Tag: Vietnam

Tribute to a Veteran Counselor







My Vet met me in the driveway  to walk me over and make introductions.  I could see the members of his group gathered around the patio where their host was busy barbecuing.  Some were standing, others, those with the bad hips and knees, sat at the patio tables.  They were all talking quietly, more often than not raising their voices for those of the group who had hearing aids.   I knew  a few of them, but I was meeting the majority of them for the first time.  As I shook their hands and was introduced to their wives, each one of them teased or joked about me being married to “the Gunny”.   Even the wives recognized my Vet when I mentioned his name.  “The Gunny” was one of the “movers and shakers” of this particular band of brothers and one sister.

As I made my way around the patio, I realized that these veterans of a particular age, knew my husband far more profoundly and intimately than I.  One  man in particular I was there to meet.  He was the guest of honor.  He was the reason these veterans ventured out of their routine and comfort zone to gather on their usual group meeting day, outside the familiar confines of the clinic room where they met every week for the last twelve years.  They were gathered on that patio to do the unexpected, say farewell to their veteran counselor.

I didn’t know their stories.  The veterans don’t talk outside the group about each other.  But he knew not only each of their stories, but their fears and dreams, their pride and their sorrows.  He was not just their counselor, he was their friend, their consigliere,  one of them who slowly helped each of them learn not just to help themselves, but to help one another.

Over these years I had seen the transition in my Vet.  I watched him hurt when it was easier for him to be “blank”.  I watched him grieve for his mother who had been dead for forty-six years because it had never been “safe” to open the lid to that jar of pain.  I sat silently as tears streamed down both our faces as he let himself feel pain for the families of those he had taken.  I stood by one solitary dismal night  as he raged against the memory of his 19 year-old self, who killed with purpose and efficiency and finally could weep tears of forgiveness for that same country farm boy.  I lay next to him as he prayed in the early morning hours for wisdom and understanding of the incomprehensible.  I listened with trepidation as he spoke without filter to a young veteran close to our family, helping this young man off the edge and choose life over certain death as he wrestled with his decision to seek medical help but was stigmatized by his command because of it.

As these veterans gathered to say goodbye to a man who was so much more than their group counselor, our host remarked that without him and the group members he wouldn’t have “all this” spreading his arms out to encompass the pasture with the horse and donkey, the patio and home, the garage open to the expanse outside, and most important, the wife who stood by him.  We all nodded our heads in understanding.  “… But for the grace of God, go I…”

After I said my goodbyes and made ready to travel back to my office, I took a couple of pictures of the driveway past the pasture and clearing where the house was located.  The trees grew such that they created a canopy over the road and for a moment I remembered my Vet’s description of the jungles of Vietnam.  The lush green density that barely allowed sunlight to filter  through, and I realized this band of brothers and one sister had come a long, long way with the help of their families, each other and their counselor.  This had not just been “farewell”, this had been “thank-you”.


PTSD – Anniversary, 2012

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My husband has a saying about his PTSD.  “I don’t have PTSD, PTSD has me…because if I could lose this shit, I would lose it in a heartbeat.”   When we were first dating, I thought it curious he couldn’t recall his address, only the location of where he shared a condo with his friend and roommate.  When I got to know him better and realized he memorized EVERYTHING because of his dyslexia, it occurred to me he may have short term memory loss.  Not severe, but enough to make his day to day life a little crazy.  I also noted that there were times, he would get in the car, start the engine and then look at me and say “Ok, what are we doing?” as if we hadn’t just had a conversation in the apartment, down the steps and into the carport about exactly where we were going.  It was disconcerting in the beginning.  I didn’t know whether this was real, or feigned, or why one day, he would get up on a mission and have A to Z lined out, and another day, he had no plan of the day, nor did he care if he had one or not.  I overcompensated, as I am wont to do.   I would have not just one route to a location, but a couple of alternate routes, until one day he told me “Stop.   Stop managing me”.

I got my feelings hurt then, and since then.  But, I’m not a doctor.   Nor am I a trained counselor.  My experience had been nil, regarding PTSD.  I read up on the condition and spoke to a couple of professionals, but translating the criteria for PTSD listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders or DSM-III or IV, had terms like, “traumatic stressor”, “avoidance and numbing symptoms”, “distress and impairment”.  These terms didn’t equate to  my guy, he was on some days in the first months of the year, just kind of quiet.  The kind of quiet where we could be in the house all day and not speak to one another, after the initial “Good morning, Babe…”  He would reach out to me, touch me in passing, but he could go on with his task at hand, and not say a word.  “Avoidance and numbing symptoms”…you think?

My denial of my husband’s symptoms, or my “gloss over” may have helped us both in those early years.   Looking back and reading some journal entries, I sometimes think I should have been a lot more concerned about him.    I recognized aspects of his symptoms, but I accepted them…to a point.  My husband is a good guy.  One of the few out there that are genuinely good guys.  What I saw and read about Vietnam veterans suffering from PTSD did not necessarily equate with my guy.  He is grounded in faith and family.  He has a sharp, quick wit.  He never drank or experimented in drugs.  He was an athlete in the Marine Corps., loves Judo and golf and is so competitive.   What I know now, that I didn’t know then, is that your neighbor, your uncle, your cousin, your friend, your co-worker and the guy at the 7-11 may suffer from PTSD.   I worry, just from what I have experienced and noted on a personal level, that our current veterans, who have dealt with multiple tours may be more at risk for stressors than the Vietnam veterans.

There is this part of me that believes we have the power to help heal ourselves.  Yes, we need doctors and medication in some cases, in other’s we need coping tools, in all cases we need prayer.  I pray for him and those who suffered like him.  I prayed he would receive the message he needed in counseling.  I prayed for patience and wisdom.  Patience to deal with those days that challenged him more than others.  Wisdom to know when I was in the midst of “one of those days.”  Wisdom to appreciate the days when I was not.

