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A veteran retreat

Census numbers reveal large numbers of veterans, especially World War II veterans, are making Pasco County their home.

By MATTHEW WAITE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 20, 2002


photo
[Times photo: Brendan Fitterer]
Kenneth Mueller, 80, served in the Army during World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
More than a few times, if enemies would have shot just a tiny bit straighter, Kenneth Mueller wouldn't be enjoying his retirement in New Port Richey.

A German sniper sliced his right cheek during a firefight in 1945, the bullet cutting him like a razor. When the shooting stopped, Mueller got up swearing and angry.

"Why would the Germans want to kill a guy with a name like Mueller?" he bellowed to his laughing comrades.

Mueller is a rarity, according to Census 2000: Mueller saw combat in World War II, trained soldiers in Okinawa for the Korean War and patrolled the demilitarized zone in later years. He then fought for five weeks during Vietnam before he was wounded twice and sent home.

According to the Census, about 500 of Pasco's nearly 20,000 veterans who served in World War II were still fighting during Vietnam.

And the fraternity of World War II veterans is getting smaller.

Pasco County lost more than 7,500 World War II veterans during the 1990s, a rate of more than two per day. While some of them may have just moved, the likely reason is that the vast majority died.

But any plateau or drop-off in the services veterans need won't be seen any time soon.

Florida has the second largest population of veterans in the nation. And while the state lost more than 200,000 World War II era veterans, the state population of veterans increased more than 100,000, to more than 1.8-million.

While Pasco gained 63,000 people over the last decade, Pasco added 5,500 military veterans, most of them Vietnam and Korean War veterans. Pasco had 55,000 people in 2000 who served in the military at some point, up from 50,000 in 1990.

So the parking lot at the VA Clinic on Little Road -- which like the clinic is bulging at the seams -- probably won't get relief any time soon.

Nearly 15,000 veterans are trying to get into James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa or its seven associated clinics, like the one on Little Road. An additional 5,500 are waiting for appointments at Bay Pines VA Medical Center in St. Petersburg or its clinics.

And the wait for a doctor's appointment can be longer than a year.

The crowdedVA medical facilities prompted Anthony J. Principi, secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, to order new guidelines for appointment priority. Now, veterans whose disabilities are largely service-related will get appointments first.

Fred Harrop, the county's Veteran Service Officer, said that the veterans who are dying are being replaced by younger veterans. And World War II veterans now have the ailments that come with being in their 70s and 80s.

"Those that are left are requiring more services," he said. "We are finding a significant number of veterans that we're having to file pension claims because they are going into nursing homes and assisted living facilities or with home health care."

Another service that doesn't expect to see a drop off in future need is bugler playing. Bugles Across America, started in 2000, sends volunteer buglers to play taps at veterans' funerals.

Larry Carey of New Port Richey is one of the coordinators in Florida, and he said the organization will soon offer their 71 Florida buglers to families for funerals. Carey, 54 and a Vietnam veteran, said the buglers see their job as an honor.

"I'm a vet," he said. "I'm doing something for fellow veterans. I do it because I can."

Mueller is still a stout man for someone who just turned 80. After a career in the infantry, including passing jungle warfare training and fighting a war in his mid 40s, he retired from the Army to a job moving furniture.

The furniture job was to keep him in shape.

"Hell, in the infantry, you had to be in shape," he said.

But he knows his time is limited.

Mueller has a binder recording his military career -- enlistment and discharge papers, the citations for his three bronze stars and two purple hearts and patches. He keeps it for his wife Doris, so she'll be able to claim his veterans benefits when he dies.

But also tucked in the binder are photos from his journey through American history. There are pictures he took -- some with his own camera, some from homes they searched as the 103rd Infantry advanced into Germany. They show him as a young man in Paris, as a sergeant in Korea and leaning on his M-16 in Vietnam.

Mueller didn't stay long in Vietnam. On Sept. 14, 1968, he won third bronze star when he ran through intense enemy fire to a damaged armored personnel carrier to help wounded comrades. In his efforts, he got shot in the side.

The bullet did more damage to Mueller's belt than him, so he wasn't hospitalized. But three days later, Mueller was wounded on both his sides, neck and face from enemy mortar fire. One shard of shrapnel went through his cheek and cracked his top denture plate.

"Everyone thinks this dimple is cute," Mueller said. "That's where the shrapnel went through."

Despite his lifetime of stories, Mueller is modest about his military career. He doesn't think much about his small place in American history. Mueller doesn't brag much about his service, even if he is in rare company.

"All this and a dollar-fifty will get you a cold beer at a service club," he said.

-- Matthew Waite can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6247, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6247. His e-mail address is waite@sptimes.com

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