by Amie Rodgers
This pleasant natured man was born on March 31, 1947 in Portsmith, New Hampshire. With two sisters and two brothers, Bill was a middle child. His father worked in the Portsmith Naval Shipyard, but frequently transferred to another shipyard in California. “I remember we always seemed to live with someone’s family because we traveled so much. My father made a lot of money, but spent it traveling. I remember one time they sold my favorite record player. I followed the record player over to my neighbor’s house. They plugged it in and I sat down to listen to a record,” laughs Bill, “I’m a musician and always have been. I’ve loved my music ever since I could remember. I sing and used to play trumpet. I’m an oldies freak. I love the music of the sixties and seventies. What I started with was forties music: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett. I still enjoy singing that type of music as well. ”
Most of Bill’s young life was spent in California. “My father died in 1957 in a car accident when I was ten. I never had anybody in my family to take me fishing or hunting, but I was a happy kid. The neighbors all knew who I was. I was a pest,” he chuckles, “No matter what was going on in the family, it didn’t make any difference to me. I was still a happy kid. In 1958, my mother remarried and we moved to Artesia, California where my stepfather Leonard lived and he had five kids of his own.”
At the tender age of seventeen, Bill quit school and joined the Navy. His first duty station was in Iceland in 1965. “In 1966 when I turned eighteen, I was stationed on the USS Forrestal (which history remembers as the worst US carrier fire since WWII). We went over to Vietnam and there was a fuel leak, which caught on fire. The pilot of that jet just happened to be John McCain and he had to get out of his jet in a hurry. His jet caught on fire and he was carrying a thousand pound bomb, which started a domino effect of bombs blowing up and we lost 134 men with an additional 161 injured. I was almost a casualty, but I managed to survive it,” says Bill.
“I was discharged in 1968. I married my high school sweetheart and four years later, she divorced me because I had changed so much. I never knew it myself, but after the ship blew up, I knew there was something different about me. I didn’t know what to call it until 1985 when I went into rehab and the counselor told me that I had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I had no idea what he was talking about. Before that I had been told that I had shell shock, but that I would get over it. That was fifty years ago and I still haven’t gotten over it,” chuckles Bill.
Bill and his wife had two children, a son and a daughter who both now live in Phoenix. At the time of the divorce, Bill was living in Los Angeles playing music to pay the bills. He stayed with a good friend for a while before packing up and heading to Maine. “I got a job there and got married again. A few years later, we moved to Florida where we were divorced. I got back into the Navy full time and trained reservists for nine years. I met Cathie and we moved to Mesa, Arizona.”
It was during this time period that Bill came to meet Vincent Altaha from Whiteriver, a man who he would later call his brother. “I was working in a rehab hospital in 1994 when I met Vincent. I was a greeter and conducted activities. One day, I saw this Native American fellow coming into the hospital on crutches. He had lost a leg from diabetes. He was with his wife Shirley and young daughter Cassie. While doing the activities, I noticed that Vincent would sit in the back of the room and only listen. Whether I was singing or reading the Bible, he was always there… in the back of the room. At the time, I didn’t know anything about Native American culture and didn’t know that the Apache are a shy people. When I introduced myself, he replied that he just wanted to listen, but didn’t particularly want to sit up front with everyone else. I then asked him if he had ever received the Lord as his Savior. He said no so I asked him if he wanted to. He said yeah. So, we prayed and he received Jesus as his Savior. His family said that I had saved his life.”
“After Vincent got out of the hospital, he kept calling me once a week or so and asking when I was coming up. I made excuses, but assured him that I would get up there. To tell you the truth, I was scared to go up to Whiteriver. I had never been on a reservation before and didn’t know what to expect. My wife at that time went to Michigan to visit her mother, which gave me the chance to take a weekend to visit him. I got a chance to meet his family: his wife, daughter, three nieces and another girl who was living with them. It felt like I had always been there because it was such a wonderful warm feeling to be with these people,” says Bill with a smile, “The next day, I woke up and went out to the living room where Vincent was already up. I asked where his wife was and he said that she would be back. We visited for a while and I kept asking where his wife was. After an hour or so, we went for a ride up into the mountains and when I got out of the truck it looked as if the entire Apache tribe had gathered together. In a little gully below the women were fixing a feast. After some time, Vincent’s wife Shirley turned to me and said, ‘Bill, all these people behind me aren’t going to eat until you get a plate and lead the line. It is our tradition.’ I got a plate and a line quickly formed behind me. I looked to Vincent to see how to eat and noticed everyone was piling everything onto their frybread and eating it like a taco. The food was so incredible. Shirley told me that the meal was in my honor because I saved Vincent and I was now considered family. We spent the whole day in the mountains and I couldn’t eat another bite.”
