Talking Shock

The first day Paul was in Vietnam, his company lined up to take pictures with a dead enemy soldier. When Paul refused, they punished him. “They made me bury the guy,” he said. “They weren’t about to let me get away with not touching him.”

The rest of the group—five veterans and a chaplain—listen quietly, sitting in a scattered circle in the third-floor chapel of the West Haven Veteran’s Administration Hospital. Leaning back in their seats with their legs crossed, they are just settling into a weekly interfaith group meeting for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“Our innocence—boy, we sure lost it quick,” says Paul, both hands resting on his walker.

“It’s true, you know,” Jeff chimes in. His head bobs gently as he speaks. “We were in high school, young, we didn’t understand the world then. We didn’t know what other life-paths were like. And then you go to war, and you’re not prepared. Everything you see is so foreign to you. It’s something that rocks the mind. We weren’t innocent anymore.”

Even today, Paul feels a sense of guilt. He says he’s apologized to families in Vietnam, because he feels like he’s the one who broke them apart and needs their forgiveness.

The others nod in silence, but Hernandez speaks out. “Forgiveness, what about it? If they don’t exonerate us, then what?” Hernandez still recalls the first man he saw die, a Marine flipping through the nearby air—Hernandez moves his index finger in a rolling motion to demonstrate. “They say the Lord’ll take care of the guys you kill, sort ’em out, you know, pick the good ’uns and the bad ’uns. Some go to heaven, some go to hell. But what happens to me? What side am I on?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” says Ron. “In war, you make yourself an object, and the other person an object. That’s how you can kill. You detach yourself. And coming home, we had to detach ourselves again, because of the stigma associated with us. But at what price?”

Father Sergei Bouteneff, the V.A. chaplain, addresses the men calmly and indirectly. He tells of something he learned from Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest, at a potlatch ceremony, in which a wealthy member of the community treats everyone to a huge feast. One part of the ceremony entails taking a huge copper shield and breaking it apart, giving a piece to each person at the feast. Later, the host collects the pieces and melds them together in a display of unity. “Let’s say this shield takes $1,000 to make,” says the chaplain. “Well, it takes $2,000 to put it back together. And even when you do, it’s not the same. That’s the price we pay. It’s like our innocence. We’re trying now to buy it back, but the cost is high. And sometimes we’re missing a piece or two. We have to go after it. But we pay, we went to war at a price—we pay extra, just like the shield.”

Part of that price is the fight against isolation, as veterans try to piece their broken lives back together.

P.T.S.D.—Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—is a common mental illness amongst war veterans. It is an anxiety disorder brought on by a life experience a patient can’t shake. Its four main symptoms, as described by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, are re-experiencing, avoidance, numbing, and arousal. The organization also estimates different percentages of veterans affected by P.T.S.D. for different wars: about 12 to 20 percent for soldiers who served in Iraq, 6 to 11 percent for those in Afghanistan, up to 10 percent for Gulf War veterans, and 30 percent for those who served in Vietnam.

Elliott Storm, a Vietnam veteran and author who is a regular patron of the West Haven V.A. Hospital, knows the isolation that P.T.S.D. can bring. His latest book, These Scars Are Sacred, features a vet haunted by memories of Vietnam; any little trigger—a slow-moving car, crowds—can set off a flashback that Storm depicts in vivid, sometimes gruesome detail. “People from the outside say I’m raw,” says Storm, whose voice, even on the phone, is frenzied. “But vets say I’m real. They say thank you, for telling the truth. Thank you, for saying what we’ve been wanting to say.” Storm insists he doesn’t write his books for veterans themselves, but for their families, so that they can understand what the veterans
are going through and why so many are afflicted.

When the term P.T.S.D. was coined in 1980, it was initially applied only to Vietnam veterans. Before that, Vietnam vets had noticed common problems—anxiety, bouts of depression, difficulty holding on to jobs, a tendency to fidget, trouble trusting others, substance abuse—but rarely were these cases officially diagnosed or linked together, in part because V.A. hospitals often turned these vets away, but also because the vets themselves were reluctant to speak out.

Storm still believes he went to law school as a way to retreat from popular antipathy toward Vietnam vets. “Lawyers can’t be crazy, can they?” he asks. “That was gonna be a mask I was gonna use. The last thing I wanted anyone to know was that I was a vet.”

