In the 11th month, on the 11th day, at the 11th hour of the year 1918, an armistice was signed ending World War I—“the war to end all wars.”
On Nov. 11, three years later, the remains of an American “known but to God” were laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., in a ceremony marking the first celebration of Armistice Day. Congress later declared it a national holiday—and President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in 1954, declared it Veterans Day.
“On that day,” he said, “let us solemnly remember the sacrifices of all those who fought so valiantly—on the seas, in the air, and on foreign shores—to preserve our heritage of freedom; and let us reconsecrate ourselves to the task of promoting an enduring peace so their efforts shall not have been in vain.”
The veterans of whom he spoke are ordinary people. For many of them, the end of combat meant the start of another war—this one against a slow crippler known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Its effects vary widely—depending on the individual, the type and duration of trauma, and other factors—but substance abuse is one of the most common.
Herein a look at some ordinary citizens who came through extraordinary times, finally overcoming the legacies of combat. The war in this case was Vietnam, but it could have been any war.
“A Lot of People Don’t Know the Toll it Took.”
U.S. Marine Sgt. Lorne Lemieux heard the click underfoot and knew he was dead. The booby-trapped 106mm artillery shell blew him into the air, and when he came down one leg was gone and most of the other. But he wasn’t dead. It was January 1967, Phu Bai Province, Republic of South Vietnam. Lorne Lemieux was a Canadian citizen when he joined the Marine Corps. He would not have been drafted; he never had to go.
Surgeons wanted to amputate both legs above the knee. Lemieux saw things differently—and months later, when the skin grafts finally took, the bone work was done, and infection failed to appear, he ended up with one working leg and two knees.
That September, Lemieux left Middletown, Ohio, for college. A week later in the dorm, he saw film on the evening news of a Marine rifle company which had been overrun by part of the North Vietnamese 324th division at Con Thien, near the Demilitarized Zone—then was decimated by rocket fire while trapped on a ridge during the battle’s third day. The news clip showed the dead being brought in to a Marine artillery outpost, stacked like cordwood on the backs of tanks.
It was Lemieux’s own company; friends he’d known and lived with for a year. “I freaked out,” he recalls. “I should have been there. When I found out all the guys that got killed at Con Thien… It almost killed me. It wasn’t my leg; it was my friends. I should have been there. I’d sell my other leg to have just one of those guys back.”
Lemieux left college after one semester.
“I began drinking heavy,” he recalls. “Here I am, a 19-year-old retired Marine Corps sergeant, picking fights at the Elk Creek Tavern where I was too young to be served. For the next three years, I drank and fought and wrecked cars. Until I married Robin in ’71.
“Even then, on our first Mother’s Day together, she had to bail me out of jail for assault and battery on a police officer,” he recalls. “I didn’t drink every day; I was an episode drinker. I tried to kill myself once. I didn’t know what was wrong. It took a long time to find what was bothering me.”
It took 30 years. And what was wrong had finally been given a name: PTSD.
“I was with the VA for years on physical disability but didn’t hear of PTSD until 1998. I went in for a checkup, and they told me to go up and see the psychiatrist. Then I got a letter saying I has a 30 percent PTSD disability. I was furious. I thought, ‘What’s this guy doing calling me a head case?’”
But the news sunk in. “It was a fight, every day. I wasn’t myself at all, by any stretch of the imagination. But I finally could put a name on it. It made me understand that I was normal; that my behavior was normal. And that helped a lot, it sure did.”
His wife and friends also helped.
“Robin stayed on me. She’s a strong woman. She talked with me, hung in there through the craziness, and put her foot down. She got a hold of the guys. She found Sgt. Todd (an old friend from Vietnam) and made me call him. Todd’s been a big inspiration. But what helped most was the reunions, and the talking to the other guys.
Lorne Lemieux hasn’t had a drink since 1992. He sees a counselor and a psychiatrist once a month. He’s retired now. He and Robin have two grown daughters, Missy and Rachael. Missy is expecting a child in December—the Lemieux’s first grandchild.
Doris Allen: Overcoming Her Trials To Help Others
After Doris Allen returned from Vietnam, she was assigned to teach at a military intelligence school in Maryland. On her first day of class, teaching 34 males, she found their attention level falling below zero.
“I wondered, ‘Why weren’t they listening?’” she recalls. “Was it because I was black, or a woman …? Then it came to me: I was out of uniform. I’d left that morning without putting my medals on; they were still in my purse.
“So I excused myself, turned around, and put them on my blouse. When I turned back around, a most respectful hush came over the entire class.”
The medals she had forgotten to wear that day 30 years ago included three Bronze Stars, a Vietnam Cross of Gallantry, a Korean Service Medal, five Good Conduct Medals, and the list goes on. Allen had been in the Army 17 years before volunteering for Vietnam and served three tours of duty there with U.S. Army Intelligence.
That day in class wasn’t the first time others failed to listen. It happened often in Vietnam, where her superiors at first failed to act on her intelligence reports, she recalls. One of the most serious occurred with the 1968 Tet offensive, which Allen had predicted.
Allen speculates this and other reports of hers were ignored because she was black, a woman, and not an officer—in a field dominated by white male officers. Her intelligence reports proved so accurate, however, that her name began showing up on captured enemy documents, indicating her life was in danger. Still, she remained for three years.
“I was doing something I thought was valuable,” she says, “I was saving lives.”
Allen left the army in 1980, and earned a doctorate in psychology. Then, in 1991, the roof fell in.
While watching news reports of the Gulf War, old feelings of helplessness swept over Allen, and her emotional life fell apart. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) had reared its head after 20 years. For her and others, Gulf War film clips were the trigger.
“I began crying inappropriately and couldn’t stop it,” Allen recalls. “Friends helped me through the horrors.” She later was diagnosed with PTSD.
“Once you can identify the thing that’s biting you, it helps,” she says. “It oozes out every time I talk about it, but it’s still there.”
Allen has devoted her life to helping others with the troubles she’d encountered, both with bias and PTSD. She is 72 now, and “gainfully retired,” she says. In 1999, the Vietnam Veterans of America called upon her to be the keynote speaker at its annual convention.
“It was a final acceptance,” says Allen. “A welcome home.”
Up From the Bottom
Shawn Longfeather, 17 years ago, was living in a cave in a bank of the Tennessee River outside of Florence, Ala., addicted to both alcohol and drugs.
Longfeather, from the Fort Apache Reservation in Arizona, had served four tours of river duty in Vietnam as a warrant officer in the U.S. Navy. “In the brown water,” he calls it (as opposed to a blue water ocean, the navy’s preferred haunt), from 1969-74. He remained in the Navy until 1980, then worked as an electrician in Alabama for a while, but life was becoming a blur of alcohol, drugs, anger, and memories.
“I had no friends, and nobody to shoot at,” Longfeather recalls. “Even the bums wanted nothing to do with me.”
“But I didn’t have a death wish,” he says, in explaining his recovery.
In 1983, Longfeather ran into another veteran who introduced him to Alcoholics Anonymous. The long road back led him to Tennessee, helping an old Marine sergeant friend out of his own addictions. There he walked into a VA medical center.
“They turned everything around,” he recalls. “They put me through rehab, taught me how to put my Navy skills to civilian use—demolition and heavy equipment.”
He then finished college at Auburn University on the GI bill.
Today, Shawn Longfeather is married, has a master’s degree in history, and is semi-retired. Epilepsy keeps him from full-time work, but he runs a small business making Native American crafts and gets weekly counseling for PTSD.
He also volunteers two days a week at a vet center, helping other veterans out of the cave he was in.