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Inspired by Ashby Leach
By James Bentley
I was a member of VVAW in the 1970s and met Ashby Leach while I was attending City College of New York. I marched with other vets during the Free Ashby Leach campaign. Ashby observed me studying an organic chemistry textbook while I was with other veterans marching in support of his trying to get accepted into medical school. I was in a special program in the city university called the CUNY baccalaureate program and graduated magna cum laude. I got into this program after working as a volunteer at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City making plastic reproductions of actual dinosaur bones. The program enabled me to get college credit for that work and allowed me to make my own curriculum and attend any school within the City University system.
At the end of each semester I sent the VA all my transcripts. During that time the VA suspended my educational benefits for 6 months twice because they would only accept one transcript and said I was only attending school part time. This forced me to take every measure possible to survive so I ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for breakfast, lunch and dinner, rode a bicycle and roller skates to get to school. All the money I had left were pennies I saved over the years. I had to take the subway into Manhattan one morning in order to get to school. After waiting in line to get to the token booth the man in the booth told me to go to the back of the line because he had no time to count the pennies I put into a roll. My train was coming into the station and if I missed it I would miss my class so I gave him all my pennies and jumped the turnstile to catch my train. I told him to give me my change when I get back which he did.
After school I roller skated to the VA office to confront them about cutting off my money for school. After taking a number and waiting in a big room with a large number of other veterans my number was called. I entered a smaller room and the door was left open. I politely explained my situation to the VA representative who admitted the VA was at fault but told me they would issue me a check to reinstate my benefits in two months. I did not have enough money or food to last another two months. It seemed to me that the VA was trying to force me to quit school. I had no other choice but to do something drastic. However I did not want to get arrested because that would prevent me from getting into med school. So I raised my voice so that everyone on the entire floor especially the other veterans in the large room outside could hear me.
I let everybody know how the VA was mistreating me but did not use any profanity, did not threaten anyone, and did not touch anyone. I let them know I was a Vietnam veteran and sat behind an M60 machine gun on the back of a truck and that there was no justifiable reason on earth that any war veteran should be forced to beg and suffer for their guaranteed rights that were granted by our government for sending me to war. They had 5 VA policemen surrounding me in a big circle but I left them dumbfounded and they could not do anything to me for expressing my freedom of speech that I was sent to war to defend. I think that if they arrested me they would have a riot on their hands so finally the VA representative told me, "OK OK, I will get you your check in two weeks."
I was accepted into med school at SUNY at Buffalo in 1979. When I was interviewed I told the doctor who interviewed me that I wanted to be a doctor for the people. During my years in med school I invited Vietnam vets into my school to talk about PTSD and Agent Orange. I did well in the first two years and shared my notes with anyone who failed a course especially biochemistry. I helped a lot of people stay in school because of this, especially minority students. In my 3rd year I had to transition from classroom to clinic and still pass exams.
I was the first in my family to become a doctor and my family was poor so I did not have the same background as most students. Because of the work load I was unable to pass the exam at the end of the rotation and the school attempted to throw me out. Upon learning this my family, classmates and the local Vietnam veterans organizations helped me get another chance to take the exam. All I asked the veterans groups to do was write a letter but many wanted to do much more than that. However I did not want to win the battle and lose the war.
After being given another chance I took 3 months off and studied hard for the exam and got one of the highest scores in my class while riding a bicycle to see my patients in the hospital in blizzards at 4 am. I had 3 times more patients to follow than other students and gained the respect of the department chairmen under whom I worked. One foreign medical school graduate who was an intern made a negative comment about me for smiling and the school forced me to see a psychiatrist.
I was told they want to see if I am fit to be a physician. I thought they were trying to prove I had PTSD to use that as a reason to throw me out of school. I knew that if they did that I would not be able to hold back the veterans who gave me their support. The school wanted me to see their hit man, a Dr. Lawrence, who gave another student whom I attempted to help stay in school a negative evaluation which prevented him from graduating med school. He later killed himself after getting a job as an orderly in a hospital and overdosing on drugs he got from a med cart in the hospital.
I held off as long as possible but finally was prevented from entering the fourth year until I was evaluated. Fortunately Dr. Lawrence was on vacation so the school had to give me a list of alternatives. I took the list to the VA hospital to review with other doctors I previously worked under who knew I was a Vietnam veteran. From that list I was able to choose a doctor who would give me a fair chance, Dr. Graves. After asking questions about my life, Dr. Graves wrote a very kind letter for me that prevented the school from throwing me out. I graduated med school in 1984.
I am a medical doctor now and I see a lot of veterans in my practice to whom I tell my story and the story of Ashby Leach. There is much more to my story that I have not mentioned especially about how my dad who was both a WWII and Korean War vet was fired from his job after suffering a stroke from a ruptured artery in his brain which was caused by an accident on his job that threw our family into poverty. However that is another long story.
I would like to somehow let Ashby Leach know how he inspired me to fight back and that I have never forgotten what he did for other veterans as I have and continue to tell other veterans about him. He may remember me for carrying and studying my organic chemistry book. I would like him to know that I was successful and have never forgotten him nor the support I got from other veterans.