Coping with PTSD a lifelong struggle

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

CHINLE, Feb. 5, 2009

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E ven if they had had a term for it back then, the men Herman Leonard served with in Vietnam wouldn't have pegged him as likely to come down with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Lukachukai, Ariz., native was known for his cool head and steady hand. Part of the elite 101st Airborne Rangers, he was assigned the nerve-singeing job of door gunner.

"I leaned out of helicopters and shot people on the ground," Leonard explained.

Leonard lived through some of the war's bloodiest battles. He was wounded three times, and still signed up for a second tour. He was convinced he was that rarest of creatures, a natural warrior.

It wasn't until he got home that his life fell apart.

One day in Phoenix, he met a Vietnamese veteran who told him the unit of South Vietnamese rangers Leonard had lived with and trained were all dead, killed in a single bloody raid.

Then he learned the crew of a helicopter he had ridden on had met the same fate.

Leonard had been a good soldier because of his loyalty - he took pride in protecting his comrades. In spite of his best efforts, laying his life on the line so many times, they were all gone.

Suddenly the past several years of his life - his whole identity, in fact - seemed like a huge mistake.

The next eight years, says Leonard, now 60, were "a complete waste." He's not sure what he did, other than to alienate his family to the point that they wouldn't give him a parcel of land to settle on.

He eventually realized his GI Bill benefits were going to expire, and enrolled at Navajo Community College and then Arizona State University, but "I couldn't focus. I'd read something and then forget it right away."

His GI Bill tuition payments phased out before he got a degree.

Meanwhile, his nights were plagued by nightmares and his days with depression. Without warning, his mind would flash back to the jungles of Vietnam. He self-medicated with alcohol. Job after job ended with him being fired.

 Unwelcome at the family homestead, he took to hitchhiking around the reservation, "hoping something good would come to me."

One bitter cold day, it did. A pretty young woman named Laura picked him up. After a whirlwind courtship, they were married.

"She saved my life," said Leonard, who is Kin Lichíi'nii (Red House Clan), born for Tótsohnii (Big Water Clan).

The years passed, and Leonard gradually settled into civilian life. He went through some traditional ceremonies, which helped.

He was able to hold down a job again, and watching his kids grow up and get their degrees was almost as gratifying as if he had gotten his own. He attended both traditional ceremonies and a Christian church, building himself back up spiritually.

But there were still those black days where he felt overwhelmed by mental anguish and physical pain.

He first heard about post-traumatic stress disorder a few years back, when Chinle-based Veterans Administration counselor Joe Charles told him about an expanded program that included one-on-one and group therapy.

Leonard knew the war had messed him up, but he figured he had gotten over it on his own.

"I thought, 'All this stuff is too late for me,'" he said.

Still, he decided it couldn't hurt to try counseling.

"It was like my life was saved again," he said. "The lights came on."

Once Leonard understood what he had been enduring for 40 years, the pain started to subside.

"It's still there," he said. "Unless I forget I was in a war in Vietnam, I think it will always be there. But I know how to handle it now."

Leonard knew his treatment was working when, instead of always having nightmares, he started to have good dreams. One in particular had him surrounded by all the people he had ever touched in his life.

"There I was, surrounded by people of all races, all smiling at me, reaching out to me with so much love," he recalled. "I realized I have done a lot more good things than bad things in my life."

Suddenly, in his dream an Uncle-Sam-type character boomed out, "What do you really want?"

Leonard sleeps on the floor since he left Vietnam. Otherwise, he said, he would have fallen out of bed.

"I'm still trying to figure out how to answer that question," he said, "but I know I have a future now. There was a long time when I wasn't sure of that."

Leonard wasn't planning on joining the PTSD support group that was started about a year ago in Chinle, but he came to the kickoff ceremony, where he was asked to offer a prayer.

He's been coming back ever since.

"Being with all these other guys, knowing I'm not the only one having these feelings, it really helps," he said.

He's even been able to forgive the uncles who kicked him off the family land, most of whom are dead now.

"When I look back on it, most of those guys were veterans too," Leonard said. "They probably had their own post-traumatic stress to deal with. If they had had the PTSD program back then, maybe things would have been different."

But they have it now, and he thinks more young veterans should be taking advantage of it.

"The day you get home, go right to the VA," he advised returning veterans. "Get signed up for this PTSD stuff right away. That way you can start on the right foot, instead of wasting so many years like I did."

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