VA hospital volunteer doesn't feel so helpless


One of the worst feelings about the Persian Gulf war is feeling so helpless, says Heather Beckman, whose boyfriend may be at the front.

Beckman, 26, spends a lot of time listening to the radio and watching television for news, but she has found that "you need to get out and get your mind off the war." The problem, she says, is that "the war never leaves your mind, it never really does."

When the Baltimore Veterans Administration Medical Center issued a recent call for volunteers to help care for Operation Desert Storm casualties, Beckman was the first of more than 250 who responded. Unlike many of those who volunteered, she told the VA she wanted to get started right away.

"This way, I can come in and help people and keep busy and that makes me feel a little bit more useful," Beckman said. Last night, the nursing assistant volunteer began working on the hospital's fourth-floor surgical wards from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. She will volunteer three nights a week.

Beckman, a Towson resident, said goodbye to Cpl. Robert Wirtanen Jr., of Phoenix, on Christmas Eve after he had sent her a plane ticket to Camp Lejeune, N.C. A month before, the couple had met in Fells Point and at that time the Marine reservist told her he would be leaving for duty Jan. 31.

"Immediately, I thought, do I want to get involved with someone I might really like and then have him go off?," she said. "Well, I decided to anyway."

A few nights later on their first date, Wirtanen told her his orders had been changed and he would leave in about two weeks.

Wirtanen, who worked in his parents' wallpapering and painting company, is serving with the 2nd Expeditionary Force. He commands a light armored vehicle.

"My understanding is that the expeditionary force leads the FTC tanks in," Beckman explained. "Scouts get out of these vehicles to check the area out, and then the tanks follow in. I feel sad now that he is gone and I am anxious for him to come back home."

The first thing that Beckman does every day when she gets home is check the mailbox. "The mail is awfully backed up now and this has been particularly hard on Rob's mother," she said. There has been no word from Wirtanen since Jan. 16.

For the past three years, Beckman had been volunteering in the open-heart surgery department at Johns Hopkins Hospital during semester breaks from studies at Catonsville Community College. "I just wanted to broaden my horizons a bit," the legal assistant explained. "I wasn't sure I wanted to stay in law and I wanted to try something different."

In light of the gulf war, Beckman felt the VA Hospital was the place where she should be at this time. She will write letters for patients, help with their baths, run errands for them and escort them to treatment.

"It won't all be glamorous," warned R. David Edwards, the hospital's chief of public relations and volunteer services. "There will be some bedpans and urinals to empty and some patients will have to be helped to bathrooms."

Seventy-five percent of the hospital's new volunteers have no medical training, according to Edwards. About 80 percent are coming in early for training and to get a feel for the hospital so they will know exactly what to do when casualties start coming in.

The Baltimore center is one of the VA's 80 primary hospitals, which are backup hospitals for military installations. The center on Loch Raven Boulevard will handle an overflow of casualties from Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Wartime casualties are expected locally within a week or two after a major ground assault occurs.

The call for volunteers has reached "lots and lots of full-time career professionals" who are in their late 20s and early 30s, Edwards said. Many of them just want to show their support for the troops.

Men and women have been equally attracted to this effort. Many are veterans and the wives of veterans, others are retired and some are recovering alcoholics who see this as a part of their therapy, Edwards said.

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