Thirty-four years after a Viet Cong bullet ended Art Lucero's job as a U.S. Navy field medic, the Mesa man is still coping.
Not with the physical damage, but the psychological injuries from a surreal combat experience as a teenager.
Recently, the retired physician's assistant underwent a 30-week program for post-traumatic stress disorder at the Veterans Center in downtown Phoenix.
On Sunday, he embarked on the final stage of his road to healing.
Lucero and 48 other Arizona veterans flew to Washington, D.C., to see the Vietnam War Memorial and attend Tuesday's ceremony there. Like most of those with him, it will be the first time he touches the names etched in black granite.
“Hopefully, it's the beginning of closure,” he said.
Operation Freedom Bird, named for the planes that took soldiers home from Vietnam, has flown more than 800 Arizonans to the nation’s capital for Veterans Day as of this weekend, coordinators said.
Some vets never went because of the expense, others because of the emotional pain.
The 16-year-old program pays all of the vets’ expenses.
Participants undergo group therapy through the Arizona Veterans Centers in preparation for the emotional side of the journey. Counselors accompany them. And they are surrounded by a “band of brothers” — people who went through what they did.
When the plane returns Wednesday to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, the men will attend a welcome-home celebration — something missing for many soldiers when they returned from the unpopular war. “It's like four years of therapy in four days,” said Ken Benckwitz, a team leader with the Veterans Center at 77 E. Weldon Ave.
Trish Kinney, volunteer president of the nonprofit corporation behind the trip, said she does not know of a single instance in which the therapy has not had a positive impact.
“We've had guys who were living out of the back of a pickup truck who come back and put their lives together,” she said.
Benckwitz said the program is effective because it provides a safe environment for psychologically scarred veterans. They can grieve for the friends named on the wall. They can hurt for themselves, for the way they were altered externally and internally. Then they can say goodbye, leaving as much of that pain behind them as possible.
Russ Bnicki, 57, of Tempe, also was a field medic in Vietnam. He was 23 when he was assigned to the 45th “Dust Off” Company, an air ambulance unit. He went for decades without acknowledging the trauma that still had a hold on his life. Neither he nor Lucero became homeless vets unable to dwell in society.
Their post-traumatic stress disorder took other forms.
“My coping (mechanism) was, I became a workaholic. I had (post-traumatic stress disorder). I just didn't know I had it,” he said.
He wrote off veterans who complained of the disorder as people trying to make excuses for character flaws. In 2001, he acknowledged something was wrong because though he felt numb emotionally, he struggled with frequent anger. He enrolled in the 30-week program, which took him through “some pretty complex emotional things.”
Lucero, with the 101st Airborne Division stationed north of Saigon, took pictures of the dismembered and dead soldiers he dealt with daily. When his mother later asked him why, he said: “I wanted people to see what an 18-year-old out of Wyoming saw,” Lucero said.
He experienced alcoholism, work addiction and failed marriages before seeking help a few years ago, he said.
Watching the almost daily news of more American soldiers being killed in Iraq has triggered many of their Vietnam memories, the two men said.
Their intent for this trip is to finally move past Vietnam.
“What I'm hoping is to leave a lot of the anger inside me there . . . and to say goodbye,” Bnicki said.