“Special Forces Veteran Takes on a Tough Inner Battle”
After serving four years as a member of the U.S. Special Forces, battling Communist insurgents in the jungles of Africa and Vietnam, FFB resident, Doug Abernethy, returned to civilian life in late 1962. With his bride, Julie, and a baby son in tow, Doug backtracked to his Kansas small town roots. Here he was greeted, not as a hero, but as a scorned and ignored nobody. The rising public revulsion for the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam was unfairly vented on the returning servicemen, such as Doug, men who were sworn to protect the freedoms of their countrymen.
As Doug was already in the throes of PTSD symptoms of emotional distancing, paranoia, and guilt built up during his twelve months of intense combat in Vietnam, this homegrown abuse only served to deepen his struggle for normalcy. Doug’s “safe” place was found away from people, both physically and emotionally. An example of this was seen in the jobs he had in those early post service days. After bouncing around for a short time as a gasolene station attendant and an oilfield worker, he hired on as a police officer in Newton, Kansas. Even in this position, however, Doug felt too “crowded” by people, so he transferred as a Deputy Sheriff in Wellington County, KS. Here, his assignment was to patrol the city roads of Caldwell, KS, (population 1,000), and the surrounding rural county roads. Doug worked an eight hour night shift, encountering, happily for him, one, maybe two persons during a shift.
In 1965, Doug (with his wife and now his two young boys), left Kansas to join Doug’s younger brother, David, in Orange City, CA. This move worked to revive some of Doug’s positive attributes that served him so well in his years in the military, being a hard worker and a quick learner. Doug also realized he needed some college level education if he were to move ahead in life. Starting as a gasolene station attendant (again!), he soon was promoted to assistant manager, on his way to becoming a “loss prevention manager” with responsibility for this first station and then seventeen others. Recognizing Doug’s value, his employer arranged for Doug to work part-time, enabling him to attend nearby Fullerton, CA Junior College. Doug completed in one year, a two year program of general education, featuring English and Math.
Doug’s next stop was Oxnard,CA starting out as a “gopher” in the parts department of Ransco, a manufacturer of environmental test chambers. Once again, Doug’s abilities earned him promotions to the head of the Parts Dept, then to Finance, and finally, after two years, Doug was the overall head of Parts, Finance, and Shipping. And it was also the time of the four martini lunch.
While Doug was able to perform well as an employee, he was also a restless soul, given to alcohol and fighting. The demons of his PTSD drove him to join a motorcycle gang, the Road Runners, fully participating in their in brawling and boozing. While this notorious lifestyle provided him with some release for his inner anger, it became increasingly disturbing to him. His excessive drinking and unacceptable behavior was closing in on him: Doug had reached a point where he no longer liked himself, what he had become, and wanted desperately to change. But he was stuck: he did not know of a way out.
In 1968, Doug noticed a change in a fellow biker – the kind of change that Doug was seeking. This fellow, “James,” had separated from the Road Runners and created his own gang, The Christian Brothers. Doug wanted to know what this fellow did to change. The biker told Doug that while he was in Denver, CO, he was arrested for being drunk and disorderly and was sent to a detox center, The Arapaho House, run by a Lutheran ministry. “These people showed me love and a way out. I think they can do the same for you. But first, you got to quit drinking.”
A sober and a change-seeking Doug soon arrived in Denver, offering to do part-time volunteer work at The Arapaho House. On a trial basis, they gave Doug the job of and cleaning up and bathing and taking the “vitals” of the new arrivals. He was not to do any counseling or have any personal involvement with these needy, forlorn people.
This exposure to the hurting men and women sent to this detox center was the turning point in Doug postwar life, as it reawakened his sense of empathy for hurting people. Perhaps this empathetic nature, common to most people, was also at the root of his PTSD, as it stirred up unresolved emotional trauma from an untoward childhood event and his role as a soldier, witnessing and participating in so much death and suffering falling on not only his fellow soldiers, but on enemy troops, as well as on both hostile and innocent civilians.
Whatever the case, Doug at this point had a vision that his mission in life was to help people suffering from mental disorders and addictions. Doug reasoned that by gaining knowledge of the human mind and emotions, that he would be able to “rescue” many of the men he served with in the Special Forces, now suffering like himself, from PTSD. Doug set out to make the rest of his life meaningful, even though the full resolution of his own PTSD was still several years away.
Next time: Light for Doug at the End of a Long Tunnel