Bob Frolow, 70, of Egg Harbor Township, serves as veterans services director for Atlantic County, helping veterans navigate the bureaucracy of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and overseeing various local assistance programs. The Vietnam War veteran has lobbied in recent years for improved access to health care - including a new outpatient clinic in Northfield - and is working on the expansion of the county Veterans Cemetery and creation of a museum in Estell Manor.
Q: You became Atlantic County's veterans services director in 2002. How did you get the job?
A: Atlantic County was one of the few in the state that didn't have one, and I think some of the freeholders and the county executive went up to Toms River, where John Dorrity runs the office and is the state president (of the New Jersey Association of Veterans Service Officers). He convinced them, with the volume of veterans now, you should have an office here.
At the time, I was still selling insurance, and the advertisement came out they were looking for a service officer. It turned out there were about 50 applicants, and they narrowed it down. They wanted a combat veteran, and there were only five of us that were qualified. Then they did the interviews, and I wound up the lucky guy.
Q: Your career began, in a sense, in Vietnam. How did you come to join the Army?
A: After high school, I kind of screwed around, because my grades weren't real good. After about two, two and a half years, I decided to go down to Miami Dade Community College, did well there and transferred up to (St. Joseph's University). But after my first year at St. Joe's - I was then 22 or whatever it was - I got drafted. Because of my collegiate experience, they offered me warrant officers' flight training, which was helicopter pilot, or NCO school. I asked them, "What's involved?" They said you do two six-month tours. "You mean, I come home, I have to come back?" Yes. I said, "No, not doing it."
So where do you wind up? Infantry. I wound up as a scout, got assigned to a great unit in South Vietnam, as far as you can go in the Mekong Delta. It was with the air cushion vehicle units, which were hovercraft. We carried infantry units with us all the time, a lot of recon by fire - great experience, great unit, a lot of good guys.
Q: What was it like being a young man a world away from home?
A: Very difficult at first. Being in a war zone, I was a little concerned with that, obviously. But, again, with some great guys from all over the place. Being on the other side of the world was a little difficult to handle, and it was a little warm over there. Very warm. But as time went on, it got to be a little more comfortable. The skirmishes we went out on weren't quite so bad. The guys who were up in central 'Nam and northern areas in the heavier jungles had it a lot worse than we did. Nonetheless, you're still in a combat zone and it's just a matter of putting your time in, waiting to get home.
The interesting thing was, when we finally got on the plane, I sat there waiting for more guys to come leaving the country. And everybody on the plane was yelling, praying, "Please let's go. Let's go. Let's get out of here. The time's up, let's go." Once we got off the ground, it was the loudest cheers you've ever heard, finally knowing you're going home.
Q: And when you were over there in Vietnam, you were exposed to the toxic herbicide Agent Orange, right?
A: The fact that you were in country, it's presumed that it caused your problem - not everything, but it's a pretty long list of illnesses. ... The planes that used to bring it had exposures on them, and the engines would blow the stuff around, as well. The shame of it is is no one knew about Agent Orange until we were home. It's a shame, but, thank God, you get through it. I think the key (illnesses) are diabetes, prostate cancer and, I think, (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).
Q: What toll did that take on your health?
A: Overall, I think I was pretty lucky. I have a pending claim right now where they think the chemicals have started to wear away the lining on my spinal cord, which is affecting my walking, but at least I can get around, unlike a lot of guys. I recently had surgery for prostate cancer. Thank God, that's working out OK. This is basically what I do every day for veterans. I see such a volume of prostate cancer patients now, and diabetes, it's miserable.
Q: How long have you been in a wheelchair, and do you believe that is due to Agent Orange?
A: I believe so. That's why we filed the claim. I've been off and on in the wheelchair, probably now, close to 10 years. It never bothered me at first, but if I needed to go any distance or stand for any amount of time, I'd use a wheelchair. If I went away on vacations, I'd make sure I had one available to go any distance.
Q: What are you seeing with the soldiers returning today?
