'When I saw him die, it changed me'

A soldier's story: 'When I saw him die, it changed me'

Jimmy Tootle addresses the other members of Group
67 at their graduation ceremony from the in-patient
post-traumatic stress disorder program

Last year, Jimmy Tootle got caught in a traffic jam in Morehead City as a group of Marines returning from Iraq led a parade down four-lane U.S. 24 to Camp Lejeune. The whole town all but stopped, cheering the returning soldiers. A construction company raised a giant American flag on one of its tall cranes and hung it over the highway.

Tootle sat there and cried.

No parades greeted Tootle and his Army buddies when he returned home from Vietnam. In fact, the soldiers were advised not to wear their uniforms on their flight back to Oakland, Calif. The uniforms might draw protesters, they were told.

Tootle went home to Newport and married a girl he had dated in high school. Still 19, he got a job as a civilian employee at Cherry Point Naval Air Station, and he and his wife had a little girl. But life wasn't right. His wife told Tootle he spoke Vietnamese in his sleep.

He got into arguments with people at work. Eventually, his supervisor gave him a job where he could work by himself.
He started hiding a pint of liquor in his pocket when he went to work. "I'd have to take a few sips to get through the day," he says. He and his wife quarreled, and, finally, divorced after 12 years of marriage and two children.

Today, Tootle, 58, calmly recounts how he became an addict, first to alcohol and then to drugs. He knows now that a lot of anger and guilt were simmering inside him all those years, and almost anything could set him off.

About 10 years ago, his 4-year-old grandson used to come for regular weekend visits. They liked to go fishing. But on one weekend visit, the boy wanted some candy. "He was whining and sniveling, and I just lost it" and threw him against the dryer in his laundry room, Tootle remembers. The grandson stopped visiting.

Despite all his troubles, Tootle remained functional. The benefits at his job paid for substance abuse rehabilitation. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous and has been clean for 17 years.

Not until 2003 when he retired from his job at Cherry Point — when suddenly he had a lot of time on his hands — did he realize just how unhappy he was. A therapist for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Morehead City recommended he consider the Hefner VA Medical Center's inpatient program for veterans with post traumatic stress disorder.

In early February, he finished the six-week program. There he lived, ate and cried with other combat veterans. He learned that they don't like crowds any more than he does. Some have not gone to a mall in years. But together, they paid a visit to the Salisbury Mall.

Tootle also talked about things he hadn't discussed with others in years. He recalled standing next to his best friend, a guy named Cook from Alabama, when a bullet or piece of shrapnel took off most of his friend's head.

"When I saw him die, it changed me," Tootle says.

He also talked about the anger he felt when he learned the Army paid Cook's family $10,000 in life insurance.

"Ten thousand dollars wouldn't begin to buy his family anything," Tootle says. "... But it's nothing to those white, rich people who could afford to send their children north to Canada so they wouldn't have to serve."

Tootle's still angry, but now he can talk about it. And he's learned to take deep breaths and slow down his emotions. And he realizes he's never talked to a guy in his unit who was shot and permanently disabled after switching places with Tootle while their armored personnel carrier was on patrol. Tootle somehow feels like he should have taken that bullet, and he's ready to tell the guy he's sorry.

Dan Machovina coordinates the Hefner VA's inpatient treatment program. He said veterans like Tootle have pushed down those memories and bad feelings for decades, and part of their treatment is learning to accept their feelings and get on with their lives

As part of their treatment in Salisbury, the vets write down all their feelings about the war on paper. They all burn the papers together and, as a group, take the ashes to the national Vietnam War memorial — The Wall — in Washington, D.C. They leave the ashes — and, hopefully, part of their hurt — at the Wall.

Tootle and Hugh Reid, 59, were two veterans who graduated recently from the inpatient program who agreed to talk to a reporter about their experiences and let a photographer take their pictures. The other members of Group 67 allowed a reporter and photographer to attend their graduation ceremony and listen to their words.

Tootle and Reid said they wanted to talk because they want people to understand the importance of the program to veterans. They want the program to be there for vets coming home from Iraq.

And they want young veterans to get help now, before they make mistakes that ruin their lives and their relationships.

Reid, 59, lives in Hampton, Va. now. He was a teenage Marine wounded during Operation Meade River, a search-and-destroy operation in Vietnam.

He grew up in New York and returned there after the war. He got a job with the Postal Service, married and had a daughter.

But, like Tootle, though he functioned, Reid never faced — or escaped — his deeper problems.

He only felt comfortable sleeping on the floor. He had nightmares and night sweats. The problem came to a head when his 6-year-old daughter got up to go to the bathroom one night while Reid was in the midst of a nightmare, a more vivid one that therapists call "intrusive memories."

Reid woke up to find himself choking his daughter and his wife beating him and screaming for him to stop. He and his wife separated, and after he retired from the Postal Service, he moved to Norfolk to live with his mother.

And it happened again. This time, he woke to find himself choking his 80-year-old mother. He knew he needed help. "I was on the verge of committing suicide."

Officials hospitalized him at the time and prescribed strong medications. But he hated those also because all he wanted to do was sleep. His legs felt too heavy to even walk.

"That's not living," he said.

Finally, a VA therapist in Norfolk recommended he come to the inpatient program at the Hefner VA, one of only five inpatient programs for post traumatic stress disorder in the country.

Reid shakes his head when he talks about going with the other vets in Group 67 to the Salisbury Mall. "They took us to a freaking movie!" he says. "I hadn't been in a movie theater in years."

And when he left the ashes of his memories at The Wall in Washington, "you cannot imagine what that does," he says.

None of the vets who graduated with Group 67 believes he is "cured." Before they were admitted to the inpatient program, they agreed to continue for at least a year of outpatient therapy after they leave the inpatient unit.But now they have coping skills they didn't have before, and they've faced their anger and sadness, their feelings of isolation and guilt with others who understand them.

As Reid told his fellow veterans and the staff on graduation day:
"Everyone says I talk a lot, but I've talked more in the last six weeks than in the last six years.

"Six weeks ago when I came here, I felt like a kid or a guy starting high school. But this is a new beginning for me. Now, I've got a foundation ... It's so important today to have pride. I'm so damn proud!"

* * *
By Frank DeLoache
Contact Frank DeLoache at 704-797-4245
or fdeloache@salisburypost.com.
Photo by Joey Benton, Salisbury Post

©2005, The Salisbury Post


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