Storm’s multiple decorations within the Marine Corps did not make his homecoming
any easier. For one thing, this was the first war from which soldiers were shipped home on planes instead of boats, truncating their transition from front to home front. “One day, I was in the middle of a rice paddy, and I’m getting shot at, and I’m shooting back, and people are screaming and shooting and all kinds of terrible things are happening,” says Storm. “Two days later, I’m sitting in my mother’s house, drinking cold milk, thinking, ‘What the heck’s going on?’”

But what drove Storm’s transitional trauma home was the treatment he and other Vietnam veterans received once back in the States, where he felt that the public did not separate the soldier from the unpopular war, the tool from the wielder of power. “Society turned their back on us,” he says. “People were calling me a baby-killer. That was forty years ago, but you think I’m ever gonna forget that?”

But in the ’80s, he says, as veterans began to be more accepted within popular culture, they began speaking out. “We started going to the V.A., and the V.A. started sayin’, why, there’s a lot of people here with the same thing. That’s when they first called it P.T.S.D.”

Since the early 1990s, the medical community has become increasingly responsive to the psychological and spiritual needs of all patients, and particularly veterans. With more and more people returning from Iraq and Afghanistan wounded instead of killed, and with the survivability rate of the military today higher than it has ever been, veterans’ need for psychological treatment has become impossible to ignore. Hospitals like the West Haven V.A. have responded in kind, increasingly turning to chaplains’ programs, mental health care, and creative therapy. But many vets worry that this won’t be enough.

“How much can you art? How much can you sing? How much can you laugh and write and do any of those things?” says Storm. “A reporter once said to me, ‘Didn’t you find your book a catharsis?’ I said, ‘Absolutely not!’ Writing doesn’t help me….There is no cure for what I have. Sure, there are drugs, but there is no cure. There’s no magic pill.”

Dana Murphy, Storm’s commanding officer within one of Connecticut’s American Legion chapters, agrees that the book is no substitute for medical treatment. “He’s writing this book, but he needs help, too,” he says. “He sees a shrink every Monday.”

Sometimes, the writing and the treatment feed off of each other. When Storm’s psychologist told him to write down a recurring war dream he’d been having, he ended up pounding out 65 single-spaced pages on a typewriter.

But telling the truth can alienate as many people as it attracts. Storm’s wife of 25 years left him when he started re-immersing himself in his war experiences through writing. “It’s called secondary P.T.S.D.,” says Storm. “I rub off on my wife and my kids.” He remembers a picture of him that his son, Christian, drew at age 13. “It was a monster-looking man holding a chain saw and on the bottom it said, ‘What I say go,’” says Storm. “After I stopped crying, I told my son, ‘Draw me a picture of you.’ And you know what he drew? He drew me a picture of a sacrificial lamb.” Regarding his books, his other son asked him, “Daddy? Do me a favor. Don’t use our real name.”

So “Elliott Storm” is actually a pseudonym, yet one so powerful that even his closest friends and his second wife call him Elliott. As for the real Elliott Storm? He’s a cat.

IN THE LOBBY of the West Haven V.A. Hospital is a single quotation, stark and striking above the information desk, in silver metallic lettering: “The price of freedom is visible here.” But maybe it’s not so visible after all.

Storm tells me, “It’s not that you have to understand. I talk to psychiatrists, psychologists. I ask ’em, ‘What are the first things you tell these people who come in to see you, these veterans?’ Is it ‘Oh, we know this or we know that?’ Because that’s not what veterans want to hear. You tell them what you think, what you know about P.T.S.D. and everything, and they turn away from you. You know what a veteran wants to hear? Just two words: ‘Welcome home.’ If I know someone was a Vietnam vet, if they were wearin’ a hat or somethin’, I always go up to them and say, ‘Welcome home, brother.’”

At his office in the V.A., Father Bouteneff tells me, “I don’t try to hide the fact that I never served.” He got an F4 from a medical exam—meaning that he was physically disqualified—and later a Y1, which excused him from duty while he was a seminary student. Still, in his therapy sessions with P.T.S.D. groups, he doesn’t hesitate to use the word “we.” “War is about us versus them,” he tells his veteran patients.

