Vets find acceptance, help from their fellows
By M.L. LYKE
EDITOR'S NOTE: The war veterans in the South End Vets Group agreed to let a reporter sit in on a group session with the provision that their names not be used. The group meets Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 7 p.m. Vets interested in information can leave a message with Bill, Todd or Russ at 253-939-6541.It took the words of a 7-year-old to send her father to the hospital.
She knew he wasn't right. Hadn't been right since he came back from Iraq.
"She said, 'You're not my daddy.'
"She said, 'I want you to leave.'
"She said she wanted the daddy that left for the war to come home," the soldier said.
On a dank October day, in a windowless room, inside a worn building that used to be an Elks hall, he tells the story to a group of special men who listen hard.
They nod. They know. They all left for war one person and came back another. "You walk down the street in Seattle, and everything is the same -- but you're not," one ex-warrior said.
They are combat soldiers of Vietnam and Gulf War I, older vets reaching out to new vets coming home from Iraq with "issues." Like anger. Like paranoia. Like survivor guilt. Like nightmares, daymares, drugs, booze, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain and a hundred heavy questions most civilians can't begin to understand.
"What is the difference between me and a murderer? A license to kill?" asked Gary, who was recently released from the Tacoma branch of the VA Puget Sound Health Care System for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, lung damage and other physical ailments.
He is one of more than 8,700 Iraq and Afghan war veterans who have been treated for combat-related mental health problems through the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The 32-year-old soldier, who volunteered for Army duty in Iraq after two previous stints in the military, has been home a year. He is still seething.
Seething over the war: "They sent us off with false ideas." Seething over his injuries: "My commander told me I was faking it." Seething over the deaths of young brothers-in-arms: "I've buried babies." Seething over the damage done: "These kids are coming back crazed!"
He practically shouts inside a room long familiar with pained silence.
‘I still feel I don't fit’It's not easy being here, baring souls at the South End Vets Group, a group that formed in the '80s independent of the military and Veterans Administration. "A lot of people believe that if you go for help in the military, you're going to be stigmatized," said a Vietnam vet named Russ. "It's a lot easier to keep your mouth shut."
"I got the night sweats so bad, my wife had to change the sheets," said a Vietnam vet named Bob, a former Marine. "Sometimes I couldn't sleep with her, because I'd get all freaked out."
After 10, or 20, or 30 years, many still feel alienated from society, describing it as the "outside" or "so-called real" world.
"I still feel I don't fit," said Todd, who served for 15 years in the Marines -- in Okinawa, the Middle East and the Far East -- before a medical discharge in 1999 for a cervical spine injury. He wasn't diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder until two years ago, when he finally went to the VA hospital for help. The land surveyor was in a world of hurt, with a history of arrests for assaults, domestic violence, trouble on the job and bouts of suicidal depression.
He was hospitalized several times last year, dragged to the VA by vets from the South End group who know his flame-out signs. "These guys helping me -- it's the only reason I'm alive," said the muscled vet with the shaved head, whose face is so carefully composed it's easy to miss the welling eyes and gritted teeth.
"I was lucky to find a group of veterans who had already been through what I was going through," he said.
Shoulders to lean on
The South End group now has a core of about 30 combat veterans who keep track of one another, putting a "boot in the back" if one starts to slump, slide or isolate.
"The idea of our group is painful. It's scary -- like opening a Pandora's box, letting out all these feelings you've put away," said Todd, a former drill sergeant who is helping out a half-dozen vets from Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"It took me 13 weeks to train a young man to be a Marine. That is a lot of money, time and manpower," he said. "After they've done with their tour of combat, they don't get an equal amount of training to get back into society.
"It's easier to forget about us after we're used up."
If he could, the 38-year-old said, he would be back in Iraq, fighting to save soldiers, bring them home safe. "I think we need to get the hell out of there ... but all I can do is sit back here and pick up the pieces when they get home."
The South End group moved into the Auburn quarters in the '90s. Inside their designated room, flags of different service branches and several wars hang on walls. "Our cause was just," reads a flag from Vietnam. There's a plaque to honor the group's dead -- including one ponytailed Vietnam vet who overdosed on prescription meds and whiskey.
There's a "Purple Heart library," a framed poster extolling "random acts of kindness" and a lock on the door. "We have the key because sometimes you have to lock the door, have to get away from everyone," said Bob, a former Vietnam Marine who helped start the group.
Everyone in the South End group can tell tales of vet helping vet -- of shoulders to lean on, of couches to sleep on, of long roads traveled to reach common ground.
One Vietnam vet came to his first meetings full of hate, armed and dangerous. "For a year, I carried a gun to every meeting I came to," said Bill, who served as an Army infantryman in Vietnam.
"At first the gun was a comfort," he said. "Then it became a burden."
