In 1968, Bill Maness was serving on a U.S. Navy diesel submarine that ran highly classified surveillance missions in the waters near war-struck Vietnam.
“People didn’t like us being there. If they found us, they would have run us off and killed us,” recalls Maness. “We didn’t just go in there once. We continued to go back five to 10 times.”
A sufferer of combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder, Maness, now 74, hasn’t forgotten the sights, sounds and acrid smells of the eight years he spent in the Navy. “You breathe in the diesel smoke because it blows back in your boat’s intake,” he said. “Everyone on the submarine is breathing diesel smoke hour upon end.”
Five decades later, Maness, an AARP member in Stephenville, 75 miles southeast of Fort Worth, relives in dreams those war-time “black ops” missions. “I wake up at night smelling diesel smoke,” he said.
A commander today in a North Texas chapter of the Disabled American Veterans organization, Maness also served as an electrician on nuclear submarines that skirted the Korean peninsula when there was fear that China might attack. “It kinda sticks with you because we were ready to fire missiles,” he said.
Maness’ wartime experiences, including his emotional health issues, are ones that he shares with fellow veterans. It’s a relationship-building tactic he uses as he helps veterans document their stories and, when appropriate, file claims with the Veterans Administration so that they can gain compensation for medical bills or other needs.
Some of those he assists are Vietnam War veterans exposed to Agent Orange and other herbicides. Some are younger and served near toxic burn pits in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. Many are experiencing cardiac problems, diabetes and lung diseases.
To get extensive financial relief from the government, the veterans must tediously prove that their health problems today were caused by their military service. That’s why Maness and other volunteers with the DAV provide them research and form-filing help.
Maness’ volunteer work is being recognized by AARP Texas, which is presenting him with its 2019 Andrus Award for Community Service – the Association’s most prestigious and visible statewide volunteer award.
He was nominated by his wife, Paula, a retired nurse who assists him in preparing claims for veterans. The couple lives together in a geodesic dome they built on their 57-acre farm. And they’ve been volunteering this way for nearly three years. In 2018, they helped prepare 266 claims. They also help out-of-work veterans and other needy folks get back on their feet, working with a local United Way organization and area donors to assist veterans with emergency expenses.
“This man is my hero,” she wrote in her nomination letter. “He is also my husband. I thank God for him each day.”
Paula contends it’s the veteran-to-veteran emotional contact that Bill offers that’s compelling.
“Veterans are very proud people and they don’t always ask for help,” she said. “They come in and see me and say ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘no ma’am,’ but when they talk to Bill, you can see the change in them. They start off real defensive. But Bill is a direct person. He will interact with them. He’s not a politician-type person. He just looks at them and he talks to them and listens.”
The Manesses say it takes stamina on the part of veterans to go through filing a claim with the VA, which also means a lot of expertise and patience is needed from volunteers like Bill and Paula.
“It’s good to know that what you’re doing is right and that you’re helping somebody,” Bill said. “We’re proud of what we’ve done. They call us bulldogs. We don’t ever give up. We don’t stop.”