The Tomah VA Medical Center sits on 173 acres in west central Wisconsin. The PTSD unit there was about 300 miles from my home, and it was a long trip driving down there thinking hard all the way about whether this was the right thing for me. After having spent a year talking to Dr. Russell at the Minneapolis PTSD Clinic, I was ready to get whatever help the VA had to offer. But I kept remembering that everyone was talking about how hard these VA programs were and that getting everything I had hidden from myself out in the open would make things worse for a while.
They were right, because throughout the visits with Dr. Russell things did grow progressively worse for me. At the start of all of this, I would schedule my appointment for early afternoon at the Minneapolis VA clinic. It was a five-hour drive down, and I could leave at first light and be back that same night. After a while, I noticed that I would get more tense the closer I got to the VA. Another thing: when driving down Highway 46 toward Minneapolis, the sun would be coming up on my left and the flashes of sunlight through the trees would put me right back in Nam. I could not figure out why those flashes of morning sunlight did that to me, but it would freak me out so badly that I had to change my appointment time to early morning. That way I could leave for the VA at midnight and avoid the flashing sunlight.
I now know that things do get worse when you start dealing with your PTSD, because for so long I tried to stuff everything about the war into the back of my mind. What I didn’t realize is that the things that were coming out and bothering me were just the tip of the iceberg. I might have a couple things that were always setting me off, such as, the sound of a helicopter; for some guys, it was the smell of diesel fuel. Those “triggers” would start me thinking of my wartime experiences. For a while we learned how to stop those thoughts. Like I said, some guys used alcohol or drugs; others dove into their work. Whatever it took to take our mind off the things we didn’t want to think about is what we would do.
For some, that diversion technique works for decades and for others it works for a few years. Either way, the time comes when nothing works anymore, and a guy either gets some help or he does himself in. When a guy starts dealing with these thoughts of his war, then everything starts coming back to him.
Many veterans find that their time in the war was just a time in their life, like high school or college. After it was over, it just became a memory. For others, their time in the war zone becomes the most vivid thought in their life. I don’t know why one guy can walk away and the other can’t. I have met veterans who have become executives of successful corporations, and one day their war experience jumps out of the back of their mind and takes over their life.
Some guys have scars on their bodies from battle wounds that remind them of combat every day. I met a Korean War vet there who had been shot in the face, and let me tell you he looked just awful. I asked him if he had ever tried living out in the community, and he said that he had but the looks of little children bummed him out too much.
They can do a lot with plastic surgery but after years of multiple surgeries, some guys don’t want the pain for the little gain they get. Like this guy said, to reconstruct a face you first have to have a face to work with. So he lived at the VA hospital, and I guess he will die at the VA hospital.
Others have no apparent visual reminder, but they are affected by their time in combat too. I met a guy at Tomah who was wounded at Iwo Jima in World War II. He was still in that VA hospital 50 years later. He told me he was better, but he explained that all the time we were talking he could hear his fellow wounded Marines screaming as they waited in horrible pain to be taken off the island. The sounds of those wounded Marines stayed with that guy 24/7. To him these were not just “voices in his head” — the sounds were so real that he actually could hear those screaming, dying Marines.
The decision to seek help
You read about Iraq and Afghanistan vets needing psychological help after their return home, but they never explain what that help entails. Young men or women needing help with their war experiences, and the stress those experiences can cause, will spend years, decades, maybe the rest of their lives trying to get back to normal.
I know I was going to write about the PTSD program at Tomah, but I got off on this tangent. I could try to blame that on having PTSD, but I know too many people who have never been to war and who have trouble with their mind’s wandering as well.
Maybe I just don’t want to think about my program there at the VA. It wasn’t fun; it was hard work. Something most people don’t know is that the program is free, provided by the government to help veterans who have served in a war, and because of that service they are having problems. The program is free, but that is it. You don’t get any money to live on, you don’t get any money to travel on, and your family has to get by while you are away.
To say the least, you have to really need the help in order for you and your family to put your and their lives on hold while you try to get yourself back together. A lot of guys start, and a lot of guys quit. Some find it easier to go back to the bottle or return to being a workaholic. Others decide it is easier to take their own life and end the torment the war zone has placed on them.
