Henry Alfaro spent two years fighting for his country during the Vietnam War.
When he sought assistance from Veterans Affairs nearly 20 years ago, he never anticipated having to spend eight months fighting to receive his benefits.
It wasn’t long before other veterans who didn’t know they were entitled to benefits, let alone know how to access them, began approaching Alfaro, 74, for help, leading to the creation of American Veterans United.
Since 2014, the Moorpark-based nonprofit has helped more than 14,000 veterans receive the help they need.
“Nobody was there for us when we got home, so we’re there for them,” said Alfaro, AVU’s president.
Alfaro was drafted in 1967 at the age of 19. He was newly married and had to leave behind his wife, Erlinda, who was pregnant with their first child. She received only $120 each month and had to move back in with her parents.
When he returned from Vietnam, she saw he was showing signs of what they later realized was post-traumatic stress disorder and the affect on his health caused by Agent Orange.
“Before he left, I knew where his heart was, and I knew that wasn’t him when he came back. He was a different man, and it was very, very hard,” Erlinda Alfaro said. “There were a lot of things we couldn’t discuss because people didn’t understand PTSD.” While serving in Vietnam, Alfaro and the other men in his unit helped wounded civilians in a bombarded village receive medical assistance, which he said was the root of his PTSD. Erlinda Alfaro and their two sons learned of his experience years later when he received a letter of appreciation. Once AVU was formed, she became the assistant secretary and dedicated herself to helping the spouses of veterans. Alfaro said it is still difficult for him and the veterans he helps to open up about what they saw during the war. “A lot of them will tell me some of the incidents that happened to them over there, but they won’t tell anybody else,” he said. “It’s hard for a lot of people to talk about the worst part of their lives.” By the time most veterans reach out to AVU, they are desperate, devastated, and close to giving up, he said. But the experiences they share with Alfaro make them realize they can rely on him. “Veterans understand veterans,” Alfaro said. “I feel their pain.” AVU vice president Frank Renteria, a veteran who served 22 years, said that sense of trust is what allows the organization to successfully help veterans. The benefit claims are only successful when they include as much information as possible. Because of the pandemic, AVU has struggled to connect veterans to resources and to each other. Lacking the funds for an office, Renteria has made countless house calls and phone calls over the past two years. “We never stopped helping,” he said. The recent return of in-person AVU meetings has meant the return of a safe space for veterans to gather. Together, they develop relationships and coping skills. During the meetings, Renteria reads the names of veteran members who have died, some due to COVID-19, and they ring a bell and play taps to honor them. It is an important yet difficult tradition for the spouses left behind and for Alfaro, who knew and helped each and every member. “It means a lot to their families,” he said tearfully after watching a video of one of the ceremonies. Veterans or their surviving spouses often call AVU in tears, not because they feel lost or alone like they did before but because they finally received the benefits they deserve. “It changes lives,” Renteria said of the nonprofit. Moorpark resident Colleen Graven is one of AVU’s 900 members. The organization is helping her 89-year-old uncle apply for benefits—benefits he should have been earning since the day he left Korea seven decades ago. “That (veterans) have to seek out these benefits and were not told about them is extremely upsetting,” she said. She and her uncle are indescribably grateful to the Alfaros, who dedicate their time and energy to those who sacrificed so much for their country. “The only compensation they receive is the pure satisfaction that they have helped veterans in need,” Graven said. Alfaro, however, said he receives just as much as he gives. By supporting other veterans, he has gained purpose and healing. “ Everything is from our hearts,” he said. “It’s therapy for me.” For more about American Veterans United, call (805) 529-1313 or go to avuinc.org.