A Vietnam Veteran Finds Strength in Group Therapy
January 24, 2018 | 5-minute read
Rick, a U.S. Army Veteran, was working for a printing company, preparing one of the press machines to run off another batch of forms, when a rubber band hit him in the ear. He turned around to see a colleague, horsing around, with a big smile on his face.
Something in Rick snapped.
“I took him by the collar, and I slammed him up against the wall,” Rick remembers. “I said, ‘I’m going to kill you, you ever do that again.’ I was so pissed. I was shaking.”
Suddenly, everything that Rick had been trying to push down and bury for 35 years started to bubble up. There were about 20 printing presses in the building, and the yelling got so loud that everyone shut them down.
Rick eventually tried to get back to work, but he couldn’t stop shaking. “I just couldn’t function anymore. You know what I mean? So, I said, ‘Screw this.’” He took his timecard. He clocked out. “I waved it up in the sky to all the guys in the company, and I said ‘Screw you all. … I don’t need none of you guys.’”
He threw the card on the ground and walked out.
“I became numb to it.”
When Rick got home that day, his wife called his kids. “Dad,” they told him, “you need to go get some help.” They told him they had known something was wrong for a long time. His quick temper. The way he would always check the doors. The way he would always look out the windows.
Decades before, at the age of 18, Rick deployed to Vietnam. Shortly after arriving, he flew out to a firebase in a helicopter. As he stepped off, two medics placed a body bag on the chopper in his place. A couple of weeks later, the base came under heavy fire, and another soldier was killed.
These were Rick’s first experiences with death. “I just like pushed it down and powered through it, just hid all those feelings,” he remembers. “Everything that happened over there, I camouflaged all that stuff, and just buried it.”
I hid all the pain and suffering that I suffered deeply within me, and I didn’t speak to anybody about it, not even my wife or my kids. I didn’t want anybody to know because I was ashamed.— Rick, U.S. Army Veteran
“I became numb to it, and in my mind, I played like it was a movie. If I saw a dead body, it was like it was unreal, so my mind could cope. … To me it was my way of coping skills of just seeing the horror of war.”
When Rick finally returned to the United States after a bout with malaria, he fell to his knees and kissed the tarmac. But while walking through the airport, anti-war protestors yelled and spit at him. The moment just added to an experience that would continue to haunt him for decades to come.
Rick “self-medicated” with drugs and alcohol. He withdrew from his friends and family. He avoided crowds and loud noises. Eventually, he moved to San Diego, joined an apprenticeship program through VA, and buried himself in his work as a printer.
Those feelings remained buried until that day Rick blew up. And his wife called his kids. And he made the decision to return to VA.
“I really, really need help bad,” he told them. “I can’t take this stuff anymore. … I’m having a breakdown.”
“I want them to be proud.”
Rick saw a psychiatrist, entered a substance use disorder program, and attended classes for coping with PTSD. He found strength in group therapy sessions with fellow Veterans.
“You become so intertwined with these guys, because you’re brothers in arms, and in war, and [they] know what you’ve been through,” Rick says. “And so we’re out there, we look out for each other. … When we have a problem, we can talk about it. And all of those other Veterans that are there in the class, they’ll put their two cents in and help, and try to help solve the problem. It was good medicine.”
To this day, Rick faithfully attends a group session every Tuesday with Veterans from across several generations. There are Vietnam Veterans, Korean Veterans, and at one point, even two Veterans from World War II.
Rick’s main messages to other Veterans are: Reach out. Find help at VA. Find others who have been through similar experiences. Unless you open up about your pain, he says, “You’re not going to crawl out of the darkness.”
“My goal is to see that nobody loses their life over this whole thing,” Rick says. “God kept you alive for a reason, and that’s how you have to look at it. The past — you can’t change that past, you know. It’s the future you have to look forward to. And you can make a difference in your family’s life, in your community life, just by being an example.”
Rick continues to face health challenges and the effects of exposure to Agent Orange. He has been treated for prostate cancer, E. coli, pneumonia, and a bad rash on his back.
But he keeps his focus on his family — his three kids, nine grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren (with another on the way). He stays active with military and Veterans organizations like the VFW, Vietnam Veterans of America, and Disabled American Veterans. He’s a member of the 82nd Airborne Honor Guard, helping with the 21-gun salute at funerals. And he speaks at high schools, educating a new generation about the Vietnam War.
Rick has found healing in these experiences.
“I think about all my grandkids. I want them to be proud of their grandfather, and show them that I am a warrior and that I can overcome,” Rick says. “You can overcome anything you want to if you put your mind to it. It’s you that can step up to the plate and have the responsibility to make your way, and that’s what I did.
“I grabbed a hold of the tools that the VA gave me. I have used them in every way to heal me. … I’m going through life a lot easier, and maneuvering, and know what to do now.”