Former Navy officer finds calling in VA office

Published 12:30 pm Thursday, November 12, 2009

She now sits behind the desk at the Marengo County Veteran’s Affairs office in Linden, but Sandra Wright put in her own military career before taking that position.

“I wanted to be an engineer and I wanted to do it myself,” Wright said, reflecting upon her former ambitions. “At first, I wanted to go to Tuskegee. But then I decided to do something different and went into the Navy. I had my 18th birthday in boot camp.”

Since then, the Navy has become a major part of her life. Her husband has been in the Navy for 26 years and her son joined on Sept. 11, 2006.

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His enlistment date also marked the five-year anniversary of one of the most trying times in the nation’s history. On that day, Wright was aboard the U.S.S. JFK, headed for Puerto Rico.

As the tragic events of the day unfolded, the orders for the JFK changed. Wright and her fellow crewmen were suddenly headed north, bound for the New York coast. Their orders along the way were clear. They were to shoot down any aircraft that remained in the sky. Upon arrival along the New York coast, the JFK was to serve as a triage ship for those being pulled away from the site of the World Trade Center attacks.

Those orders never manifested as another ship arrived before the JFK. But, as difficult as executing those orders would have been had circumstances dictated such, Wright and her shipmates were prepared to fulfill their mission.

Now, more than eight years later, Wright has retired from the Navy and is fulfilling a new mission. Upon her retirement, she entered the VA office in Linden. She knew nothing of the benefits to which she was entitled. And, due to a missing document, she was unable to learn of her benefits that day.

“I went back (home) that day and was upset,” she said. “I left that day and told myself ‘I am going to come back and get that job.’ I didn’t know at the time that I meant it.”

Now, after 20 years of service to the military, Wright dedicates her time and her energy to serving the men and women who were once members of the military.

“This job is not just a job. This job is one of the things you have to have a heart for,” she said.

What she has found in her brief time as the veterans’ service officer for Marengo County is that there are a number of veterans who remain unaware of their entitlements even decades after their service.

“I’m still filing first-time claims for Vietnam veterans,” she said. “There should be no reason Vietnam vets are not getting benefits. The federal system is pretty tied up with red tape. But we can decipher that as VA officers.”

On the wall just to the right of her office door is a phrase that has become a mantra for Wright. It reads, “Enter as strangers, leave as friends.”

In her work with the VA, she strives to live by that philosophy on a daily basis as she takes the time to get to know each of the veterans who visit her personally.

“If you just listen to their stories, it will change your life,” Wright said, before explaining that her work now is as a soldier in a different army.

“God has soldiers and that’s what we are, honestly,” she said.