Benton City man connects generations of vets

BENTON CITY — Iwo Jima, Pearl Harbor, Vietnam and Afghanistan are thousands of miles apart, but Spencer Oland of Benton City sees important connections between all of them.

The 63-year-old ex-Marine, who is disabled with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder because of his Vietnam War experiences, understands that war can be hell long after combat ends.

That's why he connects to veterans much younger, and to those a lot older, who have continued the fight to live normal lives long after leaving the military.

He discovered that connection 1 1/2 years ago after he attended a weekly group therapy session in Richland with other veterans.

"I was sitting next to a guy who landed at Omaha Beach (on D-Day during World War II), and on one side of me was a Vietnam veteran, while across from me were veterans from Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan," Oland recalls. It was a room filled with several generations of PTSD veterans -- with older guys helping younger guys.

"I thought how helpful it was to help the younger veterans, showing them what happens when you don't do something about (PTSD," he said. Oland thought about it on his way home that night, then wrote it down and consulted with some military buddies.

Generations of Warriors Project, an educational nonprofit organization, is the result.

While Oland continues to participate in the weekly therapy sessions, he spends far more time on the project, developing concepts and getting them on the website, www.generations-of-warriors-project.com.

The opening page on the site shows an "Uncle Sam" figure in the traditional finger-pointing posture calling, "I Want You," but with the added lines: "To Care About PTSD," and "Help Heal All Wounds of War."

Carlos "Ben" Benjamin, 88, of Pasco, has his own war story. His includes a blasted-out hole in the black sands of Iwo Jima, big enough to hunker down in for two days trying to avoid enemy bullets and mortar fire. Thousands of Marines died there, but not Benjamin. He was lucky enough to survive despite taking shrapnel that tore into his upper left leg, shattering bone near his hip.

That was February 1945. He's been back to the rock only once, a sacred journey with nearly two dozen Iwo Jima survivors last March.

Although ex-Marine Benjamin doesn't suffer from PTSD, he understands why other soldiers do.

"It's one generation helping another," he said.

That's one reason why he scooped up some of Iwo Jim's black lava sand and brought it home -- a symbol of a soldier's service in fighting the good fight for freedom.

"The butcher bill was worth it," said Benjamin, referring the loss of human live required to defend freedom around the world.

In the spirit of the Generations of Warriors Project, Benjamin has given away all the sand to others to honor their service.

Oland said his website is constantly changing, to meet the needs of veterans who contribute through blogs. There are testimonials and photos, as well as links to find help.

Oland said the Generations of Warriors Project is unique in crossing generational boundaries.

"It's like an uncle-nephew kind of thing," he said.

The goal is to help soldiers re-enter society by showing society there need to be adjustments. Reducing military suicides and stigmatization are high priorities, Oland said.

"Communities need to make concessions for these PTSD people. They need help for better assimilation," he said.

Although it is nearly a year away, the board for Generations of Warriors Project is planning a cross-country caravan to Washington, D.C., for Veterans Day 2011.

Calling it the Big Orange Trip, Oland said it will begin in Richland with a motor home pulling a cargo trailer, with others joining as it travels through Billings, Mont., Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh on the way to the nation's capital for a rally at the National Mall.

* John Trumbo: 509-582-1529; jtrumbo@tricityherald.com