A: It's a lot of cases of COPD from whatever chemicals were in the sand and from burn pits, breathing that smoke from whatever was there. Again, this is something they're finding out after the fact. They're starting to come home now. Iraq is done, but Afghanistan is not. We're going to start seeing a big influx over the next eight to 10 months with a hell of a lot more claims.
Q: Survivability is also a part of that. You have guys who probably would've died on the battlefield in Vietnam who are surviving their injuries ...
A: ... and bringing them home. The key injury from World War II all the way through - in different names - is PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). A lot of guys are bringing that home here and can't really deal with it. Over there, you had regimen. Here, you're coming home and nobody tells you what to do. You're trying to deal with that situation with no home. Some of these guys have kids at home. The wife is now the head of the household.
And what do you do? You start to drink. You self-medicate, and that makes it worse, and that's why the number of suicides just keeps on climbing. That's the worst part. For some (in World War II), it was shell shock. Today, it's PTSD, but they're the same mental problems.
Q: How has it changed since Vietnam?
A: It's a lot worse than I thought it was. A lot of guys and women - there are a lot more women over there now - can't handle it. It doesn't hit you right away, but after you're home a while, somebody's going to tell you - whether it's your friend, your employer, your wife - that you're not acting right. You ought to go see somebody. A lot of them don't. They just don't want to admit they have a problem.
And then it's single-passenger auto accidents. Guys drive into trees in the middle of night when no one's around. And (the police) don't think about it was suicide. It's an auto accident. But, if you trace it far enough, you'll find out in many cases it's suicide.
Q: The military has paid a lot more attention to this in recent years, and you see this on a person-to-person basis through your job. How do you get veterans to take this problem seriously?
A: As the troops come home, they have to go through this transition phase before they're released. I haven't seen one yet, but supposedly at these transitions, (military officials) tell them to watch out for any differences, changes in your actions, because it could be depression, PTSD or any one of those mental disorders. The majority of the troops, when they get home, want to be back with the family, get back to work. The last thing on your mind is going to the doctor to talk about PTSD.
With the kids from Iraq and Afghanistan, because of the economy, when they get back there's no jobs. They don't want to go home. They go back. So they're doing four or five tours, four or five months on each tour. To go back, you can't admit to your officer that you're having a problem because they won't send you back. Now, you have PTSD, you're going back to the same situation you're in. Whatever's there is getting worse. When you finally do get out, you're zonko.
It's tough. We see them every day. In my building are the counselors who deal with these cases. It never stops.
Q: One thing you see with a lot of veterans is this camaraderie, even across generations and wars.
A: The majority of us feel comfortable around another veteran because you can talk to them about what you're going through. I can talk to you about some conditions I have, and you're liable to think this guy's ready to throw a seven.
For the longest time, the Vietnam veterans, as we talked about before, were just not welcomed anywhere, especially by Korean veterans. There seemed to be a conflict there for whatever reason. Now, we're like this.
Q: Another problem is of younger vets. Many of them don't register with the VA or sign up for the different veterans organizations.
A: From my experience, they seem to form their own groups, like Stockton has a very active veterans group. It's not a bad idea, because they can relate to each other, but my biggest complaint is I'd rather see them come with the VFW or the (American) Legion because the more groups we form, the more polarized we become. I do appeals for veterans. If your claim doesn't get paid the way we think it should, we go up to Philadelphia in front of a judge at the regional office. In the sheet they give you about groups that can represent you, there must be 65 on there.
It polarizes the vets to the point you don't have any power. If we combine our knowledge, our interest, our frustration, I think we'd have a lot better results.
Q: What are the challenges facing both the aging veteran population and vets returning today?
A: The keys are employment and health. At least health is satisfied to a degree by the VA. The treatment they provide is probably top-shelf. The headache we have here is access to it because if it's something the VA clinic in Northfield can't provide, now you have to go to Wilmington. So, if you don't drive, you have to take the van. The van is two hours each way. You have to stay all day until everybody's done. If you went to war and served, why should you have to do that? Why can't you take your ID card, go to any hospital and key it in the computer and they bill the VA? We all look at it as being easy, but the VA doesn't. They're still working on it.