I learned to not panic when loud noises would lift him out of his chair and ultimately out of the room, the movie theatre, a family gathering, an office, and a gym.  Hyper-vigilance, especially this time of year, the anniversary of his wounding, for me, becomes an exercise in restraint.  Over time, I learned his sleep patterns change during this time of year, and this month in particular.  He stays up to early hours of the morning and sleeps late into the day.  Stressors that typically may not be a problem, become one.  A dream, a sound, a smell, a picture…  “Avoidance” became “bunkering”.  He would not want to socailize, perfering to stay inside.  He would not shave his usually well groomed face and head, letting the gray hairs show.  He seemed to age before my eyes.  He would not engage, preferring his sweats and tee shirts to his levis and polo shirts.

Showing the Gray

It took the words of the WWII veteran in his group to resonate with him.  My husband said the veteran came up to him at the end of one of last year’s group counseling session and patted his face and said…”You are too young to have this” touching his beard.  The beard came off that day.  That was a year ago.

This year, the beard never materialized.  This year the “bunkering” was minimal for a couple of reasons.  The WWII vet that made a fuss about his beard, suffered a heart attack last year and is still hospitalized. We have lost a couple of dear friends to illness.    Depression may or may not have factored in each illness and the lesson that was caught, is that tomorrow is not guaranteed.  You can live it, desensitized to the world around you, allowing your fears to engage you to the point they marginalize you,  or you can take a deep breath and live each day, one day at a time, facing the pain of engaging in a society that has little clue of the enormous sacrifice each veteran has made, each veteran’s family has suffered coping with a loved one that comes back forever altered from war, and like the majority of us, take the joy along with heartache.

 Notes from my ongoing project:  Train’s Comin’ – Our Journey with PTSD

Veteran’s Day

The first Veteran in my life is my dad,  David C. Torres, Retired Chief Petty Officer, United Stated Navy.  He was the fifth son out of my grandmother’s eight sons.  He joined the Navy at 17.  He served during the Korean War and also at the beginning of the conflict in Vietnam on the Bonn Homme Richard, CV-31.  He worked on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier, getting jets on and off the deck of the carrier to run bombing missions over Vietnam.  He later was stationed at Cubic Point Naval Air Base, Republic of the Philippines,  at the airfield where body bags came in from Vietnam headed home.  He retired at NAS Miramar, the home of “Top Gun” fame.  Now Miramar is Marine Corps Air Base Miramar, but, don’t tell him that.  For all my life as a dependant, before and after he retired, NAS Miramar was all Navy.

All of his brothers served in the armed forces.  In the case of one brother, my Tio Frank Torres, served in two branches.  Army and then the Marine Corps.  My mom had four brothers, all who served.  It was a recent conversation at Christmas last year when my mom told me her eldest brother, my Tio Dan had suffered from “shell shock” when he returned from his duty.  The local train going by my grandma’s house, used to catch him off guard and send him to the floor in his first days back. Her youngest brother, my Tio Arturo, was wounded in Vietnam.  His intestines and stomach were mostly plastic by the time the doctors were done with him.   His injuries proved so severe, he went from morphine to, I was told, street pharmaceuticals, to deal with the pain.  It took him years, but he finally got his health on tract, was driving truck early one morning two years ago and was killed.

My husband is the son of a sharecropper.  He joined Job Corps and went to Idaho, and from Job Corps joined the Marine Corps.  He was a country boy who had just been out of the state of North Carolina for the first time and was going to a foreign country to shoot, and be shot at.  He was wounded by shrapnel in his face in a close encounter with another young country boy from Vietnam.  Killed or be killed.  He was awarded a Purple Heart for his wound and was sent back in country as soon as he could walk around on his own, to finish out his tour.

If you ask family and friends, there is someone who knows someone who served. There is someone who has a story they carry in them.  Someone that might have carried it so long, that his almost senior aged daughter did not know her father served in World War II until he came back from a dedication ceremony in D.C.  I asked my husband, why do some veterans, come home, put their military locker in storage, or in the barn, or in the attic and never tell their spouse, or their kids about their time in service.  The younger veterans don’t want to relive it, he speculates, the older ones are from a generation where you did not complain.  It was easier to act like it didn’t happen, than deal with the questions when people find out it did.

I know there are other stories out there in my family.  I have a cousin I wrote to when he served in Vietnam.  He died not long after he returned, and because no speaks of it, I wondered if it had to do with his time in service.  No one speaks of it.  I have refrained from asking my Tia, because the loss of a son, I understand as I have a son of my own.  But, I often wondered if the demons from Vietnam followed my cousin home.

My daughter, Megan, joined the Navy in 2004, just out of high school.  If you could have seen the look on her grandfather’s face, when he found her new I.D. card in his birthday card, that year.   It is one of those stories we still tell at the dinner table when we talk about the legacy of her following in her grandfather’s footsteps.  No, she is not working catapult on a aircraft carrier as her grandfather did, she is Aircrew on H-53’s and from time to time, flies on to aircraft carriers.  She is the latest in our family to serve.

If you go the VA Hospital in Durham, to the convalescent floor, you will find everyday people from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm I and II, that served this country.  You might even find a Purple Heart recipient or Bronze Star recipient, or you may just find every day folk, too sick to be at home, trying to live out their days as best they can.  Ordinary people, who served this country when the times called for extraordinary people to serve.  We owe them, the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the veterans of peace time, so much more than just a day of remembrance, a flying of the Stars and Stripes, a day off work and school, and “Pre-Holiday Sale” at the local mall.  We owe them our time, our respect, our consideration, and our dedication, that their service is not just acknowledged, but respected and honored.