On this October day, there are a half-dozen veterans, all diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, talking with Gary, the newcomer. "Gary's just back one year. I've been back five years. I'm fairly raw. He's real raw," Todd said.
Gary talks fast, his sentences smoldering, occasionally bursting into flame. The others measure their words, knowing the weight of them, and conscious of the reporter in the room.
Topics drift from struggles to obtain VA benefits and governmental red tape to spouses who couldn't bear to listen to the very stories they once begged to hear:
Gary (Iraq): When I got home, people said, "How are you doing?" I looked in their eyes, and saw that they didn't really want to know. But the first time a vet asked me, I cried, because I knew he did want to know.
Bob (Vietnam): It alienates your family when you talk about it. It's really hard to "feel the love."
Gary: My wife got angry at me, saying, "You can save the soldiers, you cannot save your own family. Tell me what happened." I sat down and told her. I could see her move away from me, see it in her eyes.
Bob: I told people a few things, and it's like they just don't want to talk to you anymore. It's like you don't exist. With vets, you do exist.
Todd (Gulf War I): Some people say they really, really want to know what's bothering you. So I told them the nightmares, the experiences. And once you divulge, they look at you like you're a rattlesnake, because of what I was capable of.
Bob: It's really hard to talk to people without reliving everything. It becomes totally vivid. I'm there. I can't get it out of my head.
Bill (Vietnam): I wouldn't believe I had PTSD at first -- and I was living in a barn talking to a horse and a dog.
Russ (Vietnam): The horse didn't think he had it, either (laughter).
Bob: The PTSD depression we all suffer, it's much easier to isolate, to hide out, than talk about it. ... Vets are the only ones who understand when we talk about being emotionally numb. We understand what that means, but people out there -- they all think you got a shot of Novocain or something.
Bill: When I got into the group, I was a raving lunatic. I slept with handguns, waking up at intervals to patrol the property. I carried one to work. ... The vets put up with me. They took me to the VA, with one on each side of me. I would have never made it on my own.
Todd: It's important for the guys coming home to know there are places to go.
Bob: And that they don't have to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol.
Gary: I don't sleep. When I do, I have nightmares. I woke up from this one nightmare with a gun in my hand. My kid had jumped on me -- I almost took out my own kid!
Bob: Some of us are up all night for weeks on end. We're hypervigilant. We have to know all the threats, check all the windows and doors. ... I still make sure no one is following me. I have little routes I take to make sure. Call me paranoid. I call it self-preservation.
Gary: I disappear in the woods. I was raised on fishing and hunting, and I know the animals will keep me safe. I can tell in the chatter of a squirrel if anyone is there. Out there in the so-called real world, I don't know where the danger is.
Bob: Sometimes a simple noise can set you off. It's a real embarrassment. You hear a loud noise, and you end up on the floor.
Bill: On the outside, you run into a lot of "get over it." There's no "getting over it." You manage it. You know when you are aggressive -- I chart it on calendars.
Bob: Part of the problem is survivor guilt. You feel like you deserted the guys you left behind.
Todd: I don't like to watch the news on Iraq, because I'm afraid I'll recognize somebody when they roll the casualty list.
Gary: Yeah. You hear about soldiers dying and you wonder, "Could I have made a difference?" I don't feel like I belong here as long as there are soldiers on the ground.
Todd: None of us do.
The session, which began at 3 p.m., will go on for hours. Gary leaves before it ends. The vets understand. They know how hard it was just to walk through the doors of this windowless room. They can see the strain on his still-boyish face.
Before he leaves, they stand up and take turns wrapping the newcomer in big bear hugs.
"Hey, brother," they say.
"Hang in there, Gary," they say.
HOW TO GET HELP (Pacific Northwest)
Returning Iraq soldiers can get access to vet-to-vet support groups, individual mental-health therapy and treatment for nightmares, sleeplessness, depression and stress disorders through a variety of local providers.
The VA Puget Sound Health Care System branch in Seattle has a special deployment health clinic to handle mental and physical post-combat evaluation and treatment. It also offers individual, marital and family counseling, social services and help with obtaining benefits. Call 206-764-2636.
The Seattle VA also has a separate clinic for female vets. Call 206-768-5314.
The state VA's PTSD program offers counseling throughout the state. Call 800-562-2308. A complete list of providers is at www.dva.wa.gov; click on "PTSD."
Help is available at Fort Lewis through the Madigan Army Medical Center behavioral health department: 253-968-2700.
Veterans Outreach Centers are located in Seattle, 206-553-2706; Tacoma, 253-565-7038; and Bellingham, 360-733-9226.
The Army Source One hot line offers soldiers and their families 24-hour confidential consultation and referral, seven days a week, as well as free, private, in-person counseling sessions in local communities. 800-464-8107.
P-I reporter M.L. Lyke
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