Disabled Rock Hill veteran invites himself to dinner with congressmen

Herald columnistOctober 10, 2013 

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Bobby Free, 72, is 100 percent disabled by cancer caused by exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange in the Vietnam War.

Melba Free, his disabled, diabetic wife, has half a foot.

Free is not willing to wait to see if the government shutdown will slow or even halt the benefits that keep them both alive.

So he has invited himself – and Melba and their disabled daughter and a couple other family members he supports – to eat at the homes of South Carolina’s congressmen.

He is bringing his bills, including the $992 rent, to the meal.

“I have a car note, too,” Free said.

Free is willing to bring home some food, too, just in case.

“I get enough every month, but if it doesn’t come, or it gets here late, how am I going to pay the rent?” he said. “How will I feed my wife? People like me, I am worried. This is how I survive, these benefits.

“I thought I would just ask myself to eat with those politicians who are in charge of this shutdown, and bring along my bills just in case.”

Here is what Bobby Free wrote this week:

“To the Senators and Congressmen of the Great State of South Carolina:

“Dear Sirs: Due to the anticipated suspension of the major part of my income, VA payment of $2,916 per month, I must take advantage of anything I can. Therefore at this time we are taking invitations to your homes for dinner.

“Please be advised there are five of us, all with special needs that are affected by the government shutdown.

“Oh, by the way, I will be bringing my rent statement, power bill, car note, and some empty boxes, as I am sure you will want to take care of our bills and put something in the pantry.”

Veterans benefits to more than 5 million people are in danger of being delayed next month if the shutdown continues, Veterans Affairs officials have told Congress.

Bobby Free was in the Navy “19 years, 6 months, 14 days and 22 hours,” he said. Some years he worked with asbestos, which causes cancer.

For 18 of those months he was in combat in Vietnam, along the shore, up and down rivers. He fired machine guns and threw grenades to keep himself and others alive.

His VA medical file is as thick as a phone book.

His thanks for all that could be not getting his benefits check because a bunch of politicians can’t do their jobs.

“I would tell these politicians that we don’t have any other income, that they need to figure out an answer,” Melba Free said. “I’m 63 years old. I had half of my foot cut off from the diabetes. I have a bag of medications I need every day.”

Asked where she would be if benefits get delayed by the shutdown, she replied: “Homeless.”

“Out on the street,” said her husband.

Bobby Free is a throwback. He grew up so poor that one day the meal was ’taters and beans, and the next day it was beans and ’taters, just to have a little variety. He has lived in Las Vegas and other places where old sailors with a tattoo of their first wife’s name on a forearm go to live – always working with his hands.

When Free got colon cancer, stomach cancer and prostate cancer, he just told the doctor to cut out what didn’t work any more and let him get on with his life.

“The doctor told me I had cancer three times and each time I just told him, ‘Make sure the razor you use is sharp,’ ” he said.

So a guy like Bobby Free worries about his family.

But he also worries about other people.

The old, infirm, veterans barely scraping by, the silent aging poor trying to make it alone in tiny apartments and old homes, who are worse off than he is.

“There are people out there who miss a check, they have no way to eat,” Free said.

Generous, smiling Bobby Free would sure be one of them.

He will check the mail each day from here on in, as the shutdown gets worse, for invitations to dinner with a member of Congress.

In the mail – whether the invite comes or not, whether his benefits check comes or not – will be the phone bill, the power bill, the rent bill, the insurance bill and the rest of the bills that pile up for senior citizens.

“I’ll wait to hear about that dinner,” Free said.

Andrew Dys •  803-329-4065 •  adys@heraldonline.com

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