AZTEC — For almost 50 years Bruce Salisbury has devoted himself to honoring and recognizing veterans that he feels are too often overlooked by the public and by the agency charged with their care.
Salisbury, 84, a veteran of World War II and the Korean War, retired as a master sergeant from the U.S. Air Force in 1966, spent 10 years in the Air Force Reserves and later worked as a volunteer firefighter at the Center Point Fire Department, near the home he and his wife, Air Force veteran Dottie Salisbury, have shared since the 1960s.
In that time, Bruce Salisbury spent much of his time writing about veteran issues in The Veterans' Voice, a quarterly national newspaper, and working with others to ensure Four Corners military members are honored. He also has tried to get health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs for himself.
In September, Salisbury spoke at Farmington Museum during the installation of a portrait of U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Kenneth L. Worley, a Farmington native who is the only Marine Medal of Honor recipient from New Mexico. Worley was largely unknown until Salisbury discovered him during his research. He is still hoping to raise enough money to install a bronze statue of Worley in Farmington.
News last week that Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki resigned over a scandal in which employees throughout the VA's massive hospital system hid veterans' months-long wait times inspired a weary sigh from Salisbury.
"It's politics as usual," Salisbury said. "When politicians start feeling heat, they fire somebody and that takes the heat off for a while. They'll hope the public will forget about the whole thing. They'll never resolve the problem unless the Congress and Senate and government itself have real consequences for the people who commit these crimes, either from Veterans Affairs officials or veterans illegally taking benefits."
Salisbury has fought his VA post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, diagnosis and refused payments for years. He is irked by his experience overhearing veterans in clinics chuckle over receiving money for their PTSD status. A friend and fellow veteran joked that Salisbury was misguided. "He told me, 'They should be paying you, Bruce, because refusing (PTSD benefits) proves that you are crazy,'" Salisbury said.
But he reserves most of displeasure for officials over the corruption and bureaucracy that takes advantage of veterans, especially those of advanced age who more often lack the wherewithal or support base to push back.
"Abusing people, especially old folks, is a crime, and some of these are World War II and Korean and Vietnam veterans," Salisbury said. "They make them wait, or triage them so they don't die and send them from the (emergency room) to the floor and back again in a shameful way. It's a dirty little game, and a lot of the doctors and nurses grieved about it but they're likely just afraid of being fired."
Salisbury wrote to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., but hasn't heard from him and, as with the many letters of complaint he sends to officials, doubts he will.
On Memorial Day, Salisbury — who is battling heart and lung damage he says was caused when he was a crew member on B-29 and B-50 flights over Alaska and Japan collecting air samples to test for radiation — tolled a bell at Memory Gardens in Farmington in honor of World War II veterans. The VA estimates that there will be no surviving World War II veterans by 2036.
"Abuse of the elderly is a federal crime and the FBI should look into it. The forensics are there," he said. "It's not just politics. It's that we have never faced up to taking care of vets. I was just heartbroken when I saw the news. Maybe the military are more noble than the people who are supposed to take care of them."
"If we wait for justice, it will only come from the boss," he said pointing upward.
James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4631 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.