And his patients, many of whom he’s been working with for over twenty years now, tell him, “We served for three years. You’re serving for 25.”

“Spirituality is about relationships,” Father Bouteneff says. He draws me a picture: a messy triangle labeled with Y (You), O (Other), and HP (Higher Power) on top. He draws arrows connecting all three to each other. “You don’t have to understand
right away. But it’s about trying to understand others, to sympathize, empathize.” He draws a final arrow from the Y back to itself in a circle. “And about understanding yourself.”

THE ERRERA COMMUNITY Care Center, just down the hill from the West Haven V.A. and also part of the V.A. Connecticut Healthcare System, is working to change veterans’ perceptions of themselves, and each other, with more than just words. Walking into a brick building with a factory- like facade, I see artwork: photography in memory of a vet. But upstairs, on the second floor, is where the healing really happens.

Dr. Laurie Harkness, founder and director of the Errera Community Care Center, seeks to hire veterans for her staff of peer facilitators and counselors. “These people are mentally ill, have been homeless, even,” she says. “But you would never know it.” When I explain that I am interested in the process of recovery for veterans, Dr. Harkness lights up.

The Errera Community Care Center addresses community integration in a style more hands-on and less structured than most mental health centers could imagine. “Most mental health places, they’re trying to establish more of a medical model,” says Moe Armstrong, a veteran who specializes in mental health work and is writing a book profiling the Center’s 17 peer specialists; he jots down notes even as I ask questions. “They have psychiatrists, nurses,” he explains. “Well, you need that. You need clinical people, but you also need people workin’ with people. Just need people talkin’ to each other. That’s why this place got the best of both worlds, the clinical stuff”—the Center boasts psychiatrists, including Dr. Harkness, who teach at the Yale School of Medicine—“and people trying to get each other. And by having mentally ill people act as peers, that’s therapy for them, too. The future of mental health is here.”

James Murphy and Lewis Andrews are both peer advisors as well as Vietnam veterans; they co-teach a class called HOPE: How One Progresses Everyday. Before taking early retirement, Murphy managed to work on and off for 22 years after he got back from the war. After he stopped working, though, he got mixed up with a crowd that fostered his drug addiction. He was homeless by 2004, when he was diagnosed with P.T.S.D. at the V.A.. “I’m not trying to justify everything with my P.T.S.D.,” he says. But the facts are there: Since his diagnosis, he hasn’t used drugs, and he’s no longer homeless. When he first found out, though, he was scared. “When they first told me I had P.T.S.D., I was like, ‘What’s that?’ I thought they were tryin’ to label me, you know. I was scared. When you get screwed over so many times, when the V.A. did want to help you, you got a bit leery. That why a lot of us stayed out and became homeless. We had no confidence that the V.A. was tryin’ to help us.”

Lew Andrews needs even more help than Murphy: He was blinded by a mine while operating a tank in Vietnam. “This center is tryin’ to help the guys accept the condition they’re goin’ through. Or maybe not accepted, no,” says Andrews. “I mean, more like adjust. I’ve adjusted to being blind, I ain’t gon’ get used to it, but I can work to a positive end.”

When Andrews first came to the Center to work, after getting a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Gateway College, the administrators asked him, “What do you think you could bring to this center to help?”

“I’m the type of person who needs that type of stuff,” says Andrews. Like many vets, he wants to feel needed.

A typical peer advisor teaches four classes a week on anything from anger management, to social interactions, to finding jobs. Peer-to-peer counseling gives mentally ill veterans a sense of purpose, even amidst difficulties. “Some mornings,
I just don’t want to come to work,” says Anthony Dozier, another peer advisor at the center who specializes in finding
veterans jobs under the government’s supportive employment policies. “I don’t know how to explain it. It’s overwhelming. I force myself out of bed sometimes.” But he gets up because he has a responsibility to other veterans. “The benefit of me having a mental illness is that I can relate. A lot of vets”—Dozier served in Iraq—“are like me.” They want to isolate themselves, stay in bed. They don’t like authority. Everything’s a threat to them. They can’t find or keep a job. “Well, then I start sharin’ my story with them. They see that I’m at work every day. That inspires them.” And so, when Dozier looks for jobs for veterans, he considers the conditions he himself faces. When a veteran tells him he is too anxious to have an interview that day, Dozier reschedules with the employer. He explains the situation to potential employers and entreats them to give the vet a chance.

