By Julie Wiessner
Born in Winslow on July 29, 1938, Colonel Jay Vargas, U.S. Marine Corps-Retired, continues to make a difference in the lives of others. Vargas is a spokesperson for Triwest Healthcare’s mental health campaign for both active duty military and veterans.
“My biggest concern is to reach these young warriors who have been gone for six to 10 months at a time on six or seven trips. Many come back with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). It’s affecting a lot of them, making for a high suicide rate among them.
“I know of many 18 to 20-year-old kids who have lost arms and legs. Around 10 of them that I know of were going to throw it all away. After reaching out to them, now, they all have jobs and are doing well. That’s what makes me happy.”
Some returning warriors call Vargas and say, “Colonel Jay, I am having a rough go.” Vargas responds, “Where are you?” It really doesn’t matter where they are; Vargas talks with them and gets them through the rough patch.
Colonel Vargas earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions during fierce combat with the enemy at the village of Dai Do.
Part of his citation reads:
“Major Vargas remained in the open, encouraging and rendering assistance to his marines when he was hit for the third time in the three-day battle. Observing his battalion commander sustain a serious wound, he disregarded his excruciating pain, crossed the fire-swept area and carried his commander to a covered position, then resumed supervising and encouraging his men while simultaneously assisting in organizing the battalion’s perimeter defense.”
Vargas continues to encourage men who have been in battles. His best saying about PTSD and the high suicide rate that seems to come with it is, “Don’t let the enemy defeat you at home.”
This is not all that Vargas has going on right now. He has also formed a group of 40 of the 79 living Medal of Honor recipients who are going to school districts with a Character Development Program.
“This is to help teach kids integrity, loyalty, commitment, sacrifice and leadership,” said Vargas. “This is a weakness we have found in the curriculum.
“So often today, teachers’ hands are tied and young kids are missing a lot of common sense that their teachers could provide.
“When I was growing up, I always had to go to Mass and sometimes I would be invited by the young Mormon boys to go to their church. Anyway, we grew up believing in something higher than us, a supreme being to honor.
“It just seems that kids today are missing this element in their lives. They honor all different kinds of people with that which should be intended for a higher power.”
The Character Development Program Vargas is speaking of has been incorporated into the curriculum of various schools in 36 states and two colleges, the University of San Diego and San Diego State. It includes vignettes on each of the 79 living Medal of Honor recipients.
The program allows teachers to have fun with their students, along with teaching them the principles on which the country was founded.
Vargas has earned a Silver Star, the Purple Heart with Gold Stars, the Combat Action Ribbon, the Meritorious Service Medal, and the Vietnamese Gallantry Cross with Silver Star and Palm.
He retired from the Marine Corps in 1993 and was appointed as secretary of the California Department of Veterans Affairs, serving from 1993 to 1998.
In July 2001, President George W. Bush appointed him veterans liaison for the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs, a post he held through January 2009. His region included 19 western states, Guam and the Philippines.
Colonel Vargas is the recipient of the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ Veteran of the Year Award, the American Veterans’ Civil Servant of the Year Award and the Jewish War Veterans’ USA Citizen of the Year Award for his dedicated service in caring for veterans.
Despite his long and impressive history of serving his country and its people, Colonel Vargas doesn’t rest on his laurels. His major concerns today are being there for young returning warriors and veterans, and helping teach school aged youngsters love of their country.
By Julie Wiessner