Success Story: Roy
“You can’t take a 19-year-old brain and subject it to the constant threat of death or injury by rocket fire and expect it not to be affected,” Roy R. says of his year in Phu Bai and Danang during the Vietnam War and his subsequent 30-year struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Roy wasn’t an infantryman in the U.S. Army. He was a combat engineer, responsible for building roads for the troops through the jungle and demolished infrastructure of the Vietnamese countryside. But, as he points out, “There weren’t any frontlines in Vietnam. If you were there, you were in it. Everyone had the opportunity to get killed. Rockets were regularly coming down on our heads, and we were constantly under fire.”
After serving his country in Vietnam, Roy left the military in 1969. He spent a few years experimenting with different jobs: songwriter, administrative clerk, house painter, and loading dock worker, before enrolling at the New England School of Broadcasting.
So began a nearly 20-year, successful broadcast journalism career. He moved from market to market, at first for radio jobs in places like Putnam, CT and Hyde Park, NY. A friend lured him to Abilene, Texas where he got into television, and then to San Antonio. Along the way, he won awards for commercial production and jingle writing.
Eventually his career took him to XTRA-TV in San Diego, where his PTSD overwhelmed him. “It was Vietnam telling me, ‘It’s time to deal with me now.’” Depressed and unable to function, he left his job and went home to Massachusetts to “re-charge his batteries” on a friend’s suggestion.
But things only got worse in Boston. He became agoraphobic, staying inside with the blinds drawn all the time. He drank too much and avoided people at all costs. Roy lived this way for about eight years before deciding to choose between suicide and getting help. He chose the latter.
In the mid-90s, Roy went to the VA in Worcester, MA. He credits his counselor with saving his life with medication, therapy, and straight talk about “where I wanted to be in five years and how I was going to get there.”
Within a few years, Roy had earned a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism, magna cum laude, from UMass Amherst. But child support complications, exacerbated by the years when he couldn’t work, forced him to live in a van on a friend’s property. After deciding he was too old to live like that, Roy came to Veterans Inc. on Grove Street in Worcester, MA, which was a “godsend, giving me breathing room,” he says.
Looking back, Roy thinks soldiers from the Vietnam era were particularly susceptible to PTSD because of feelings of isolation. “In earlier wars,” he says, “a group of men trained as a unit, were sent to fight as a unit, and returned home as a unit. That meant you had an instant support system. In Vietnam, by contrast, it was the “army of one” approach. When I got to Phu Bai, I didn’t know a soul.”
Veterans Inc. gave Roy the support system he had lacked. “Just being in a group of guys going through the same thing, rubbing elbows with them, is like being back in a military unit. I think that’s the most important aspect of this place – the built-in support system.”
Roy is far from alone in waiting to get help for his PTSD. “A lot of guys think they can handle this by themselves, but the mind won’t let you suppress feelings just because you don’t want to deal with them. Eventually the situation surfaces and demands attention.”
He emphasizes that veterans shouldn’t try to fix this by themselves. “You can have friends and family who will listen to you for a while, but they are not qualified to help you overcome this.”
Having become a convert to the need for medication to treat PTSD – “as I understand it, when people are trying to kill you, it alters the interior of your brain,” he explains – he is happy to be using less medication than before. Since coming to Veterans Inc., he has started depression and anxiety counseling. “I’ll always be dealing with this – PTSD, depression, shell-shock – whatever you call it, it’s my life.”
At 62, Roy isn’t expecting to revive his once flourishing journalism career. However, he is having fun helping out a good cause, producing public service announcements for the Worcester Animal Rescue League at Channel 13 community television. He hopes to create programs or videos for another good cause eventually: helping veterans and others recognize the symptoms of PTSD.