Aging Vietnam vets in southwestern Ohio find fellowship

MIDDLETOWN, Ohio (AP) — On Thursday afternoons, in a small church in this Butler County city, a band of brothers gathers. They are gray now, many soft in the middle, stepping over the line into retirement. They slip on the VETERAN caps. Outside the church, they say, they don’t talk much. But inside, they can point at last to the shadows that haunt them still, and a brother says, I see them, too.

Some of the men discuss government paperwork. Others brew coffee. One nudges the next man, wearing the Silver Star for valor on his hat, and teases, “you know, he’s the crazy one.” At one recent meeting, some of the men shake their heads over a troubled Iraq War veteran suffering from PTSD, whose body was found Feb. 20 in the Little Miami River near Loveland.

The men call themselves the Veterans Social Command, but the name is more formal than the group itself. Seven years ago, seven veterans of the Vietnam War started meeting to helping others file claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs. As the years passed, they found that what their brothers needed was fellowship. Today, the command counts its number at 90 and growing.

“We didn’t start out like this,” said James Shepherd of Middletown, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps in Vietnam and was a charter member of the Veterans Social Command. “It was just a few people in PTSD group. We realized the more we met that the guys needed two things: help with the VA, which we could do, and a fellowship, just being together. Some of these guys haven’t talked about what they did in the war since they came home.”

A key byproduct of the Vietnam War was the first formal definition of post-traumatic stress disorder. The affliction has been known by many names throughout the history of war. But after Vietnam, medical professionals nailed down the symptoms and, more importantly, built therapies for veterans to overcome the often debilitating effects – insomnia, nightmares, hypersensitive startle reflexes, terrifying memory loops, an uncontrollable sense of being under threat at all times.

The therapies for PTSD have moved out into civilian medicine. The prevalence of PTSD among veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars could leave the impression that they suffer the most as a population. But in fact, “Vietnam veterans make up the largest portion of veterans coming to the VA,” said Dr. Kathleen Chard, who leads PTSD services for the Cincinnati VA Medical Center.

“These are veterans reaching retirement age. The body isn’t working as well. They are now confronting mental health issues, and for some many people, having a plan for retirement is critical. And retirement is the time that we see a surge in PTSD.”

For years, the Veterans Social Command met in the Middletown garage of Wayne Albin, who with his brother converted the space into a heated clubhouse with tables, chairs, a refrigerator for soft drinks, a coffee maker. On the walls hang maps of Vietnam and photographs of the brothers in fatigues, when they were young.

“Every week, people were here when I lifted up the garage door,” Albin said. “And they stayed sometimes until it got dark. This was a safe place.”

In 1967, when Albin turned 19, life looked good. He had a new job and new clothes and a new car. Then his country called him to serve, put him in uniform and on a plane, and flew him and others to a humid jungle. On the ground there, Albin stood in a line while “the sergeant pointed at a bunch of us and said, ‘you, you and you, come with me.’ That’s how I got to picking up the bodies.”

For his year in Vietnam, Albin served on morgue detail, collecting the U.S. dead, “the ones lying in the rice paddies for days, their skin came off in my hands. And we didn’t have rubber gloves back then. I was putting guys back together with my bare hands.”

When his year was up, Albin flew to California and got hustled onto a bus that drove past protesters throwing rocks and crying out “baby killer.” For decades after the Vietnam War ended in 1975, no one ever said “thank you for your service” – to Albin, to anyone.

Many members of the Veterans Social Command said they, too, came home to hostility from civilians. The trauma of their experience went underground in their minds. Albin, Shepherd and others said they figured because they had their arms and legs, they were OK. But they knew they were not.

“I threw myself into work and family,” said Bob Patterson, of Middletown. “I didn’t want any idle time. I didn’t want to think about Vietnam again.”

When Albin came home to Middletown, his old boss gave him a job. But Albin wasn’t the same person. He drank. His marriage broke up. He wasn’t nice to be around. He heard his mother say once, “A part of my son never did come home.”

The members of the Veterans Social Command discovered that many of them had the same experience – they came home and went to work, but they medicated with alcohol. They went through marriages. They alienated their children. Not until the end of their work lives could they reach out for help.

In 2008, Albin joined a PTSD group at the VA clinic in Middletown, where he met Shepherd and a handful of other Vietnam vets. Together, they realized that there were hundreds of others like them who needed help but didn’t know how to go about getting or were fearful of seeking care.

“People are intimidated by the VA, the paperwork, the bureaucracy,” Shepherd said. “But I wasn’t.” He had suffered a closed-head injury in Vietnam and once home, he fought with the VA for years about his care, and in retirement, he spent hours in libraries studying VA regulation and case law. Shepherd knew that he could help other vets complete the paperwork.

So after the PTSD group met, Shepherd, Albin and other members would go to a restaurant with other vets. They even accompanied vets to VA evaluations, coaching them and their spouses on how best to respond to questions to get a correct disability rating for PTSD or other conditions.

But aside from the VA paperwork, the vets discovered that they needed that time together. “It’s the fellowship that matters most,” Albin said. “I mean, we do help people get what they deserve from the VA. That’s important. But just to be able to sit down next to a brother and know he’s going to understand what you’ve been through, it helps a lot.”

Last year, new research revealed that men and women who served in Vietnam suffer the most of any group of military veterans from PTSD – even now, 40 years since the war’s end. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that PTSD afflicts about 31 percent of Vietnam War veterans, 11 percent of veterans of the war in Afghanistan and 20 percent of Iraq War veterans.

Earlier this year, Albin, Shepherd and other members of the Veterans Social Command realized that the group had gotten too big for Albin’s garage. Don McClung of Middletown approached his pastor, the Rev. Jeff Marshall, of Mercy Church. Marshall gladly opened the little church on Rufus Street to the group for their weekly meetings.

“We’re honored to have them here,” Marshall said. “We love having them here. It’s one of the highlights of our Thursdays, to connect with these guys. They’re wonderful. I know there’s a lot of pain, a lot of stuff that they’re dealing with. I’ve heard some of their stories, and I can’t imagine going through some of the things they’ve endured.”

On a Thursday in late February, the snowflakes spotted the cars with the Vietnam Veterans plates outside Mercy Church. Inside, some of the veterans mentioned that they’d seen the news about Aaron Berns, the 27-year-old Iraq War veteran who went missing on New Year’s Day. Searchers found his body six weeks later. His mother said he had been suffering from PTSD related to his military service.

“I just wish we could have connected with him,” Patterson said. “We’re not just for Vietnam veterans. We help Iraq War vets, we help Afghanistan vets, we help guys from World War II. I do believe we could have helped him.”


Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer,