An enemy they did not see coming: Pandemic takes toll among veterans

Hundreds across the nation have been killed by COVID-19
Gerhardt Hoff (from left), Bob Hopper, Hugh Robinson and Scott Chadwick are among the Georgia veterans who have died from COVID-19.

Gerhardt Hoff (from left), Bob Hopper, Hugh Robinson and Scott Chadwick are among the Georgia veterans who have died from COVID-19.

Scott Chadwick survived the Vietnam War and endured the nightmares that came after, dreams of being pulled under water by someone in Southeast Asia.

He withstood his mood swings, symptoms of the undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder his wife Pat believes he developed after serving in the U.S. Navy during the war. He outlasted an incurable lung disease. The novel coronavirus was the enemy he did not see coming.

A longtime Marietta resident, Chadwick, 82, is among hundreds of veterans who have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. As of May 19, more than 1,000 Veterans Affairs Department patients who tested positive for the disease or who were treated for it have died nationwide, including 18 in Georgia. Meanwhile, more than 5,700 U.S. military service members have contracted it and two have died from it, according to the U.S. Defense Department.

You could depend on Scott Chadwick, a Vietnam War veteran, said Pat, his wife of 47 years. “If he said he was going to do something, he did it,” she said. “He didn’t care for people who didn’t follow through on their commitments.” FAMILY PHOTO

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COVID-19 struck a particularly cruel blow in Massachusetts, where it sickened 150 veterans and 81 employees in the Holyoke Soldiers' Home, The Associated Press reported. Sixty-eight of the residents who tested positive for the disease have died.

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The disease is also claiming the lives of some of America's rapidly dwindling numbers of World War II veterans. There were 433,708 alive in September, down by 134,636 from the year before, according to the VA. COVID-19 killed 100-year-old Philip Kahn, a veteran from Westbury, New York, who participated in the Battle of Iwo Jima and earned two Bronze Stars, according to his obituary in The New York Times. His death marked a tragic bookend for his family. Kahn's twin brother, Samuel, died as an infant during the Spanish flu pandemic.

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The U.S. military is still considering how to commemorate Memorial Day, given the stringent precautions it must take amid the pandemic.

“These are unique circumstances,” Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston said during a visit this month to Fort Stewart near Savannah. “We do have to honor our fallen. We are going to do something, but I’m not sure exactly what the final plan is. It is not going to be large crowds.”

The ‘one-two punch’

In Rome, Rita Hopper stayed by her 75-year-old husband’s bedside, kissed his hands and reminisced about their lives together as he died on March 28 of complications from COVID-19. A former hospital lab technician, Bob served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. Rita suspects he contracted the disease from her after she attended a church service in Cartersville where there was a major outbreak.

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“I talked about our wedding day. I talked about our dogs. We have two labradoodles,” she said. “The closer he got … I started telling him I was going to be OK and that his granddaughter would be OK — everything is going to be fine.”

Rita Hopper of Rome stayed with her husband, Bob, who served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, as he lost his battle with COVID-19. FAMILY PHOTO

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The following day, the disease killed Hugh Robinson, 82, a retired federal bankruptcy judge from Marietta. He served in the U.S. Navy in the late 1950s and early 1960s. At one point, he was assigned to a minesweeper in Japanese waters. The son of Irish immigrants, Robinson grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and became the first member of his family to attend college. After he graduated with his law degree, Robinson worked as an FBI agent and became an attorney. Humble, well-read and fond of spicy Indian food, Robinson traveled around the world with his wife Dorothy, a fellow judge who preceded him in death.

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Hugh Robinson, who served in the U.S. Navy, went on to become an FBI agent, an attorney and a federal bankruptcy judge. He died of COVID-19 on March 29. FAMILY PHOTO

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After he tested positive for COVID-19, Robinson’s health declined rapidly. He struggled to breathe before dying on March 29 at Wellstar Kennestone Hospital. His nephew and godson, Stephen Robinson, 57, of Freehold, New Jersey, said his uncle’s death hit him particularly hard because his own father, also a U.S. military veteran, died a year ago.

“It was kind of the one-two punch because he became that de facto father for me as my godfather,” he said. “It becomes, ‘Hey, it is me and my kids. That is it. I am the last remaining one.’ You feel like the bloodline is getting shorter and shorter.”

Hugh and Dorothy Robinson traveled around the world together. Both were judges. FAMILY PHOTO

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A month later, the disease claimed the life of Gerhardt Hoff, 89, of Sandy Springs, a former lawyer and consultant who served in the U.S. Army. Born and raised in Vienna, Austria, during World War II, Hoff taught himself English by secretly listening to American and British wartime radio broadcasts. After the war, he worked for the U.S. military court for Bavaria. One of the judges sponsored his visa application to the United States. Hoff became a U.S. citizen and served in the Army in the 1950s.

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Known as “Jerry” to his friends and family, Hoff held onto habits he picked up in the military. He enjoyed creamed chipped beef, a dish from his Army days. He neatly folded his clothes and exercised each morning, doing stretches, sit-ups and pull-ups.

“He always strove to be in as good of shape as he was when he was in the military,” said his daughter Anne-Christine Hoff of Mineola, Texas. “He had a running coach until a year before he died who would help him with his form and his conditioning.”

Gerhardt Hoff (left) is pictured at his naturalization ceremony in August 1955 at Fort Rucker in Alabama, where he served in the 351st RCT. Hoff, 89, a local businessman born in Vienna in 1930, died April 22 due to complications from COVID-19. FAMILY PHOTO

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Hoff sought treatment for kidney and heart troubles before dying from the disease at Emory Saint Joseph’s Hospital on April 22. His family is hoping to place his ashes at the Georgia National Cemetery in Canton on his birthday, June 12. The urn carrying his ashes now sits on a bookshelf in his home, next to the reference books he often consulted while solving crossword puzzles.

A dependable, patriotic veteran

You could rely on Winfield Scott Chadwick Jr., said Pat, his wife of 47 years.

“If he said he was going to do something, he did it,” said Pat, 79, a retired schoolteacher. “He didn’t care for people who didn’t follow through on their commitments.”

Born in Puerto Rico, Chadwick was the son of a World War II veteran and a homemaker. His family moved to North Carolina, where he graduated from high school.

Chadwick worked as a signalman in the Navy, serving on the USS Orleck in the South China Sea during the opening stages of the Vietnam War. With Chadwick aboard in 1964, the Orleck accompanied two other destroyers that were involved in the Gulf of Tonkin incident just days earlier, an episode that helped precipitate the Vietnam War. Now part of a museum in Lake Charles, Louisiana, the Orleck earned the title "Top Gun" during the war for firing more rounds in support of ground troops than any other ship in the fleet.

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Honoring fellow veterans after the Vietnam War became particularly important for Chadwick. For years, he helped organize Marietta’s Veterans Day Parade. On patriotic holidays, he helped the Kiwanis Club of Marietta display American flags across the region, a project that raises college scholarship money the club donates.

Pat recalled him describing the nasty reception many Vietnam veterans received upon returning home from the controversial war.

“He said that when he first came back, he made sure he changed into civilian clothes and he didn’t talk about it because of the way people were reacting to the Vietnam veterans,” Pat said. “In these later years, he really wanted to celebrate it. … People realized these veterans gave up their lives for their country and they were doing what they are told to do.”

Among Scott Chadwick’s accomplishments in civilian life, he led the Marietta Salvation Army’s advisory council. FAMILY PHOTO

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A former trucking company salesman, Chadwick worked in Cobb County’s tax office and served as a Spanish interpreter in the local court system. In 2002, he was temporarily appointed to fill the Cobb County Commission seat held by Sam Olens, who resigned to run for chairman. Chadwick also served as vice chairman of the Marietta Museum of History and led the Marietta Salvation Army’s advisory council.

Pat does not know how her husband contracted COVID-19, though she said his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease probably made him more susceptible to it. She remembers him complaining about a sore throat on March 11. At his doctor’s urging, he sought help at a local urgent care clinic. The clinic ruled out the flu, prescribed him antibiotics for bronchitis and sent him home. His condition worsened. On March 19, he was admitted to Wellstar Kennestone Hospital.

Over the course of his illness, Chadwick coughed, developed a fever, suffered muscle aches, experienced chills and lost his appetite. Pat visited him at the hospital just hours before he died, wearing a yellow, full-body smock, gloves and a mask. Battling to breathe, he wordlessly gazed at her. She told him she loved him and reassured him she would be OK.

“I knew it was better for him to die because it was bad,” Pat said. “I wanted him to know it was OK to relax and that I was going to be OK.”

He died March 27.

Because of safety concerns surrounding the pandemic, Pat has put off scheduling his funeral service. She wants to eventually hold it at Georgia National Cemetery in Canton. Meanwhile, she will honor her husband and other veterans on Memorial Day by placing his Vietnam War veteran cap atop their mailbox in Marietta. It will sit next to the American flag he displayed there.