(WSPA) – Each week, a group of combat veterans meet to share brotherhood with the only people on Earth who really understand the wounds they will always carry.
Usually, the meeting is restricted. Only men and women who have seen combat firsthand can listen to the stories they tell. Now, for the first time, they’ve opened the doors to share their struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
It’s a story about heroes. Real ones. Actual American heroes.
Their story is about men with a shared sense of humor and a common taste in fashion. Most proudly wear hats that display something of their service. It’s about combat veterans who have killed an enemy and have seen friends die.
Their story is about the wounds they’ve all suffered, and the pain they still hide.
The meeting is in a suburban rec room. It’s packed wall to wall. Most of the men are Vietnam era, but they’ve made a recent effort to reach out to younger brothers who are just home from Afghanistan and Iraq. The discussion is straightforward, sometimes emotional, and always honest.
“I’d heard of PTSD. I didn’t even know what it was,” said one, “I went in our bedroom, sit down on our bed, put a 9mm to my head and set there and said anybody that comes through that door, I’m gonna blow my brains out.”
Some of the men have been profiled by 7NEWS before. Jesse Taylor, a decorated vet of the Vietnam war, and founder of the now-thriving service organization Vets Helping Vets Anderson.
The Monday night meeting for combat vets is an offshoot of that group. This meeting is more raw. For Taylor, it’s personal.
“I just have wild things going through my mind, seeing things in my sleep. When I sleep now, every night, my bed is soaking wet every when I wake up in the morning,” Taylor said.
Ryan Hulon deployed nearly 40 years after Taylor. He was with the airborne in Afghanistan in 2003 and Iraq in 2004 and 2006.
“What people don’t understand is this wasn’t just terrorists,” Hulon said. “It could have been a woman or a child coming out at you, and people don’t understand. That’s the stuff that you see, and that’s the stuff that’s ingrained in your brain all the time. You go home and you look at your kids and your like ‘wow.’ My son’s 14. Over there a 14-year-old could have an AK in his hand coming at you.”
That’s what’s special about the Monday night meeting. The decades disappear. It’s what brings them together each week and bonds them together.
“You don’t have to walk in and say, ‘I’m ok today or I’m doing good, I’m fine.’ You can actually open up,” Hulon said. “You can talk about going back to Iraq every night when you go to sleep when you close your eyes.”
“Rudy” Ruddiger was with the 82nd Airborne in Afghanistan. He was wounded by a mortar round in 2006. He’s one of dozens at the meeting honored with a purple heart.
“Being here helps me feel better about everything I’m doing, you know. You’re not the same person you were when you went back,” Ruddiger said. “You come back sometimes people expect you to be the same person when you get back, and you can never feel the same way again. You’ve just seen too much.”
Each Monday night at 6 p.m., the masks come off and the heroes get real.
Robert Robinson, a combat medic in Vietnam, made sure to show off the shirt he’d worn just for the 7NEWS cameras. It read, “Those who see war, never stop seeing it.”
“We still feel the same panic at times, the same anger. Anger’s the most difficult one to get by. The more people you meet, you find they’re on a hair trigger and you don’t know how many pounds of pressure it takes,” Robinson said.
Every man at the Monday meeting knows that anger. At times, it will erupt in the meeting itself, although it’s usually followed with laughter.
Every man told us they knew the anxiety and occasional panic. Most said they’d thought of suicide.
“When you’re there actually holding someone’s heart in your hands, you know, you’re trying to stop bleeding or that kind of stuff, you know, they’re blown completely in half, just like the shirt says, you can’t stop seeing that from now on,” Robinson said.
“Sometimes we were just nearby, they were just killing each other, killing civilians for no apparent reason. Like once you see that, like waging war on women and children in a marketplace, how do you come back? It’s a hard thing to internalize, to mention briefly,” Ruddiger said.
“It’s a wound from inside, you know? From the outside appearance, everything’s fine. It’s almost like bipolar because the least little thing is anger. Don’t trust nobody. I was personally married three times. Women wouldn’t put up with me,” said Taylor.
There is no doctor at the Monday meeting. Though many of the men have sought and benefited from therapy. This meeting isn’t a search for a “cure” to post-traumatic stress. It’s just a need to be better understood and feel the same bond of brotherhood that’s kept them all alive.
“This group saves lives,” said Hulon. “This group is the reason that some of these guys are still here and they haven’t put that gun to their head.”
Taylor may have summed it up best. “We didn’t want to save the world. We wanted to help each other,” he said.
Vets Helping Vets Anderson has a regular meeting each Wednesday morning. It’s open to anyone who served in any branch of the military. The Monday group, for combat vets only, meets at 6 p.m. each week.
To join either meeting, the best way is to contact Jesse Taylor though the group’s website.