Sometimes You Just Have to Reach Out: An Interview with Gary DeRigne (Part 1)
At first meeting, Gary DeRigne seems much like any other multifamily professional. He’s well-mannered and soft-spoken. There’s nothing to suggest the kinds of inner struggles he’s faced. But Gary is very open about the effects that the Vietnam War had on him, and he’s turned his passion over his experiences into something that’s helping others.
Gary is president and chief operating officer of Yarco Property Management, a Kansas City–based company that specializes in affordable housing. He’s also a novelist and public speaker.
Part one of my interview with Gary goes beyond the multifamily industry to discuss his novel, One Young Soldier, the effect war has on people, and the need for people to get involved with veterans. In part two, Gary will share his thoughts on the affordable housing industry.
Tell us about your novel One Young Soldier.
One Young Soldier is a fictional account of my time as an infantry rifleman and platoon sergeant during the Vietnam War. I originally wrote it as a memoir—nonfiction if you will—and then realized there were things I wanted to say that might be hurtful to the innocent families of some of the people with whom, and under whom, I served. So I converted it to a work of fiction. Oliver Stone did that with Platoon, and Senator Webb with Fields of Fire, probably for the same reasons
What prompted you to write the book?
I was only in Vietnam for a little over seven months, but it was certainly the most memorable and life-changing experience of my life. It’s such a stark difference between living in a civilized society and being in a war. You become something different than you were raised to be by your parents. More primal. It’s a very profound thing.
It had an effect on my life that I didn’t even begin to realize when I first came home. But as I aged into my fifties, I realized that I was still carrying a lot of baggage around from the war and some things that happened to me there, and I wanted to do something as a kind of a catharsis. I began the memoir for that purpose, and it turned into a book.
What kind of response have you received?
The response has been extremely positive. It helped me a lot writing the book, but it’s helped many other combat veterans, of Vietnam and today’s wars, to relate to it and know that the things they have done, the things they remember, and the things they believe make them “different” from most people they are around have also happened to someone else. It helps them to know that someone else understands them.
I tried very hard to make One Young Soldier a realistic account of what happened and I get a lot of acknowledgement from war buddies and others who were there that it is indeed very realistic, more so than anything else they’ve read or seen in films. A lot of veterans have bought it and given it to their wives and kids to say, “I’ve never been able to talk to you about the war, but read this book and you’ll get a pretty good understanding about what it was like for me.”
It must make you feel good that the book has been helpful for people.
It does. And personally, it has created a lot of direction for me for the years I have left. I want to spend more of my time trying to help veterans get the help they need. I also want to help others understand veterans, their issues, a bit more about how horrible war is, and how it ought to be avoided if there’s a workable alternative.
What do you want people to walk away with after reading the book? What messages?
There are three messages I want people to understand: One is that war is not a thing to be taken lightly and that we as Americans have a responsibility to make sure that our government is only going to war when it is necessary, and when there are really no other good alternatives to that.
Another is that once we commit and go to war, we have a long-term commitment to make sure that the people who come back—the veterans and their families and the families of the veterans of those who have died—are taken care of. Not to say that they get a free ride for life; that’s not the point. But to make sure that they have a decent opportunity to be reinserted in society in such a fashion that they can hope for a life of reasonable happiness. When we send young Americans to war, they’re never going to come back the same as when they went there. They’re going to be changed for life just as I was.
The final message is for veterans themselves. When I came back from the war, the help being offered by the Army and the Veterans Administration wasn’t very good. I look back now and see that the war destroyed the marriage I was in at the time. Then I was at serious risk at becoming an alcoholic for awhile. I knew I needed some help with some things, but I personally refused to go get any help from the VA or anybody else because I wanted to be as far away from the military and the U.S. government as possible.
It’s a different story today. There’s much better help available. But the veterans still need to recognize the problems they’re having and seek help. So my message to other veterans is, “Don’t make the same mistakes I made. You are not alone. There are those who do understand and who will work hard to help you, at the VA and in other private organizations. Go get help.”
How are you spreading those messages? What type of work have you done to help veterans?
About a year ago I joined and agreed to be a speaker for the local Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter. I’ve spoken at the VFW and a local high school, and to some business leaders’ groups. Those were excellent experiences, and from those engagements I’ve been contacted by other business associations to speak at their meetings. My plan for now is to make myself as available as possible to do those kinds of speaking engagements. Once people find out how many veterans there are in America and how many are coming home from today’s wars struggling with physical and emotional wounds, most are very eager to help.
If someone reads this article or your book and asks, “How can I help?,” what would you say? Is it as simple as giving a check to a local veterans association?
A check to the local veterans association is certainly a great way to start. And it’s certainly an easy thing to do. But I also encourage people to get directly involved, not only because they’re providing help to the veterans, but also because they’re going to gain something from that themselves. They’re going to learn something; they’re going to feel something they didn’t before. It’s the profoundness of what you feel when you’re up close to these people and appreciating what some of them have lost and some of them have given for us. It’s very deep.
There are volunteer organizations in every community and you can find them by going to the local Veterans of Foreign Wars or American Legion chapters, or just by Googling “veterans organizations.” There is a national network of Stand Down Foundations with a chapter in almost every major city that does outreach to homeless veterans, to try to bring them in off the streets and help them get the care they need. There are about 200,000 homeless veterans in America today. There are groups that are simply visiting airports and shaking the hands of veterans who are coming home, to welcome them back. There are organizations where people can help veterans and their families by providing basic services, providing transportation, helping with a job search, or simply giving them some friendship.
Tell me about your next book—the sequel to One Young Soldier—and when can we expect it?
The working title is Rough Men. It comes from a George Orwell quote that says, “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” I read that for the first time a number of years after the war, and it stuck. My family has a long history of military service in combat roles, all the way back to the Civil War. And while I’ve always thought of them—my father and others—as gentlemen, sometimes we’ve had to become the “rough man” who picked up a gun and learned to shoot and use a bayonet, and went off to defend his country, knowing it’s very likely he won’t come home. Nowadays, that goes “his or her country” because we have many more women in harm’s way in the current wars than ever before.
I’ve brought three of the characters from the first book into this second one, the main character Mick, of course, LT Thorsen, and Doc Benedetto. A lot of this book is still based on real-life experiences, but I’ve also introduced some new, fictional characters. There are many war sequences in this book, but much more of it is about the aftermath of war, and the effects it’s had on the men who survived and came home, and the families of some of those who didn’t make it back. Its purpose, is to give the readers more understanding of the veterans’ issues. Just making it home in one piece doesn’t really mean you’re safe.
When you can expect it? Tough finding time to write these days since becoming president of Yarco, but I’m hopeful now to finish it this summer and get it published early next year.
Where can we buy One Young Soldier?
You can buy it at www.oneyoungsoldier.com at a discounted price, and receive it personally autographed and dedicated to anyone you choose. I donate $1 from the sale of each book to The Wounded Warrior Project, an excellent nationally recognized organization helping physically and emotionally wounded veterans of today’s wars.
If you’d like Gary to speak to your organization or at your event, you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.