Lots of things are new at the Pittsburgh Vet Center, which recently
moved from its place of birth April 1,1980, on Penn Avenue, Downtown,
to the Noble Manor shopping plaza in Green Tree.There is the smell of
new carpet in the hallways, freshly painted walls and a vintage WWII
recruitment poster or two newly tacked up.
And, as the nation prepares to fly the flag on a Fourth of July
celebration marking its 238th birthday, a new kind of vet, about 25
so far, is turning up at the center's doors -- young soldiers coming
home from Iraq.
Still, for Dave McPeak and the five other counselors at the Vet
Center, the name of the game remains the same: post-traumatic stress
disorder and its treatment.
"Except for the nomenclature and the buzz words, it's
remarkably similar between those guys and the World War II
guys," said McPeak, the center's team leader and a Vietnam vet
who served two years until he was discharged from the Marine Corps
in July 1968 at age 20.
"The big similarity is that it's awful and traumatic to be in a
war," McPeak said. "It's just something else that we carry
in our pack. And we try to help them not carry that alone."
Vet owes his life
Don Miller, 58, of Freedom, owes his life to the Vet Center, where
he makes the weekly trek to counseling sessions and group therapy and
where he can talk about things he chose to keep quiet when he came
home 37 years ago.
Miller enlisted in the Marines out of high school in 1963. He went
to Vietnam as a corporal in 1966 after two years of infantry
training. By September of '66, he'd made sergeant.
A scant month later, the futility of the war effort sunk in at a
place known as Mudder's Ridge, near the DMZ. "We spent two weeks
and a lot of lives to take a ridge line, then we walked off and gave
it back to them, " Miller recalled. "I basically knew that
the war was a joke and we were not going to win anything."
Miller brought that lesson in futility home with him.
"I drank to the point where I could get the same mental
attitude I had there: 'I'm going to die, so the hell with it. I'll
just do my job and the hell with it."
"I learned over there real quick. You get close to someone and
they get killed. It hurts," Miller recalled. Miller learned not
to get close to new guys in his squad, or to anyone, for that matter,
even after he came home.
Miller's daughter was 12 years old before he hugged her and told he
loved her for the first time.
"I was discharged in September of 1967, and I found out real
quick that Vietnam veterans were not popular, so it was easy for me
to just deny it and fade into the woodwork."
Miller said he drank constantly. Deep down, he was resentful because
of the life-and-death decisions he'd had to make in Vietnam, where
most of the fighting was done at the squad level and there were few
officers around. He took to hanging out in rowdy bars and chasing
Miller admits he has trouble with authority figures.
"After spending 13 months in the jungle as an infantryman,
living in the mud and the blood and everything, I just absolutely
refuse to be treated less than human. Treat me with the respect you
treat everyone else in the world or don't talk to me."
By the mid-1980s, on his second marriage, Miller had reached his
breaking point. He went to his basement, sat down in the laundry tubs
and put a shotgun in his mouth.
"I figured it would be the easiest way to do it. They could
just hose me down and clean it up."
But he didn't pull the trigger. A friend took him to the hospital,
where a doctor ventured a guess that his patient had been in
Vietnam. He recommended the Vet Center.
Miller called and a staff member answered the phone. "She
actually cared. She was actually concerned about me. 'Do you want to
come up? Do you want us to come get you?' "
250 vets a week
About 250 veterans per week pass through the doors of the Vet Center
in Green Tree, one of 206 across the country. The center also offers
bereavement counseling to families of war veterans, and counsels
women, or any veteran, who experienced sexual trauma while on active
duty. Any veterans who served in combat theaters are eligible for
services, including those who were in Lebanon (1982-84), Grenada
(1983), Panama (1989-90), the Persian Gulf, Somalia or the current
war on terror.
Research indicates group therapy "is the way to go with
post-traumatic stress," said McPeak, a licensed psychologist who
obtained his master's degree at West Virginia University in 1977.
The center hosts two Vietnam veteran therapy groups, two WWII groups
and two others for Korean War vets.
"The guys get together and kind of share and support each
other," McPeak said. That helps veterans who "creatively
blame themselves" for things that happened in battle over which
they had no control whatsoever. For example, one vet might blame
himself if a buddy was killed right next to him, while another would
blame himself if a friend were killed while he was a mile away.
"And Sigmund Freud can tell them, 'It's not your fault,' and
they're not going to listen to him. But when nine other guys in there
are telling him, 'It's not your fault,' you're going to believe
Kept Vietnam secret
McPeak himself kept his life in Vietnam secret when he returned home
and began studying psychology on the GI Bill at California University
of Pennsylvania in 1968.
"I just put my nose to the grindstone and didn't tell anybody I
was in Vietnam, and tried not to pay attention to the war. It was
The stress of college exams and looming term papers touched him not
a wit. But he lived with the fear of being called back to duty.
In 1979, Congress "did this thing right" when it set up
the Vet Centers, which operate as part of the Department of Veterans
Affairs. McPeak was recruited as a counselor.
Miller, who said he'd do anything for McPeak, even talk about his
life with an outsider, quit drinking at McPeak's urging and is
happily married to his third wife.
He tried twice to go on with life without coming to the center.
"It's like I was expecting to get a diploma: 'Here. You're
graduated. Don't need it.' But the fears and the memories never go
"It's a lot about Vietnam, but it's also a lot about life and
life's struggles and learning to deal with things on an even
keel," Miller said. "I highly recommend this place for
anyone who really wants to get better."