OKEECHOBEE — Dr. Charles F. Tolbert was raised in Indianapolis, Ind., the son of a WWII veteran who was a bombardier on a B-52 and who was taken prisoner a couple times and a mother who had four children before she was 17 years old. Dr. Tolbert’s childhood was not ideal, he said. Two of his sisters attempted suicide, and one of them succeeded. His three sisters all had children before the age of 17. Their parents were alcoholics and their grandparents were doing illegal things, he said. When he was 17, he got into trouble and was given the choice between jail and joining the Army. He chose the Army. The Army Signal Corp, to be exact, he said.
In 1960, he went to basic training in Fort Gordon, Ga. He also went to Command Sergeant Major School there and rewrote non-commissioned officer school for E5 and E6 that were going for higher ranks at Fort Gordon. His career in the service was unique, he said. He served with many Navy Seals but did it as U.S. Army. He was never really under officers, he said, but instead was given assignments and told to carry them out.
He feels his background prepared him psychologically to face things most people never have to face. In Vietnam, he remembers once a mortar exploding 20 feet to his left and another exploded 20 feet to his right, then a third landed right between his legs but didn’t explode.
Before he got out of the service, he served as communications director for the White House. Dr. Tolbert was in the service for 22 years. During his time in the Army, he obtained the rank of Master Sergeant and was the first member of the Sgt. Morales Club.
In 1999, he went back to school and got a degree in theology and education. He is an inspirational speaker, does street and prison ministry and works with veterans.
He feels Vietnam veterans were never really recognized for their service at all. “They came home to nothing,” he said. “They left as nothing. The suicide rate, incarceration rate and depression are higher with Vietnam vets than with any other war.” In 2017, he wrote articles and put together a program along with some others to present to the President. It already went before Congress. The program explained that veterans should not have to go to West Palm Beach to the VA for medical care. They should be able to go within the local community. You go to a local VA primary care here in Okeechobee, then you should be able to be assigned to a facility here, but the procedure got changed, and it’s not working properly, he said. “For example, I have a pinched nerve. Three months ago, it caused me to start having to use a cane. I have two options. Because I’m retired military, I can go to Tri Care, and get it done immediately, or I can go to the VA. I chose to go to the VA. The reason I chose the VA is so I can write articles. So under the VA system, in three months, I have seen a neurologist, who said we aren’t going to do anything. I go back to my primary care who sends me to a neurosurgeon who says I need an injection of steroids. I go back to Okeechobee and finally get it done — OR — I could have just gone to my primary care and gotten an injection to begin with. The cane would have been gone three months ago.”
Veterans are not being taken care of, he said. He is going through the trials and tribulations so he knows how to correct them. Another example, he said, is that veterans are not compensated for driving 100 miles to their doctor even though there is one they could see locally instead. The VA is not enforcing the new laws, he said. They are not giving the care they are supposed to be giving. “I can’t see anyone choosing the VA over a local facility. Veterans get to West Palm Beach, and they are told to sit down and shut up.”
Dr. Tolbert is not in agreement with the current secretary of the VA. “He is a major with very little background and understanding of what it means to be a veteran,” he said. Dr. Tolbert would like to see him removed and has, in fact, sent a letter to that effect to President Donald Trump. Included in the letter was Dr. Tolbert’s resume listing his own qualifications for the position of secretary of the VA.
“A veteran has to think, not just from his own small standpoint, but from a larger standpoint. How do you influence the VA? How do you influence the President of the U.S.? We have to get more involved,” he said.