POW Veterans receive first dose of COVID-19 vaccine at Birmingham VA

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — The arrival of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine was an injection of hope at the Birmingham VA Medical Center.

The hospital gave their very first doses to the only three living prisoners of war veterans in the Birmingham area.

The veterans, Newton Duke, Norman Hale and Lee Creel said they did this in hopes it encourages others to do the same when the opportunity arises.

“If there’s a hell on earth, I was there,” Duke said as he recounted his time during the Korean war. He was held captive in a Chinese prison camp for 27 months.

Duke said although 2020 has been a difficult year, this is nothing compared to the horrors he and other veterans have seen.

“These aren’t bad times like war times,” Duke said. “War times… it’s just unexplainable.”

Duke said the VA hospital reached out to him on Monday, offering him Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine.

“Got to have somebody first, might as well be me,” he exclaimed.

When he received the vaccine, he said it didn’t hurt, that it felt similar to a flu shot. Duke is encouraging others to get one too, in hopes of getting back to the regular outings he misses doing.

“Come one! Let’s get this thing going. Get all this stuff so we can get back to our lives,” he said.

The VA decided to give the very first doses to our war heroes as a small thank you for all the sacrifices they gave.

Veterans Newton Duke, Norman Hale and Lee Creel are the only three living prisoners of war veterans in the Birmingham area. (CBS 42)

“That after everything they have given our country, that when a vaccine came out, that they were one of the first people that were vaccinated,” Dr. Stacy Vasquez, the hospital director, said.

Chief of Staff Dr. Ladi Kukoyi said there is no one more deserving than the men that were present today.

“There is no more noble mission than taking care of our veterans who sacrifice everything and POW are at the top of that list because they’ve actually borne a burden that most of us will never imagine in the comfort of our home,” Kukoyi said. “Being able to be a part of this and care for them is very personally fulfilling.”

From the frontlines of war, to the frontlines of medical history, each veteran was eager to get their vaccine.

Norman Hale holding his COVID-19 vaccine card

Norman Hale, a Korean War veteran, humbly said he thought someone else should get the shot ahead of him. He said his wife was worried, but he felt confident in science.

“I think it’ll go well,” Hale said. “I wouldn’t take it if I didn’t think that.”

Lee Elm Creel, a WWII veteran, was surprised at how quickly he was contacted to get the vaccine. While getting his injection, he joked about getting to venture out of the house in the months ahead.

“I’m looking forward to the next one [dose] so I can get out and don’t have to eat my wife’s cooking!” Creel said.

The VA Hospital hopes showing the vaccination process, up close, from the start will encourage the public and their own employees to sign up.

“The only way that I am going to convince the staff that it is safe to take the vaccines is if I am also willing to do it myself,” Vasquez said. “So, I put myself in the first round for that very reason. To show the staff what it’s going to look like before it happens, all the way through the process.”

On Wednesday, the hospital will begin vaccinating roughly 700 hospital staff. After the staff is vaccinated, veterans interested in the vaccine will be brought in, screened, and given their shots. The hospital plans to administer 1,950 vaccines by the end of the year.

The Birmingham VA Medical Center is one of just 37 VA sites across the country administering COVID-19 vaccines.


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