A Veteran’s Day Gift: Friendship

Veterans Day is always an ideal time to reflect on the incredible sacrifices our military veterans have made in service to our country. For me, that means honoring two veterans I am proud to have known since August, from co-teaching an eight-week fall-prevention class at Mastick Senior Center.  

This is where I first met 95-year-old Henry Petersen, who served in the Navy during World War II, and 75-year-old Willie Prewitt, who served in the Marines during the Vietnam War.
Despite the 20-year age difference, these two gentlemen are the best of friends, in part because over the last few years since they first met at Mastick (while Petersen was working on crossword puzzles), Petersen has helped Prewitt come out of his long-standing shell. The two have enjoyed countless conversations and activities together.

“Henry has opened doors to me for a fuller life,” Prewitt said. “And I am walking through those doors with him.”

In fact, Prewitt told me that Petersen saved his life, and brought him out of his self-imposed “dungeon,” which developed as a result of physical and psychological injuries he suffered in Vietnam, including an exposure to the toxic chemical Agent Orange. Thoughout the years, he became more and more isolated, consumed by loneliness and nightmares, venturing out of his house only to have meals with his family.

In part because Petersen is a fellow veteran, and an excellent listener, Prewitt felt comfortable opening up to him. Petersen first convinced him to attend a water aerobics class with him at Coast Guard Island (in Alameda.) That’s become a regular activity for both — three times a week — after which they enjoy coffee together at Peet’s.

“Sharing my life with Willie is enjoyable,” Petersen said. “And it fills my calling, which I believe is to help my fellow man — something I have been following for a long time.”

For me, the main thing here is that there are veterans who need help, and veterans who can offer help. Being active and being with friends and loved ones are necessary ingredients for a healthy life.

Prewitt has just recently been invited to join the Elks Lodge, having been sponsored by Petersen, a member for more than 30 years.  They also are members of Trinity Lutheran Church and remain active at Mastick Senior Center.


Alice Lai-Bitker is a partner in Alice Home Care, a former Alameda County Supervisor and a long-time Alameda resident.