|American Legion Post No. 3 Commander Orrin Chimerica. Ryan Williams/NHO|
|Orrin Chimerica is the first Native American to be American Legion Post No. 3 Commander. Ryan Williams/NHO|
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - Orrin Chimerica, 40, has haunted eyes. Slightly watery and red, likely from the three shots he received hours ago for his lingering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
His eyes have seen more of the horror of war than many people. As a combat coreman (medic) in the United States Navy, he was the first person to patch up the injured on the battlefield.
The suicide a week and a half ago of a friend and fellow veteran who had completed two combat tours shook him but also made him more determined to inform veterans that there are places to go for help. As the new American Legion Post No. 3 Commander in Flagstaff, and the only Native American and Hopi to assume the post, Chimerica is in a position to deliver on that determination.
"I want to do this for everybody, not just Native Americans, but any veteran who comes through these doors, that's my job," Chimerica said. "A lot of people died for the flag."
The American Legion, while a closed and private club restricted to those who are veterans, Sons of the American Legion or part of the Ladies Auxillary, reaches out to the community in a number of ways all with the goal of helping veterans.
The Legion puts on a boys day and a girls day for younger kids, gives presentations to schools and teaches patriotism. Chimerica personally delivers flags to Eagle Scouts.
Legion members collect blankets, jackets, hygeine kits and dried goods for the homeless. They put on an event that started last year, called Stand Down for homeless veterans, where they collected donations like sleeping bags and blankets and anything that would help from the city of Flagstaff and Camp Navajo in Bellemont.
"We need to serve our veterans but at the same time, when you are a veteran you are always taught responsibility, loyalty, integrity and honesty... When you come through here, you can't just be asking for help. You have to help yourself, too," Chimerica said.
He said there are a lot of organizations available to help with different needs and the Legion helps direct people to where they need to go. They have vans to transport people to the Veterans Administration (VA) hospital in Prescott, where vets can get medical treatment.
"Coconino County is a big county, there are a lot of veterans out there. If they are in distress or if they need help, [they should go] to the nearest hospital. Get it done, go to the nearest VA where you can get the proper help," Chimerica said.
His officers, a senior-vice (second in command), junior-vice (third in command) a chaplain, a financial adjutant, and sergeant-at-arms, all are involved in outreach to the veterans and helping them get help.
Chimerica said the Ladies Auxillary, which puts on bingo night, has its own chain of command and each group supports the other.
"It is kinda cool to be the first Native American to do this," Chimerica said.
Chimerica is from Upper Moenkopi and he joined the Navy right out of high school.
His father, Paul Chimerica Jr., was the first in his family to graduate from Arizona State University and then Northern Arizona University. His father was a math teacher at the junior high school in Tuba City and had a message for Chimerica.
"He always told me, 'Don't stay here, go out and do something,'" Chimerica said, adding that he did by joining the Navy, where he served 13 years and did six combat tours in Bosnia, Guatemala, Afghanistan and Iraq.
He sees his work today in helping veterans find the care they need in the same way he saw helping soldiers as a medic on the battlefield.
"If you're hungry, I can make you a sandwich. If you need to go to Prescott for PTSD or alcohol or some sort of drug rehab, bring us your honorable discharge and I can get you down there," Chimerica said. "Even though I can't help you on the battlefield anymore, I can help here at the Post. That's what helps me sleep at night."
He said that a lot of veterans are lost today to suicide just as he lost his friend.
"It's sad, damn, he made it through combat and then he comes home - he was 100 percent disabled so he was getting money, but then he kills himself," Chimerica said.
Chimerica wants to intervene before a veteran gets to the point where they feel like suicide is the only option.
"There's somebody that loves you, so let's address the problem, get you fixed up, at least put a band-aid on, but you can live," Chimerica said. "These are the guys we need to get into the VA system."
He acknowledged that a lot of veterans do not know what services are available but even the ones who do do not always get the help they need.
"There was a slogan at the VA that says, 'It takes a warrior to ask for help,'" Chimerica said.
Chimerica lived that slogan during his 10-month stint at the Prescott VA for treatment for PTSD. He was one of the stubborn ones, he said, who didn't think he needed any help. Chimerica still has nightmares. He said his memories of combat will never go away. Smells and sounds trigger his PTSD. But he said the VA program helped him.
"Now, after I got the proper help, I know how to deal with it," he said. "I go outside, I go for a walk, I play with the dog. I just do something. That is what mindful meditation means. It is about doing things and addressing things. Not through drugs or alcohol."
Chimerica believes his experience can help him help others like himself and their families. He said it is not just male veterans who need to reach out for help. There are women veterans, too, who are dealing with the same issues and need help.
"I will help anyone who walks through these doors," Chimerica said. "That's why I became commander, to help."
The American Legion is located at 204 W. Birch Ave., Flagstaff, AZ 86001.