buddy Mike Nelson for some rest and recuperation.

It was there that Boyd met his future wife, Sharon, who was on vacation from Canada. When he was back in Vietnam, he and Sharon would write letters to each other.

After losing his leg, however, they all but lost contact with one another.

It would take 20 years and one phone call for Boyd and Sharon to be reunited; the two married in 1989. They share one daughter, and Boyd has another daughter and son from a previous relationship.

A few years ago, with Boyd having a bad knee and hip and his wife developing multiple sclerosis, they both lost the ability to walk and began using wheelchairs. The couple can’t access their bathtub or shower to properly clean off.

The Boyd’s tried getting money from the Veterans Administration to modify their bathroom and widen doorways throughout the house to make it more wheelchair-friendly.

After initially approving money for the request, Boyd said he was sent a letter at the last minute telling him he “wasn’t disabled enough.”

That’s where Justin Bond, a local veteran who lost his left leg from a wound sustained in combat in Iraq in 2004, came into the picture.

Bond, who was helping them with the VA paperwork, got fed up and decided to fund the $78,000 project through his nonprofit organization for veterans, Our Heroes Dreams.

“It’s going slow, but I think it’s going to get done and that’ll be wonderful,” Boyd said. “It’ll be a big change in our lives.”

There’s still a long way to go for the project, and right now Bond said they still need concrete donated so the foundation can be laid down. He’s hopeful the community will come together and donate for the project.

“He’s amazing,” Boyd said of Bond. “I’m sure glad I met him. I can’t give enough thanks to him.”

Knowing full well the mental toll war takes on soldiers, Boyd said he thanks God for Bond and what he has been able to do for veterans through Our Heroes Dreams.

“I still have nightmares,” Boyd said. “It’s just something you never get rid of.”

Valley fever has found its champion

Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood grew up in Kern County. He hikes there, he rides horses there and he golfs there. He remembers elementary school field trips to Shark’s Tooth Hill to dig for relics. He has done just about everything that could put him at risk for breathing in the coccidioidal fungal spore that causes valley fever, the insidious respiratory disease endemic to the area.

A relative got sick and died from the disease years ago after he was misdiagnosed. Then, a few months ago, Youngblood’s significant other got sick. Youngblood decided to get tested.

He took the antigen skin test offered at the Kern County Public Health Clinic and found out that at some point in his life he’d breathed in a fungal spore, but he never developed symptoms.

“I kind of hoped I had it already, because if not, then you have to worry about it more,” Youngblood said, noting that in most cases, if someone breathes in a fungal spore and doesn’t get sick, they likely develop an immunity. “It was kind of a relief that I had it.”

But the experience – especially for his significant other, who has endured three months of extreme fatigue and treatment – has spurred the longtime lawman to turn advocate.

He’s starring in a series of televised public service announcements developed by the Kern County Public Health Services Department – the first of their kind for valley fever awareness – that began airing on three Bakersfield television stations this month. He also plans to leverage his relationship with Gov. Jerry Brown to educate him about cocci after he vetoed a bill this year that would have raised the profile of the little-known disease.

“This is personal,” Youngblood said of the disease's impact on his family. “But it’s also my community.”

Valley fever, the common name for Coccidioidomycosis (or cocci for short), can be acquired by the simple act of breathing. It’s caused by a fungus that grows in loamy desert climates throughout the southwestern United States. When that fungus gets disturbed in the soil, often through agricultural tilling and construction, fungal spores can get swept into the wind and inhaled. The majority of people who have valley fever – roughly 60 percent – don’t get sick, but others develop flu-like symptoms, including fever, cough and extreme fatigue that can last months. In rarer cases, the spores can spread to the bloodstream and lead to a lifetime of health issues, sometimes resulting in death.

Researchers, doctors and advocates say the best defense against the disease is awareness, but comprehensive efforts have foundered for years.

Two major obstacles have stood in the way of government agencies developing a meaningful valley fever awareness campaign: money, and a lack of a celebrity to champion the cause.

The new ads have found their champion, and Kern County Public Health found the money.

The ads feature Youngblood riding a horse, playing golf, and most importantly, getting the valley fever antigen skin test – Spherusol – that the Kern County Public Health clinic began offering this year.

“I was familiar with valley fever and knew that it was a disease that someone could get by breathing in spores from our soil, but it wasn’t until it impacted my family members that I realized how serious it could be,” Youngblood says in one of two 30-second spots he recorded.

“Early detection is key,” the longtime Kern County Sheriff says after listing off the disease’s most common symptoms, including fever, fatigue, rash and a cough. “Ask your doctor to test you. Learn more about valley fever. Do it for yourself. Do it for your family.”

Youngblood will also star in a series of billboards around Bakersfield urging valley fever awareness.

But Youngblood’s advocacy work will extend beyond the local awareness campaign. He’s trying to set up a meeting that would include himself, Gov. Brown, Kern County Public Health officials and Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield, who attempted to pass robust legislation this year that would have addressed deficiencies in valley fever reporting guidelines and brought millions of dollars to the disease. It was stripped down in the legislative process to only require the California Department of Public Health launch an awareness program, but Brown vetoed the bill.

