The Journey -- Viet Nam to ‘hitting the wall’ to recovery

Thanks to Jack Burns, VVA Chapter 1031 Life Member

Thanks for the encouraging words about Mark. He is quite a fellow and has been through much in his life.  I think that the whole experience with him brought me to a deeper understanding of him and other veteran's struggles. I thought I understood it but soon discovered I really hadn't scratched the surface. And now five years later still haven't gone that deep in comprehending how war affects people.

Mark was and still is a loner. In fact all of his life seems to be punctuated by that description.  So when he joined the Army and volunteered for combat none of us could have known what impact that entire experience was going to have on the rest of his life.  He said that when he made friends over there they would get killed.  Then shortly after his return to civilian life in El Paso, he made friends with one of our younger sister's friends and he was killed in a car crash. This convinced Mark that he was a "jinx", so therefore he had stopped making friends.

As I look back over his life and his peculiar quirks now I can see how so many of them relate directly to his Vietnam experiences. Coping is not an adequate word to describe his behaviors.  He was getting counseling for 30 years all along.  I now know that it wasn't addressing the core issues of a combat veteran. Since getting the VA attention to these areas of his life I have seen a marked improvement.  He like so many other combat veterans avoided anything to do with the government and especially the military.  This is ironic in a sense because all the while he has collected books, videos, and lots of camouflage style clothing and gear.

I never asked him about his counseling sessions because I didn't want to pry into his life.  From time to time he would mention a few events from the war.  I let him bring it up and talk as much as he wanted to about it.  Maybe I was too good about not interfering in his life.  Because by the time he 'hit the wall' as another Vietnam combat veteran and former Marine put it, things had got very bad.  I felt that he had been misdiagnosed and over-medicated. That they had helped in some ways but weren't treating the core problem.

So when in September, 2006, Mark lost his job of 31 years I knew he had reached rock bottom. It was a disastrous perfect storm of everything that could go wrong.  No pension, health insurance, savings, 401K or IRA. Over medicated with the ninth medication being added and nearly killing him. Mold growing in several places in the ceiling of his house and water pouring in during the rain. Him with pneumonia and depression.  The house was totally trashed and on the brink of condemnation.

We had already put Mark in for VA and Social Security benefits.  I remember how two weeks before Mark crashed and burned, I went through the house and took a set of pictures.  He asked why I was taking them.  I said, "these are going to be the before pictures."  Then being shocked by what I was seeing in other areas of the house where I had not gone for years I said the following.  "Mark, if the VA were to see the condition of your house, they would question your sanity.  You are a few steps from a mental ward."  I remember looking in his eyes and they did not look human.  They looked like vertical slits, like a cat's eyes and that what was speaking back to me was lying.

It was like looking at the devil.  I felt like I needed to shock him and wake him up.  Later I described it as seeing someone "in a downward death spiral and trying to pull them out of it." I didn't have that kind of strength and could not do it.  Like the other Vietnam veteran, the former Marine said, "he has to hit the wall." He did end up in a mental ward two weeks later when he nearly died.  I will never forget that day when I called him and he was incoherent. He was cheerful and sounded out of breath. He was stringing words together but they made no sense. I finally realized that he had started the ninth medication, a pain killer which had been prescribed by a VA doctor.

So I asked him, "did you start that new medication?" And he said, "Yes." That was the first coherent word from him.  Then I asked him "have you been running?" And he said, "no." I said, "I will be right there.  Don't go anywhere and don't drive your car." I live around 90 miles from Mark and didn't know what to expect when arriving at his home in Tucson.  I got there and found him unconscious laying on top of a pile clutter-like trash in a room we called the 'military room' because it was where he stored much of his military gear and memorabilia. He was breathing but I could not wake him up.  I tried to find his cell phone but it was hidden among all of the trash and clutter strewn on the floors throughout the house.