“When I tried to explain the experience to my wife, all she could say was ‘Isn’t that nice.’ She never hit it off with my Apache family. So, I went up a lot on weekends to visit and the family would go to great pains to rearrange the house so that I would have a room. Vincent and I would go on walks up in the mountains. We also did a lot of fishing,” remembers Bill, “The most miserable day in my life was when I had to go to Whiteriver to tell my brother and sister that I had to move to Michigan. That was the first time I had ever seen a tear in Vincent’s eye. I didn’t want to go, but my wife insisted. While I was in Michigan, Vincent just kept getting sicker. One day, I called on the phone and his daughter answered. She couldn’t wake Vincent up and I knew there was something wrong. I told her to call the ambulance immediately. Later, I found out that he would have died if he had stayed in that room. Not knowing it at the time, I saved his life again. No matter how sick he got, he would tell Shirley that he wanted to talk to his brother so she would give me a call. In around 2007, he died of a heart attack.”
When Bill got word of Vincent’s death, he flew out to Arizona. After spending some time with his kids, he headed to Whiteriver. “They moved Vincent’s body to the back porch. Because he was my brother and best friend, his wife and I sat together next to the casket. People formed a line and came up one at a time to shake our hands. They brought flowers and food to place in the casket. In their tradition, they didn’t want the body to go hungry before they go to heaven. I delivered his eulogy at the funeral. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Afterwards, it was announced that from that day forward, my name would appear on the Altaha family tree. That just doesn’t happen very often. I’m called Uncle Bill and they respect me as they respected Vincent. I miss my brother a lot. All the nieces are grown up now with their own kids that are the same age as they were when I met Vincent and his family. Time has gone by so fast and yet I thank God that they appreciate me like they do.”
Some time after returning to Michigan, Bill and his wife were divorced and he moved back to Mesa. About a year ago, Bill met his partner Steffanie and the couple decided to move to Solterra Senior Living in Lakeside. “Things are good. She listens and understands me. It is nice. My Apache family has also accepted her as family. I love it up here and she does too. Moving up here has been the most wonderful thing that has ever happened for us. We are closer to my Apache family and Steffanie has never been happier. She loves it up here and her parents just moved in across the way from us.”
Recovering from back surgery, Bill looks forward to spending time with his Apache family. “Every November, I buy gifts for the younger kids. I really enjoy it and they are so wonderful. In addition to my son and daughter, they are my family. The Apache tribe is as family as family could get for me,” he smiles.
As a veteran with PTSD, Bill has earned two college degrees and attended a number of in patients programs at the VA. It has not been easy for Bill, but his advice to veterans is to reach out. “Get some help. Get into a PTSD treatment program. It is important to start learning about what you’ve got and what it takes to lessen the severity of the problems. I know what it is like to wake up in the middle of the night with night sweats and my heart beating in my throat. You can lessen that. You have to work on you and nobody else can do it for you. It takes a lot of work, homework, discussion and tears whether you’re a man and don’t cry or not. You’re going to cry and when you do, you’re going to feel better. You have got to get the crap out of you because you’ve stuffed it for too long. Too many vets end it all because they don’t reach out. Get some help. It is worth it. That is my advice.”
When asked if he has more words of wisdom for us all to live by, Bill shakes his head humbly and chuckles, but after a minute adds, “Keep a reasonable attitude and try to be happy. Take it one day at a time. There is no sense in worrying about next year. There are no guarantees. Whatever it takes, try to be happy and don’t be so serious about yourself. Time goes by fast so take it one day at a time and treat people around you good.”