Retired Vancouver airman helps put veteran at ease

Family of Battle Ground man struggling with dementia, memories of war reaches out on social media - and finds comfort for dad

By Tom Vogt, Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter

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Lawrence Silk has to report for duty in Vietnam.

That’s what the 84-year-old Air Force veteran has been telling his family for months.

Despite their assurances, they couldn’t convince him that the war was over, son-in-law Kenny Dunn said.

“He will say, ‘Where is my uniform, because I need it. I need my rifle. I need to report. They’re going to send me back to Vietnam,’ ” Dunn said.

Silk’s 20-year Air Force career included three tours during the Vietnam War, his family said. Now, as his mental health deteriorates, that aspect of Silk’s life seems to have the firmest grip on his memory.

But a fellow Air Force veteran just delivered a fresh reminder that Silk has completed his military service. Andy LaFrazia, a recently retired lieutenant colonel, presented Silk with a certificate on Saturday in a totally unofficial ceremony that came together almost immediately on social media.

As Dunn photographed the visit, LaFrazia personally assured Silk that he had completed his service, and thanked the veteran for all the work he’d done as an airman.

So far, it seems to have helped his father-in-law, Dunn said.

“The care facility says he has been out and about, walking around and interacting much more than he usually does. He’s spending time out of his room; the last month, he had not been very social,” Dunn said. “He still has a hint of the Vietnam talk, but it’s not as constant. When it does, we can direct him to the certificate and the pictures” of LaFrazia and Silk.

Not a bad outcome for what Dunn initially called a bad idea. But he and wife Julie decided that they had to try something about her dad’s decline.

“His mental health condition has been deteriorating the last six months. He has been struggling with the onset of dementia, and it’s getting bad. He’s gone from assisted living to a nursing home to an adult family home. The whole time, his memory has been getting worse.

“Sometimes he remembers who we are; sometimes he doesn’t,” Dunn said. “He’s this really strong man. He’s tough. He cries because he can’t remember, and he cries when he brings up the war — and he does it all the time.

“He talks about specific people he served with. It haunts him. Out of all the memories he’s lost and the people he’s forgotten, the Vietnam memories have stayed consistent. It’s been hard for my wife to watch,” Dunn said. “She’s the youngest of nine children — his little girl.”

After a recent visit, the Vancouver couple were talking about how they could convince Silk that the war was over. He offered a thought: Maybe they could find a military officer or Veterans Affairs official who could visit the Battle Ground care center and tell Silk that he doesn’t have to go back to Vietnam.

“It was not very well thought-out,” he said. “You know how you come up with an idea, and it goes away when you really think about it.”

Well, this one took off before they could have second thoughts. They posted it on a local social media page on Aug. 9.

“Within an hour, we had 100 leads. One was a retired general,” he said.

Another message showed up a couple of hours later.

“My dad is exactly who you are looking for, a lieutenant colonel,” the woman said.

They had no idea how true that would be.

It became apparent when Dunn gave her father a call and the men compared notes. Although serving in different eras, Silk and LaFrazia had been in the same unit.

“I was looking for anybody in a uniform,” Dunn said. “This was miraculous.”

“The weird thing was, he was a carpenter in a civil engineer squadron,” LaFrazia said. “That was my career for 30 years.”

LaFrazia, now a Vancouver businessman, printed a certificate that attested to Silk’s service and his honorable discharge. He also gave Silk a couple of challenge coins — the commemorative tokens shared among members of the military — and some unit patches.

LaFrazia said he participated because “we have a lot of veterans out there who have needs.”

Silk was in the Air Force from 1954 to 1974, including tours in Vietnam and Thailand. LaFrazia isn’t surprised that Silk’s memories of duty in a war theater can linger.

“It is such a time of stress. Even if he was on a base, he saw the casualties coming through,” LaFrazia said.

LaFrazia was on active duty for seven years, starting in 1987, and completed his 30-year Air Force career in July.

Military health care has made some strides in that span, LaFrazia noted. Maybe recent veterans or those currently serving — and their families — might not have to experience some of the things Silk and his family are going through.

“In the past, they kept it to themselves,” LaFrazia said. “Today, they may have learned more about talking about things. It’s OK to ask for help.”

According to Dunn, the help LaFrazia gave Julie’s father has not been universally applauded.

“A lot of people don’t believe playing into the delusions when people have dementia,” Dunn said. “Some say to keep them grounded in reality. I only know what works with us. I think we just grounded him more firmly, to have the military remind him of the truth.

“The war is over, and he is retired.”