Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Brown Water Randy and LZ Woodland: Addressing PTSD, a Decade-Plus After Vietnam

Continuing yesterday's story about Brown Water Randy...

The locus of LZ Woodland
Randy had a different vision from the mainstream groups who wanted to show that Vietnam vets were well adjusted. Randy wanted to help the vets who were not so well integrated. He wanted to raise awareness of PTSD. He also wanted to offer fellowship and support to others who struggled with trauma-induced problems.

So Randy pitched me to write a newspaper story. He told me about his group while we sat on camp stools behind his fish store, eating a magnificent concoction of abalone and other sea delicacies.

My questions probably seemed designed to deflate. Did the group meet with a psychologist? No. Did they have a formal structure? No. Charter? Plan? Twelve-step program? No on all counts. But, Randy said, the group helped in one significant way: It allowed the men to talk openly and without shame about PTSD.

“If nothing else,” he said, “it takes the pressure off.”

The members took solace from knowing they were not alone. They also learned from one another that they could expect certain ups and downs. Although we lived in Davis and Dixon, California, the group met in the nearby town of Woodland.

And so it was that I wound up not only writing about LZ Woodland, but also being a part of it. I had a good reason to go. My closeted veteran boyfriend, a First Cav door gunner who never spoke about his service but who got awfully jumpy in war movies, reminded me in some ways of my dad. I brought him along to LZ Woodland.

The group met informally every week or so at a low-key watering hole. We drank beer, played pool, and “shot the breeze,” as my dad used to say. We talked a little about Vietnam; a fair amount about stress attacks; and, as time went by, a whole lot about corner shots and the merits of lager versus pilsner.

From time to time, an LZ Woodlander had a crisis. No one ever went Rambo, but some had romantic problems, or job issues, or – in one notable case – refused to get out of bed. Randy always was first to know, and either was first on the scene or burned up the phone lines to find someone to pay a visit, pronto.

During our time with LZ Woodland, I saw my boyfriend open up. It emerged that he had served with a storied unit, the Army’s First Cavalry Division. I saw the other men reach out to fellow vets, themselves. They always shook another veteran’s hand and thanked him for his service. They always spoke the words, welcome home.

Eventually, PTSD became a widely recognized syndrome. The VA got involved, and hosted its own support groups with trained counselors. The men of LZ Woodland drifted apart, either because they needed more help or less of it. I broke up with my boyfriend, moved to Washington, D.C., and lost touch with Brown Water Randy.

I will, however, never forget him. He opened my eyes to the fact that PTSD exists even in peacetime, and – more importantly – is nothing to be ashamed of. PTSD is a fact of many peoples’ lives, and it can be treated. It may not ever go away entirely, but it really can be treated. And, in my view, the best way to begin to treat PTSD is to recognize that it is real.

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