BY VIRGINIA BRIDGES
Samie Anderson has lived many lives.
Anderson, who turned 107 last week, grew up in rural Mississippi in the early 1900s, rode freight trains across the country as a teenager, hand rolled biscuits and cinammon rolls as a chef and became a father of three and grandfather and great grandfather to many.
Today, however, one of Durham’s oldest veterans faces his final days with post-traumatic stress disorder more than 70 years after he fought in World War II.
Anderson was just diagnosed last year.
The late-in-life struggle is “actually common,” said Ilario Pantano, director at the N. C. Division of Veterans Affairs.
Many older veterans came home from war and needed to jump right back into the work force or faced a country that wasn’t very sympathetic, he said. Back then, post-traumatic stress wasn’t a mental health disorder, but something waved off as “shell shock.”
“They were forced to bottle up their pain, literally and figuratively, and get to work,” Pantano said. “And then as their children left home, or now that they’ve retired and they have more time to begin decompressing in the later part of their life, some of these memories start to surface.”
More than 400,000 veterans in the state are older than 60, Pantano said, and as some of them slow down “those darker voices get louder.”
When veterans or their family members recognize such symptoms, they should reach out to their closest state or county veterans service officer, he said, or to The American Legion, which can help in a time-consuming process that will require multiple appointments, finding old records and recalling harsh memories.
“They have to dig up some hard stuff in order to deal with it,” he said.
The process can lead to benefits that veterans may not know about, Pantano said, such as scholarships for their children, mortgage assistance, and access to a state veterans nursing home.
Anderson was born July 21, 1908, in a central Mississippi community of Shuqualak, pronounced Sugar Lock.
After moving to Baltimore in 1933, he was hired at a restaurant as a dishwasher. He only lasted a day, but on his way out the door the owner asked him if he could cook.
His reply was, “I can burn a little,” said his daughter Dale Anderson, 62, of Durham. He went on to work in restaurants in and around Baltimore and eventually met and married Ruby Anderson.
In 1942 he was drafted into World War II. He served as an U.S. Army specialty cook and mess sergeant at Fort Huachuca in Arizona, at New Caledonia a French territory in the southwest Pacific Ocean and Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines.
While in Luzon, he befriended a 5-year-old orphan named Gloria.
“At the time his goal was to adopt her, but the paperwork didn’t come through in time before he was discharged,” Dale Anderson said. “He did not have official custody of her and could not bring her back. He said that was one of the saddest days of his life.”
In 2010, Anderson said in an interview before he took a trip with Honor Flight, a nonprofit that flies veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit their respective war memorials, that he didn’t expect to come home from World War II.
“I’d seen 400 Americans be killed,” he said. “I didn’t know if I was going to be able to get back to the United States.”
Anderson returned to Baltimore in 1945, and Dale was born in 1952.
He worked worked in surrounding counties and was away a lot, his daughter said, but when he was home, he would cook omelets, pan pizza and cinnamon rolls, glazed with icing and topped with fresh squeezed lemon juice.
“They would melt in your mouth,” Dale said.
After he moved to Durham in 2009, he shared stories his daughter had never heard, and at night he had nightmares and seemed to be reliving past experiences.
“And then it began to progress,” she said.
In 2011, Dale started taking her father to the Durham VA Medical Center, and in 2014 he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome. The diagnosis allowed him to receive benefits, including a variety of caregivers and specialists who visit him monthly, funding for health care supplies and a wheelchair ramp.
In the last year, Samie Anderson’s health has declined. He started hospice care in June. On his good days, he is alert and talkative and asks for chewing gum, Cheetos and vanilla ice cream.
“If he is up for it, we will take him to Goodberry’s (Frozen Custard,)” one of his favorite places, his daughter said.
But on bad days, as he was when a reporter stopped by his home last week, he remains in bed.
Still, Dale said, she is grateful for the time she has had with her father and the help he has received.
“Without them, I would not have been able to do it,” she said.