Yes, PTSD is Scary
Starting on the Path
by James Glaser
I should back up a bit here. Before I started going to the Minneapolis VA looking for help with my war time traumas, I was living on the bank of the Big Fork River, about seven miles from the Canadian border. . . in the woods. I started out trying a program set up by the VA to get rural vets from the Vietnam War some help. They would send a guy out to my house from the Saint Cloud VA Hospital, and he and I would sit around my house and talk. At that time I was too scared to tell anyone what was really going on in my head. Before every visit, I would tell myself that I would open up this time, but I just couldn't. I didn't really know what was wrong, and to tell you the truth, I don't think the guy from the VA knew anything either.
After several visits that counselor and I decided that this type of help wasn't going to do me any good, so I went back to stuffing everything into the back of my mind. It actually took few more years before I got up the courage to go to the VA.
Meeting another Marine was the real reason that I finally made it to the VA to find some help. I was down in Saint Paul, and I met this former Marine, who had been in Vietnam about the same time as I had been. This guy was a mess, and we hit it off like old friends.
Remember how I said PTSD vets didn't trust the VA? Well, this guy told me his experience with them. While in the Nam, he decided to send his younger brother a finger from a dead gook. You know, like a souvenir. I think we became closer then, because when he told me that I said, "Cool," like he was talking about a hot rod he had built. Heck, I might have done the same thing, but I didn't have a younger brother. You don't send severed fingers to your sister.
Well, somehow this guy's mother got drift of the finger, and she flipped right out. The VA was waiting for him when he got off the plane from the Nam, and they put him on the Psych ward and started him on Thorazine. Veterans refer to Thorazine as, Liquid Straight Jacket.
He said they kept him in there for six months, and the he only was able to get out because his dad worked on it. What he remembered the most was every so often walking to the nurses station when a bell rang. The bell rang when it was time for his next dose of the drug. He said there was a whole line of Nam vets waiting for their pills. Also, he said it could take him several hours to get his shoes and socks on.
Needless to say, thinking about going to the VA freaked me out after that. Like I said, this Marine and I became good friends. He had kids the same age as mine, and a time or two his family drove the 250 miles north to visit. I didn't have a lot of friends, in fact he was the only one.
Well, one day he and I were having coffee together, and he got all serious like and he said, "Man you are fucked up." He wasn't talking about being stoned, and I knew that, but I said, "Well you are fucked up, too." To which he said, "I know."
It is one thing to know in your heart that you are messed up, but it is another thing when your best friend knows it too. So, we both knew that we had to do something, and the VA was the only game in town. He knew if he went for help, he would be drugged again. The VA figured if you were sending fingers home in the mail, you were dangerous. So, I was elected to be the one to check things out. The vote was 1 to 0. I abstained, but lost anyway, and like I said, this guy was my only friend in the world, and looking at the bright side of it, maybe they had better drugs now.
Seriously, I had this guy's blood oath, that if I didn't come back after a few weeks, he would do a special operations mission, and break me out. I had every faith that he would do what ever it took to get me out of there if I needed the help.
There was no internet back then, and so there was no way to Google up the question about what they were doing to Nam vets at the VA. I was going in cold, and I was scared.
Like everything else with the government, you start off with lots of paper work and tests. They had one multiple choice test that lasted hours where they asked if you looked in the toilet after you had a dump, and how you felt after you heard a sad song.
I must have passed the test, because they kept having me come back, and I started having interviews with doctors. Now that I look back at it, I have to laugh, because these guys had no idea what they were doing, and I could tell they were thinking that at any minute I was going to freak out and go nuts. Because they were on edge, I was on edge.
I must have passed with those guys too, because I was then sent to the PTSD Unit down the road at Fort Snelling. Fort Snelling was an Army Fort about a hundred years ago. Since then it was an historical site, but they did have one building off by itself that housed the VA's PTSD Clinic. Fort Snelling sits on a high bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, and if you walked to the edge of the bluff, there was a retaining wall you could look over. It looked to be like two hundred feet straight down to the river. I wondered how many guys thought of taking a dive off there.
Just as an aside, all through my active time getting help at the VA, there were guys doing themselves in. One day a Marine did a header off a foot bridge on to the concrete below while a bunch of us were having a smoke across the parking lot. Here is how it went back them. They called in counselors for all of the VA employees, and they sent us home after canceling all of the day's appointments. The people working at the VA didn't see this guy take his dive, but we all did. He was dead when he hit, and he left a real mess behind to clean up. Today they have a wire screen on that bridge so you can't dive off.
I always thought they should have had a plaque there saying, "Corporal John Smith took a header off this bridge, October 23, 1987," or something to that effect. Who knows, he might have saved some other guy who was thinking of doing the same thing, but couldn't now, because they put up that wire barrier.
Like I said in yesterday's column, that first day at the Minneapolis VA PTSD Clinic, I met the two guys waiting for their electric shock treatment. The sad thing about that was one of those two guys had his 70 some year old mother drive the two of them out for their appointment. These guys were way past having the ability to drive a car. That guy's mother looked so frail and sad. Over the next couple of years I kept seeing these guys around the VA, but after a few years, they couldn't carry on a conversation any more.
I was a bit early for my appointment, and I was talking to the guys who were waiting for their appointments, too. They explained to me that one doctor, a Doctor Smelker was into using psychotic drugs. Not that he used them himself, but that he had the vets he was working with use them. The other doctor, they explained, was Harry Russell, and he didn't like the idea of using drugs. As worried as I was, I figured that I needed a clear head in case I wanted to leave out of there quick like. It was a good choice.
A few years later Dr. Smelker was forced to retire by the VA. He was a WW II vet and was past the age the government lets you work. I saw a lot of guys break right down and cry when they learned that he was not going to be there to help them, and he had helped a lot of veterans. In truth I didn't know the guy, the only time I talked to him was when I had a bad headache, and he gave me some aspirin.
Doctor Russell started out slow with me. I saw him about twice a month for a year. That was about 1,200 miles a month driving back and forth to the VA. There is no magic cure for PTSD, and right from the start Harry was up front with me, saying I would get worse before I got better. Sure enough, the longer he and I talked, the more sick I got. PTSD is a bitch.
Like I said, we started out slow. One really great thing Harry Russell did was have a program for the vet's families, where he would tell them what was going on with their loved one. My oldest daughter went to his talk, and I think she learned a lot.
That first year we talked. We talked about everything under the sun, and we talked about my time in Vietnam. I wish I could use the names of the guys I met out there and of my friend who I was being point man for, but then again that wouldn't be right. Maybe some of them have moved on with their lives, and they wouldn't appreciate somebody telling what they went through.
Well, after a year of talking to Dr, Russell, he told me that it would be best for me if I went to an "in house" trauma treatment program at Tomah, Wisconsin. He said it would last eight weeks. Dr, Russell could recommend that I go down there, but I would have to have an interview first, and the people in Tomah would decide if they thought I was sick enough to enter their PTSD Program.
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