So I drove down the block to a Circle K in order to call 911 and by the time I returned they were pulling up to the house.  He had to be transported to the emergency room of the nearest hospital. I gathered up as many of his medications as I could and made it over just as they were intebating him, placing a tube up his nose in order to get more oxygen into his lungs. I spoke to a coworker who is a paramedic about this later and he said that he would have died if this hadn't been done.

This was too close of a call.  I vividly saw how easily our veterans can just slip and fall through the cracks.  I also later had a sense of getting into the foxhole with Mark and finally seeing just what he had been dealing with and fighting for over four decades since his tour in Vietnam. I remember vowing to myself when he was laying there in a place of trash.  "No veteran should have to die this way." It must have woke me up to help him in every way possible. But some battles were just beginning.

Catch 22 seemed to be the theme throughout our efforts to get Mark's life back.  You can't do this until you do that. And if you don't do it in the right order, you have to undo something you just did and have to do all over again.  Meaning that it ends up costing more money and time.  If there was a prayer that summarized this time it would be the following. "Please grant wisdom, guidance, counsel, and provision.  Show the order of the steps to be taken." A lot people cared and were praying for him. Every resource was brought to bear to put Mark's life back together. I came across a phrase about rehabilitating lives at time which became our goal. It was "independent living."

I did not want Mark to become dependent on me. Not in a cruel or selfish way, but because better for him to be independent of me. Because what if for some reason I suddenly wasn't in the picture?  His whole world would crumble and fall apart.  There were conflicting signals and advise coming from all quarters. Some good, some bad. One good one was don't have him move in with you, because the system will let you. The system has to work for Mark and step up for him.

One woman who is a therapist said, "you are enabling him, STOP IT!"  Another said, "you are going to have heart attack or stroke." After a while when the unrelenting attacks didn't stop I would start to laugh at it. It just made me redouble my efforts all the more. There were two loops that seemed to replay over and over again. One came from something Mark said shortly after returning from Vietnam.  It through me back when he said, "Steve, I love you so much that I would lay down my life for you."  It meant a lot to me to hear it from him, knowing that he had faced life and death, and knew what he saying.

The other loop was the following which is a scripture, "when it is in your power to do good, to do it not is a sin unto you." These two loops encouraged me again and again to redouble my efforts and release every resource that I had to help Mark.  I expected great things to happen and they did. Now when going to his home I feel a pervading peace. When I see him thriving and living a much more normal life I see all of our efforts paying dividends.

While renovating his house we agreed to not cut any corners. How could anyone in good conscience hide problems and then pawn them off on someone else. We agreed to do it right.  That way if the house were to be sold the buyer would have a good thing.  It was not known whether Mark would live there again. But I often told him, "you may end up here." He did and now has a house brought back from the brink of condemnation.  All major systems throughout replaced.  A brand new start on life for Mark.

The time, money and labor invested are paying off for him. He had to 'hit the wall' before he could come back.  He had to move into a Veteran's half way house for ten months while we worked to bring his house and life back. With thanks to veterans like Jim Perry who put Mark in touch with the VVA (Vietnam Veterans of America) and others. Several VVA veterans came early on to Mark's house to help pack up some stuff for storage while the house was brought back.

One VVA former Army First Sergeant came. He said he could remember the name of every one of the men his unit lost. I found out later his wife of 35 years was dying of cancer.  But he was willing to help a veteran who was a stranger to him. His wife died a couple of years later. He remarried and shortly after they married she found that she too had cancer.  And the former Marine who was my coworker at the time.  He knew the drill and told Mark and I about the steps to getting benefits. I would put him on the phone with Mark and his whole countenance would change. He was so encouraging to Mark. He had met Mark once at my house and understood all too well just what Mark was dealing with and was willing to help.

This was when I came to understand just what the 'Brotherhood' is. It comes from the phrase “Brothers in Arm's.”  Combat veterans relating to other combat veterans.  They only had each other for many years and learned the system.  Now they can show others the ropes and help them through the process and to understand the steps.