July 9, 2012
Vietnam Veterans Find Camaraderie in the Boneyard at Golden Age Games.
HOUSTON – “Do not bang your dominoes. Do not hold your dominoes in your hands; keep them on the table. Do not yell. Any questions? Have a good game.”
Those were the final instructions heard by four strangers sitting around a table in a convention center in St. Louis, Mo. All of them happen to be Vietnam Combat Veterans. All of them happen to have PTSD. All of them were competing in the dominoes portion of the National Veterans Golden Age Games. These men might be strangers, but their connection runs deep.
“I play dominoes with my PTSD group, and I volunteer playing dominoes with other Veterans at the VA in Houston,” says former Army Infantryman John Holt who served in the Mekong Delta from 1966-1968. “Playing dominoes helps me and it helps them because we learn to focus mentally.”
This is Holt’s 10th year playing at the Golden Age Games, making him the Veteran of the Veterans at the dominoes table. Holt says participating in the Games has become a very important part of his life.
“The Games have become a must for me. They have brought warmth to my life. They bring the freedom of stress from me serving in Vietnam and trying to cope with life after the war.”
Forney “Baker John” Johnson served in the Navy aboard the USS Kitty Hawk from 1964-1968. “All of us have our own personal stories,” he says. “It came down on us. We came home and we couldn’t tell anybody what we saw, the bodies, what we did, because they didn’t get it. They still don’t. You don’t get it unless you were there. Then, you understand.”
Johnson has been participating in the Golden Age Games for eight years. He started going to the VA in San Diego, Calif. in 2001 when a friend of his, one he claims was “a little off,” had a good experience.
“When I came back (from Vietnam) I had one friend I could talk to because he got it,” Johnson claims, “because he’d been there too. But he was in bad shape, and doing stuff, and finally he went to VA. They helped him and he was happy and he told me that I should go too.”
“I didn’t believe him,” Johnson says. “But I went because my friend said they could help me and they did. The VA has come a long way. They really do help.”
“My father was a Korean War Vet,” Marine Corps Machine Gunner Andrew Fuqua says. “They used to call it shell shock back then. He used to go through stuff and we (family) didn’t understand.”
This is Fuqua’s first foray at the Golden Age Games. He found out about the Games through his PTSD group and “decided to give it a try.”
Fuqua was on the ground in Vietnam from 1965 – 1967. He did not start receiving treatment at the VA in Denver, Colo. until recently. He says he is glad that he did. “I’ve been home (from Vietnam) for over 40 years. It was hard to find people who understand,” Fuqua says. “My wife has been with me for 30 years, but unless you’ve been there, been in the military you don’t understand. It’s nice to be with people who are like you. Who have been there.”
This is match winner Thomas Washington’s first bid at the Golden Age Games. Washington currently lives in Oakland, Calif. and served in the Army as an infantryman at Fort Lewis, Wash. His unit rotated through fierce fighting in the jungles of Vietnam during 1968 and 1969. He doesn’t talk about his time in combat as much as the others at the table. His focus is on the game. His mission is to win. He has a strategy.
“Count,” Washington recommends. “Watch the board. All money ain’t good money.” Johnson expands on that advice. “Try to be in control and see what’s on the board. This works when you play and watch the numbers like he (Washington) did. If you can lock it up…it’s a strategy, a gamble. For example, he locked it up when we both had two left. He had 12 points; I had 14 so he won. But he didn’t know I had 14. If I had 11, it would have been me who won. He took a risk and it paid off because that’s his strategy.”
The match ends and the four strangers shake hands. Yet these Golden Age Gamers aren’t strangers anymore. Their combat experiences, though in different services doing different things with different units, have allowed them to form a bond. Unlike others, those who are not Veterans, they automatically understand.