A Room to Spare and ‘A Heart for Veterans’

Suzy Hopkins
By Suzy Hopkins March 15, 2010 18:00

Gloria Mooney with Howard's photo and flag

Gloria Mooney, 73, wants to rent out the empty bedroom in her East Sonora mobile home. She needs the extra money to boost her shrinking disability income and keep her home. Plus, she admits, “I’m tired of being alone.”

She signed up with Catholic Charities’ new Home Share program (see separate story) hoping to find a Vietnam veteran who needs an affordable place to stay. “And spoiling,” adds Mooney, a nurses’ aide who retired on disability in 1989 after hurting her back. “I love to cook, and I love to care for people.”

Some women would be leery about a male stranger moving in. It doesn’t faze Gloria thanks to her six-year friendship with Howard McDonald, a down-on-his-luck Vietnam veteran who became her “dearest friend.”

Decades before Howard came into her life, Gloria developed what she calls “a heart for veterans” in the early 1940s when she became seriously ill. Gloria’s uncle was an Army officer then being held by the Japanese as a prisoner of war in the Philippines. His wife pulled strings to get their 5-year-old niece admitted to Letterman Army Medical Center at San Francisco’s Presidio in 1943.

After surgery to remove intestinal tumors, Gloria was hospitalized for months amid newly disabled World War II soldiers with missing limbs, some with hooks where hands once were. Her initial fear soon faded.

“My aunt told me they were heroes and that I was always to show them respect,” she recalls. “It wasn’t long before I was everybody’s darling. They were so kind to me. I was like their little sister.”

Years later, Gloria married Earl, a Navy man who survived Pearl Harbor. Her younger brother, George, served four tours in Vietnam and is on his second tour in Afghanistan. She cared for her other brother, Jack, until his death in 1999. A year later she placed the ad that found Howard, a former paratrooper with severe post-traumatic stress.

Their landlord-tenant relationship, she says, evolved into a strong platonic friendship and mutual support. Howard didn’t mind her smoking and loved her cooking. She enjoyed his singing and guitar playing, and was patient with his moods and fear of crowds.

But as their friendship grew, sad events unfolded: Three years after moving in, Howard developed leukemia and diabetes, which Gloria believes were linked to Agent Orange exposure.

She promised him he would not die alone, and she kept her word. He passed away in their shared home on Feb. 6, 2007 at age 58. Howard was a Reno native and an only child whose parents had died before him, Gloria says: There was no one to send his flag home to. Encased in a display box in her living room, it is a poignant reminder of their time together.

“Love comes in a lot of forms,” she reflects. “Howard was my dearest, best friend, and I had the privilege of caring for him to the end of his life.”

Suzy Hopkins
By Suzy Hopkins March 15, 2010 18:00
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