As I stated earlier, Dr. Russell from the Minneapolis VA PTSD clinic wanted me to go to the Tomah VA Medical Center in Wisconsin for an in-house, long-term PTSD program. He could tell Tomah that he thought that its program would do me a lot of good, but Tomah had to decide whether it wanted to take me on, because it had many more referrals than it could ever handle.
I remember driving down there from the north of Minnesota. I went through Duluth and down Highway 53 to Interstate 94. It was the start of Wisconsin’s deer-hunting season and their northland was filled with guys outfitted in red or blaze orange, carrying rifles. I had to stay alert all the way because all those hunters in the woods got the deer moving, and there could be a deer on the road around every curve.
Entering the VA hospital
When I finally got to the VA hospital, I was amazed at how big the place was. There were huge brick buildings that looked as though they had been built before World War II for some Ivy League college. The sprawling acres of lawn gave the place a parklike setting, and there were many little ponds with tall wire fences surrounding each. I later learned that the fences were put up to keep vets from drowning themselves in the ponds. Tomah VA Medical Center had been a veterans’ psychiatric hospital for years.
After checking in and filling out a lot of paperwork, I was given a map of the place and sent over to the PTSD unit. As soon as I got close, I knew which building it was because of all the vets my age standing around outside smoking.
I still remember the guy who interviewed me. His name was Jim Oliver, and he was born and raised in Tomah. He told me that as a kid after World War II, he would have to walk by this VA hospital on the way to school every morning. He described how he could hear the screams of the veterans inside. Then one day the screams stopped. He later learned that the hospital had started using psychotropic drugs that quieted down the veterans. That got him interested in the field that would later prove to be his career. Interestingly, there are still wards at Tomah that are filled with padded cells. Maybe I should say “padded rooms.”
To tell you the truth, I don’t know what I said that made Jim Oliver decide that I should start in the next program but he offered to give me a room until then. We had talked about what my life was like at home and how I got along with my family, the community, and a bit about my service in Vietnam. I declined his offer of the room, as I had to get home to get everything ready back there for my absence. It was late fall, and I would need to get several cords of firewood up near the house, and I had to figure out what I was going to do about my house payment and utilities. Now that I think back on it, the only thing that stands out in the interview was that I made eye contact with Oliver. Dr. Russell had told me that was important. I know a lot of vets who have a problem doing that, but I don’t think I ever have.
I have to admit that everyone back home was very helpful. The bank told me not to worry — that we would work things out when I got home. The woman who owned the bank was a World War II veteran herself. I had enough savings to handle the rest of the expenses, but there was one group that stiffed me, and that was the Veterans of Foreign Wars. I was in the VA hospital when it was time to pay my yearly dues, so the VFW post dropped me from their membership rolls. So much for the VFW’s helping the vet.
I packed all the clothes I thought I would need, did a tune-up on the truck, and headed back down to Tomah. The first place I stopped at on the way was Les Beach’s house outside Grand Rapids. Les was in Nam when I was, only he was in the Army. If I thought I had PTSD, I knew Les had it much worse. He was a total workaholic and would always tell me, “Hey, I work, I pay my bills, and I own a house, so I am like totally together.” What Les wasn’t saying is that he lived alone and couldn’t leave the Grand Rapids area without having to hurry back, because he would start having panic attacks so badly he would stop at the first hospital emergency ward he could find, thinking he was having a heart attack. But Les was a great guy and a very good friend. He worked for the electric co-op and fell out of a tree during an ice storm as he was trying to clear some wires. He died on the spot. Les wasn’t a lineman; he was a staking technician. He put stakes in the ground to tell the crew where the power wires should go when somebody was building a new house. He was in that tree, clearing wires of ice only because he loved to work every hour they would let him.
Les told me every bad thing he had ever heard about the VA while we played a few games of cribbage, and then he took me out to what he called my final dinner on the outside. He really figured the VA would never let me go. He said that too many World War II nut cases were dying, and they needed Nam vets to fill the beds so they could keep their budget. Like I said, many Vietnam vets do not trust the VA.
So after Les’s vote of confidence in my going down to Tomah, I headed off with my head full of all sorts of thoughts.
When I got down there and checked in, they had me put my truck in the impound lot. They said there would be no weekend passes and not to worry — if the battery in my car ran down, they would get me started when it was time for me to go home. That was comforting.
This article originally appeared in the November 2007 edition of Freedom Daily.