BY ALLAN PERKAL
The “welcome home” spirit resonated keenly during the recent PTSD town hall meeting at the Mission Health/A-B Tech Conference Center in Asheville. Organized by the N.C. Council of the Vietnam Veterans of America, the June 11 event aimed to raise awareness about post-traumatic stress disorder and give attendees a toolbox of coping skills for dealing with PTSD in everyday life. Veterans and their families came from Colorado, Mississippi, Maryland, South Carolina and every Western North Carolina county.
It took six months of planning to bring together the various community-based organizations as well as federal, state and county agencies that serve WNC’s veterans. The Department of Veterans Affairs, the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, county veterans assistance officers and assorted other groups were represented, helping those who attended learn about the resources that are available when they’re ready to confront the memories of their war experiences. Local media coverage helped expand the event’s impact.
Avoidance, denial and isolation are major features of PTSD. Overcoming them is a constant struggle, and that understanding drives our determination to reach out to those who’ve been left behind and forgotten.
During the town hall gathering, the presenters were asked questions that helped audience members increase their self-awareness. One Vietnam veteran said the talk described him “to a T” and helped him identify what he needs to do to put his life back together. A veteran’s wife said she’d worked hard to drag her husband to the event. I’m happy to report that her efforts paid off: Her husband was able to admit that he’d learned things about himself that he’d fought hard to avoid for the last 50 years.
A truly magical moment occurred when one of the presenters, talking about PTSD’s impact on the family, engaged a couple to share difficult emotions that are usually suppressed. Breaking through the dehumanizing effects of war, the exercise’s healing power was felt throughout the hall. One couple said it was the start of being able to feel again in their marriage.
Being veterans ourselves, we organizers know full well the importance of veterans helping veterans. This was a rallying cry back in 1980, when the VA launched the Vet Center program throughout the country, helping Vietnam veterans come home from the war. The struggle continues today with a new generation of warriors who’ve been affected by what they did and saw in their respective combat zones.
They can’t do it alone, however: Healing the psychological wounds of war requires nothing less than a communitywide effort. For veterans, the community they live in is literally a key to their very survival: It takes a village to help those who’ve borne the battle.
Here in WNC, we’re blessed to have that kind of support, but we’ll need to continue to grow our resources as the needs of our veterans demand it.
The motto of the Vietnam Veterans of America is clear: “Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another.” The town hall meeting was one more example of how we try to live out that mission. Audience response to a video of a 1985 ticker-tape parade for Vietnam vets in New York City demonstrated the power of such gestures.
Having been involved in the early years of treating PTSD in the Veterans Administration, I’ve seen firsthand the critical importance of outreach efforts. And on that basis, I believe our town hall meeting was successful. If even a single veteran left feeling he or she is not alone, then we did our job.
To properly honor current and future veterans for their service, however, we’ll need the ongoing help and support of every WNC community. War veterans, you are not alone! And to everyone who reads this, when you see a returning veteran, please do whatever you can to welcome them home.
Weaverville resident Allan Perkal served in Vietnam from 1967-68. He chairs the Buncombe County Veterans Council and serves on the board of the Vietnam Veterans of America’s North Carolina State Council.