For Mike Saye and Daryl Cox, it was the Iraq War that unearthed the horrors of combat. The Vietnam veterans struggled for nearly 30 years with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, but never sought help until young Americans started fighting, and dying, in the Middle East.
They were gathered Thursday at a new Veterans Readjustment Center near Fiesta Mall in Mesa, getting help for their own demons and hoping to give younger veterans the benefit of their experience.
“It triggered everything in me. I started dreaming about it again,” Saye, of Mesa, said of the Iraq War.
“I was a candidate for PTSD for years and years, but I thought I could handle it,” he said, even as he struggled through four marriages and some 30 jobs.
“But I can’t, and they can’t either. I don’t want them to wait as long as I did to get help.”
Though a trickle of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are finding their way to the new center, team leader Patrick Ryan knows many more are out there.
“We’re certainly trying to do outreach, but we’d like to see more of them,” Ryan said. “The stigma is not what it used to be, but it’s still there.”
Vet centers, first launched in 1979, offer counseling for combat veterans suffering from PTSD, and their families. That includes individual and group sessions, marriage and family therapy, and job counseling.
The new center, which will have three therapists, also provides counseling for sexual trauma and grief, mental health and substance abuse assessments, medical referrals and help with Veterans Administration benefit applications.
It complements an outpatient VA clinic at the former Williams Air Force Base, which provides a full range of medical care. Between the clinic and the vet center, East Valley veterans can get most of their needs met without having to drive to the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center in Phoenix.
Ryan said he’s seeing couples who are trying to hang on to their marriages while the Iraq War veteran struggles to readjust to life back home. For spouses and children, he said, it can be like a different person is living in their house.
The adjustment can be rougher with guard and reserve troops, who don’t have the built-in support of a military base and are expected to jump right back into their civilian lives after combat.
But the Vietnam vets who gather each week for their PTSD support group say today’s soldiers have more public support and better readjustment training than they did.
Tom Nevins, 55, of Ahwatukee, enlisted when he was 18 “because that’s what you were supposed to do.”
After serving a year in Vietnam, he remembers driving back to his northern California base in an Army bus and watching in disbelief as people threw rocks and dropped bricks on their convoy from a highway overpass.
“Our debriefing was somewhere between three and five minutes,” he recalled.
For the next 25 years, he worked long hours as a plumber and tried to push aside everything he’d seen and felt in Vietnam. After an injury forced him to quit work, his daughter helped him to look inward with one question: “Dad, when are you ever happy?”
“Up until then I thought the only thing was to work, go home and self-medicate,” Nevins said.
Studies have shown that as many as one-third of soldiers returning from active duty in Iraq need mental health treatment, but only a fraction of them are getting help.
And in a class-action lawsuit filed last month by two veterans groups on behalf of Iraq War vets, soldiers claim the VA has, among other things, provided inadequate care for PTSD and reclassified some veterans as having pre-existing conditions to avoid paying benefits.
The military has discharged more than 22,500 soldiers with pre-existing “personality disorders,” which makes it nearly impossible for them to qualify for VA disability benefits.
Ryan said that doesn’t change the services veterans receive at the Vet Center. As long as they served in combat, regardless of their disability status, they can receive free counseling. Besides, he said, even a veteran with a personality disorder can have PTSD.
“As a therapist, I’m a little troubled by the way that diagnosis gets bandied around. One doesn’t necessarily exclude the other,” Ryan said. “But if they get out on a personality disorder, they’re done. They can’t get any benefits.”
Also last month, the VA announced plans to increase mental health services at centers across the country to meet increased demand.
That’s good news for veterans like Nevins, Cox and Saye, who see it as their duty to help this generation find peace before they see 30 years, marriages, children and jobs come and go.
“They make you a hell of a killer, and then they send you home,” said Saye, 59. “They need to know they can come here and get help.”