Yes, PTSD is Scary Stuff

Part 4

by James Glaser
March 16, 2007

As I was saying a couple of days ago, 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. Dr. Russell could tell Tomah that he thought that their program would do me a lot of good, but Tomah had to decide if they wanted to take me on because they had way more referrals than they could ever handle.

I remember driving down there from the north of Minnesota. I went through Duluth and down Hwy. 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.

When I finally got to the VA Hospital, I was amazed at how big the place was. There were huge brick buildings that looked like they had been built pre-World War II for some Ivy League college. The sprawling acres of lawn gave the place a park-like 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 VAMC had been a veteran's psychiatric hospital for years.

After checking in and filling out a lot of paper work, 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 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 WW 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 psychotic 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, 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 fire wood up near the house, and 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 kind of stands out with 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 WW 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 VFW. 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 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 on the way was at Les Beach's house outside of Grand Rapids. Les was in the Nam when I was, only he was in the Army. If I thought I had PTSD, I knew Les had it much worse. Les 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, he couldn't leave the Grand Rapids area without having to hurry back, as 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 as we played a few games of cribbage, and then he took me out to what he called my final diner on the outside. Les really figured the VA would never let me go. He said that too many WW 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 ran down they would get me started when it was time for me to go home. That was comforting.

Monday I'll start Part 5 and write about some of the things I learned about PTSD, about Vietnam Veterans, and about myself during my stay there.

Free JavaScripts provided
by The JavaScript Source

BACK to the 2007 Politics Columns.