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Woman fosters support group that helps fellow veterans confront issues

By ROBERT NOTT | The Santa Fe New Mexican | Published: November 24, 2017

SANTA FE, N.M. (Tribune News Service) — It was an early afternoon at the San Marcos Cafe south of Santa Fe, and Billie Russell was primed for action, right down to the .380-caliber handgun hanging off her left hip.

The 4-foot-9 woman, a veteran, was surrounded by others, many who have seen combat. They sport such names as Hawk and Cal and Bernie. She may not know it, but they are protecting her. She has been protecting them, as well. Russell, who worked as an Army medic for about 23 years, is now the overseer of a social program to support them.

They call themselves the Tugan 3. That stands for Tuesdays, gang, third Tuesday of the month – that's when they meet at the cafe. Russell started the program over four years ago, hoping to create an informal gathering space for veterans who need to talk about their experiences, but will only do so with other veterans. The group started with a modest six members. Now, close to 30 show up.

"They can come in with no strings attached, no politics, no religion," Russell said. "Let 'em swap lies. I guard the gate. No trespassers."

The veterans who join the group each month, she said, "are my heart and soul. They are who I am."

Because of her dedication to the well-being of fellow veterans, Russell is being honored as one of The New Mexican's 10 Who Made a Difference for 2017.

Her nomination letter – signed by about 25 supporters, many of them veterans – spoke to Russell's talent for helping veterans, "linking them with fellow veterans, just giving TLC. When some of them are in trouble," the letter said, "she is the one they call with an open ear and often an open wallet."

Russell is 72 but seems much younger. Some of the vets in the group attribute her youthful looks and attitude to the fact that she does 700 situps every other day.

She knows trouble well. Born in Pennsylvania in March 1945, Russell was raised by a mother who worked as a taxi dancer, dancing with men for money. Russell never knew her father, but said her mother described him as a good-looking Native American man.

"He never writes, he never calls," she said.

A hell-raiser in her youth, Russell was convinced by a judge to join the service and earn some stripes. Otherwise, the judge said, she'd be headed to prison to sport a very different set of stripes.

"When I joined the Army, they quit shooting at me," she said with a laugh.

Russell joined the Army on Oct. 31, 1967. One look at her tough drill instructors, she said, and she realized it really was Halloween.

She trained to be a medic and was stationed at Letterman Army Medical Center in San Francisco, quickly learning to care for combat vets when they came back from the Vietnam War. Their plight made an indelible impression on her.

"How can you come in and bitch about a damn thing when you are dealing with a young man with no arms and no legs and his family just walked out on him?" she said.

Russell often held those men in the night as they cried and screamed through their nightmares, she said.

"I heard them so many times, I began having the nightmares."

Today, Russell would rather recall the lighter stories, like the time she helped a couple of vets in traction lose their virginity, or the way she secretly rescued several Vietnamese children left orphaned by the war.

She was married three times. She divorced two. The third husband died on her.

"I was so mad, I wanted to shoot him," Russell said.

Over her years in the Army, her dedication to her job and military comrades earned her the second highest noncommissioned rank possible: command sergeant major.

Russell moved to Santa Fe shortly after retiring from the military and lives somewhat off the grid near the villages of Cerrillos and Madrid with a cat named Zuji, who someone had decided to throw out of a moving car. He's barely 5 months old and already weighs 8 or 9 pounds because Russell spoils him. "It's my job," she said.

It's also her job to gather the Tugan 3 vets, a group she started by making phone calls to a few she knew. Word of mouth has helped the program grow.

Cindy Holloway, co-owner of the San Marcos Cafe, said Russell is "kind of like a mother hen. She gathers them all together and makes sure everybody is comfortable, and it happens. She just doesn't want to be the center of it. ... They really, to me, seem to respect her and know that she has a heart of gold.

"There is no agenda," Holloway said. "It's just about people getting together."

Many of the vets and Holloway said Russell also pays for the veterans' lunches every month. The vets, in turn, agree to pool their resources to pay the gratuity. (The record tip, one vet said, was $410.)

Russell also helped Marine Sgt. PTSD Brandi – as he is known – pen the book The Warrior's Guide to Insanity: Traumatic Stress and Life. The Tugan 3 veterans said it is one of the best books ever written about post-traumatic stress disorder and the challenges it poses.

In helping with the book, said Hawk, who was a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War, "she has impacted the lives of hundreds of other vets who have read it."

Russell said she was humbled by the veterans' decision to nominate her for the 10 Who Made a Difference award. She sees her work as a duty of sorts.

"I believe if you are blessed in life and don't share it," she said, "the universe will take it all away from you."

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(c)2017 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)
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