“It’s a part-time job that just gets ’em out of the house,” says Dozier. “The worst thing for mental illness is to isolate. With a mental illness, you hide from the world. If you get ’em out of the house, there’s less of a chance for relapse.” And unlike other job employment programs, Dozier’s support is ongoing. “I don’t want you to just get your thing goin’ on and leave you. I stick with you. I support you and keep coming to check in on you,” Dozier says. “As long as a vet wants me to keep comin’, I keep comin’. And there’s this sense of being part of a team, too—Tony’s team. That’s what soldiers like.”

But since there are just two supportive employment peer advisors at the Center, there’s not enough of Dozier to go around. And as Moe Armstrong points out, this isn’t just a problem in New Haven—there are not enough Doziers or Andrews or Murphys throughout the country. Armstrong, who wants to bring this sort of peer-to-peer interaction and support to mental health institutions nationwide, is working on a national vet-to-vet program.

The mental health system has been slow to accept this approach. “This center, this is it,” says Armstrong, who has visited similar clinics across the country. “60 percent of the people who go through this center don’t return to homelessness. That’s the highest in the V.A. system. Nationally, you’d be lucky if you get half that.”

Armstrong has been working with mental healthcare on and off for twenty years and has two master’s degrees in the field. Before that, he spent twenty years wandering after his service in Vietnam, drifting from place to place, getting high, not realizing how common mental illness was for veterans. In 1984, when he was accepted to college, “the V.A. wouldn’t pay for me to have a degree in social work,” he says. “They wanted me to hide. The counselors were afraid of what would happen if I were to speak my feelings.” So he got a bachelor’s in business administration instead; he says he’ll probably work until he drops dead.

All of Armstrong’s wandering, though, has taken a toll on him. “Sometimes I still feel like the odd guy out,” he says. “Like I’m rough around the edges, you know.”

“Hey now,” says Murphy. “Sometimes the odd guy out is the one that gets the ball rollin’…even if sometimes the ball rollin’ can knock the odd guy out.”

They chortle, but the statement rings true, and this is precisely what the Errera Community Care Center is: the odd guy out, trying to get the ball to roll. And more people are starting to roll along.

KEN HARBAUGH, executive director of the Center for Citizen Leadership, a non-profit dedicated to providing veterans with resources to be “leaders back home,” is one of the rollers. “Even those coming home wounded feel like they have something left to give,” says Harbaugh. “They don’t want to feel like they’re charity cases. So our first thought shouldn’t be, ‘What can I do to help them?’ It’s, ‘What can we do to reengage them productively in society?’”

Harbaugh lives in New Haven, but the Center for Citizen Leadership works nationwide integrating veterans into the community as full-time volunteers for organizations from the National Park Service to Brothers and Sisters or local nonprofits. Many veterans receive subsidies from the CCL as a way to supplement their service checks while allowing them to do community work. As for the organizations for which the veterans volunteer, Harbaugh says, “At first, they really feel like they’re doing these guys a favor. But it doesn’t take very long at all for them to realize that these people have so much left to offer.”

A bill introduced in the Senate in the fall of 2008 as an amendment to the National and Community Service Act of 1990 proposes a strategy similar to Harbaugh’s. Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch’s Serve America Act would, among other things, provide a government-funded veteran’s fellowship that would encourage veterans to engage in community service. The Obama administration has already signaled support for it.

“The veterans’ story is one of continuing service,” says Harbaugh, himself a vet who attended Duke and then Yale Law School after returning from his tours. “These guys have been told by the military that they’ve done their part, they can sit back now and be taken care of, but that’s not a way to live for anybody, much less the kinds of people who were willing to risk their lives to serve.” Harbaugh and, now, the American government, recognizes the role of service in healing.

At the end of the group meeting at the West Haven V.A., one man says he wants to join one of the service projects going back to Vietnam, to help rebuild the place he once destroyed. That will be his continuing service, and part of his recovery.
Another man says he would never be able to do that, to go back there, but that he fully supports the other vet. “And in doing that, in you telling him, ‘I support you,’” says Father Bouteneff to the second man, “a little part of you is going back with him.”

For these veterans, like the pieces of the potlatch shield, recovery cannot exist in isolation.

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