“We’re looking for a meeting with the governor to make sure the governor is aware of valley fever. If you live in Sacramento, and the life the governor has lived, he may not even be aware of what valley fever is. We want to educate him,” Youngblood said. “We want him to learn that this whole state belongs to the governor and that he represents all of us.”

So how much leverage could Youngblood, a staunch conservative sheriff who’s been at odds with the Democratic governor over past policy issues, have with Brown?

“I don’t know,” Brown chuckled. “But I’m going to use it. I can tell you that.”

The Kern County Public Health Services Department reallocated more than $15,000 from its general fund for the awareness campaign. The department found that money through savings from staff vacancies and coming in under budget for other projects, Kern County Public Health Director Matthew Constantine said.

Television and radio PSAs will be on the airwaves for three weeks at a cost of $11,750. They’ll play in local movie theaters during previews and on YouTube at a cost of $2,934 through the end of the year, Public Health spokeswoman Michelle Corson said.

Sandra Larson, former executive director of the Bakersfield-based Valley Fever Americas Foundation, said that she’s never seen an awareness campaign of such magnitude in her more than two decades of advocacy work.

“It’s so rewarding and encouraging to see this kind of effort being made and the money being spent,” Larson said, adding that Youngblood’s local celebrity factor and stature as a respected lawman in the community will add to the campaign’s power. “It’s moving to see him talk about something that causes pain and suffering to so many in our community.”

Rob Purdie, a VFAF member, said the PSAs are a sure sign that “the path has changed” and that awareness efforts are coming to the forefront.

The amplification of the department’s public awareness campaign comes months after the state suffered its worst year for valley fever in decades – and local public health officials say that cases next year could be worse.

"We do not have our confirmed data for 2017 yet, but our preliminary data for 2017 indicates that we may likely see a significant rise in the number of cases yet again," Constantine said.

Statewide last year, 5,372 people were infected. In Kern County, six died of the disease. Doctors and researchers, however, believe the numbers don’t capture the full scope of the disease. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 150,000 people go undiagnosed annually. Researchers blame a lack of awareness.

In response to those rising cases, Kern County Public Health spent $5,731 to run digital billboards through the end of the year warning people to stay inside during dusty days and to get tested.

All these efforts came after a year-long reporting project on valley fever by the Center for Health Journalism, dubbed “Just One Breath,” revealed among other things that the state provides no money whatsoever for valley fever awareness campaigns.

Stolen guns, meth and cash found during traffic stop

CORCORAN — A traffic stop led Corcoran Police to the discovery of stolen guns, almost two pounds of methamphetamine and thousands of dollars in cash, officials said.

Police said 40-year-old Victor Azdar-Martinez was arrested Thursday around 12:30 a.m. after officers pulled over his Mitsubishi Sport SUV, which was being driven without properly displayed license plates, in the 800 block of Norboe Avenue.

During the traffic stop, officers said they conducted a search of the vehicle and located a 12-gauge shot gun, a loaded .357 Magnum revolver and 1.6 pounds of methamphetamine. Officers also located over $8,000 in cash in the vehicle.

Police said further investigation revealed the .357 revolver was stolen.

Authorities said Martinez was arrested and charged on suspicion of possession of a controlled substance for sales, transportation of a controlled substance for sales, possession of a loaded firearm, possession of a concealed stolen firearm and possession of stolen property.

Officials said Martinez was booked into Kings County Jail. His bail was set at $385,000.

Local veteran releases new song

HANFORD — JJ Brown joined the U.S. Navy when he was 19, and the experience was the catalyst behind a new song he wrote dedicated to all veterans.

“Veterans Day is a big holiday for us veterans. It’s like a birthday,” Brown said. “It reminds us that we are not alone. So I wanted to do something special to pay tribute to my veteran family.”

Brown, a county singer-songwriter living in Hanford, will release his newest single, called “nineteen19,” this Veterans Day to honor all those who have served.

Brown served for five years, including time overseas while on board the USS Enterprise and the USS Nimitz attached to VFA-14 at Naval Air Station Lemoore.

“I had the choice to move to Nashville or join the military,” Brown said. “I did the honorable thing and chose to do something bigger than myself.”

Brown describes “nineteen19” as a fun, story-telling song that talks about the good and bad experiences he had while serving in the Navy during the War Against Terror and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

He said he met a lot of friends in the Navy that he traveled the world with and who became like family to him. He said the song is a way to honor those he served with, the community and all veterans alike.

While the song remains mostly light and fun, Brown said it does reach into the heart of the listener when it speaks about the darkness of war. He said while the song details his personal story, he knows other veterans will relate to it.

“It’s not just a Navy song, it’s a veteran’s song,” Brown said

Brown has opened up about his feelings surrounding veterans and war in previous songs, but Brown said “nineteen19” has quickly become a crowd favorite with its catchy melodies.

As a special tribute, Brown asked local veterans to send him copies of their service pictures and he is planning to unveil a music video with the photos.