Q: Historically, the VA has been opposed to farming care out to third-party entities such as the hospitals. Last year, they allowed Shore Medical Center to begin treating some vets through the TRICARE program. Is that starting to change now?
A: It is. The problem is the veterans didn't understand what fee-basis is. Your primary VA physician has to approve you getting fee-basis because the VA wants the control for volumes of medications and treating patients. They're relaxing quite a bit, but you still want to control it because it's a lot of money. I've had pretty good cooperation over the last year and a half.
Q: A big conflict within the veterans community has been whether to lobby for a VA hospital in South Jersey or to farm this out to private entities. It seems things are moving more toward private care.
A: We'll never get a VA hospital here because there are too many facilities in the region between here and Philadelphia. They're not that far away, and we have a good number of (private) facilities in our area. The VA just is not going to build (anything new) here.
Q: How does the clinic that opened in Northfield two years ago fit into all this?
A: I think the veterans are happy with it. It's a beautiful facility with great staff that's in there. Unfortunately, it's operating at 60 percent. That needs improvement. They want to bring more physicians in, but the VA wants to do everything with tele.
Q: "Tele" being video.
A: Now, instead of coming to see my doctor, he can sit on the other side of the computer wherever he may be. We can talk about my condition, he can take pictures and send me results in the mail. That's what they're trying to do. Meantime, there's some eight empty offices in the building. That's a problem. I think they'll work it out, though. They're trying to do it ... but with the VA, they move real slow.
Q: Housing for veterans is another big problem, especially with so little affordable housing available in New Jersey.
A: The state offers vouchers, through the VA. There are only so many vouchers ... so a new veteran needing a place to go is very limited. They have to go to the (Atlantic City) Rescue Mission until something is found. Do they want to go to the Rescue Mission? No. And a lot of the old homeless guys are comfortable to the point they don't want regimentation. They've been living a certain lifestyle for a long period of time. They'd rather continue to do that as long as they can get money from the VA for a claim. A lot of them still sleep under the Boardwalk. It's illegal to do that, but they're happy doing that. They get on a train when it starts to get too cold. Go to California or - where else? - Florida. They'll come back again next year. The younger ones are really struggling. I can't tell you how many come into my office and tell me they're sleeping in cars, wherever they can find to survive.
Q: Atlantic County also has a Veterans Cemetery in Estell Manor, which is in the midst of an expansion. Why was that necessary, and where is that project now?
A: It's started to fill up sooner than expected, so we had to find additional plots somewhere. Right now, it's not moving too fast because they're expecting the winter, so they're probably not going to get in there heavily until springtime. The limit out there is a high water (table). We can't go any further than one-deep. We have to spread it out rather than down. Another thing we don't have there yet is a columbarium for cremations, so we use half of a plot for cremation. That's helping to fill the thing up sooner than expected. I hope they're going to put a columbarium out there, I hope this year, if not next.
Q: The county's also involved in a new veterans employment program that doesn't have a name yet. Tell me a little about it.
A: About a year and a half ago, I got a phone call from Mac Seelig, who used to own AC Coin & Slot, and he wanted to talk to me about doing some employment for veterans. So he and I met with a representative of the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and talked about his ideas and how to do it. We started putting the word out and got responses from one of the larger casino properties in town, a representative from the (VA) ... a former undersecretary for defense, a lot from the business community and (local colleges). The wheels are turning.
Q: And how would this program work?
A: As these troops come back from overseas, they go through a transition unit. We want to try to pick them up at the transition units, take a look at training they had while they were in the service and see if we can get them immediately into a training program with a casino or some company. Internet gaming is the hotspot. If we could start there and work into other programs, we'd like to take this around the country. We have interest from cruise lines in Florida, two casinos in Florida, three of the majors here, two in Reno and the ball is just starting to roll.
Q: How far out are you looking to launch this project?
A: We'd like to get this going in the next couple months. The grants are going to start coming in soon. The sooner the better because the approvals are starting to come in for Internet gaming with the casinos here. We want to make sure we're in on the ground floor.
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