Nobody in 1966 told Joe LaBranche he would come back from war in Vietnam feeling lousy.
There was no readily identifiable condition for not being able to sleep, a deep distrust of society, nervous ticks and splaying out on the pavement when a car backfired.
As a machine gunner in the Marine Corps, he was experienced with death and destruction, but inner demons were something for crazy people. And crazy people were locked up in padded cells back then, LaBranche said.
“All I know is that 72 hours after I left Vietnam, I was back walking the streets of Detroit, and I didn’t feel good. ... Nobody wanted to talk to me in my family about what I had been through, and I didn’t want to talk to them,” said LaBranche, who now lives in Cumming and came to a seminar at Macon State College on Wednesday to learn more about post-combat stress problems. “I fell into alcohol and later drugs to get away from it. I got past the drugs, but the alcohol abuse stuck with me.
“I knew I needed help, but it took more than 40 years to find it.”
LaBranche suffers from combat stress. The clinical term is post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and it is a blight on the lives of people who live and work in high stress conditions, fellow Vietnam veteran Moe Armstrong said.
Armstrong has been working with veterans with stress illness for almost 20 years. He is hosting a three-day seminar at Macon State this week to help people identify PTSD and other illnesses that combat veterans and others might be suffering from.
A Navy Corpsman deployed with Marines in Vietnam, Armstrong also came back to the U.S. in 1966 from the war, suffering from the same conditions as LaBranche.
“I had a mental illness. Of course nobody called it a mental illness back then. We didn’t know much about it,” said Armstrong, who now lives in Connecticut.
“I know what it is. I know the symptoms. When somebody tells me they don’t suffer from PTSD I ask them if they have trouble sleeping. Nobody really keys in on that. Most all have trouble sleeping during the night.”
Now, Armstrong offers a course to people interested in the condition.
Called Vet to Vet, Armstrong trains mostly veterans on how to identify the condition “in order to see it in themselves and to see it in others,” he said.
Some indicators of delayed stress are as simple as not being able to sleep, restless nature and irritability, Armstrong said.
“You don’t see that in Hollywood, but the vets I speak to all suffer from not sleeping well,” he said.
“The stereotype is an insane guy running around with a chainsaw. Grumpy guys who can’t sleep don’t sell movie tickets.”
More than 25 people attended the first day of Armstrong’s course Wednesday, and Armstrong hopes more people will come back.
Armstrong said the stress problem is reaching a crisis level in groups of veterans — with about 430,000 people in the U.S., mostly veterans from Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam, suffering from delayed stress problems.
“Our goal is to assist people, with this coursework and seminar as a resource. It is free, and the same materials are online. People can look at this anytime,” said Kimberly Paul, a Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities employee who is overseeing the class.
“We want to help the people who suffer from this.”
Paul’s department also wants to head off any legal problems returning veterans might experience.
Frustrations that lead to substance abuse can, ultimately, end in jails, hospitals or morgues.
“We want to use this resource as a way to keep some people who suffer from this type of mental illness from ending up in the court system or worse,” Paul said.
For LaBranche, the key to getting better was accepting he had a problem and simply going to seek treatment. Now he goes to Department of Veterans Affairs doctors for help, he said.
“I’ve gotten better. I knew I just didn’t like myself, and I was frustrated with authority and people,” LaBranche said.
“I still have PTSD, but I deal with it better. You never get rid of it. It’s always there, but the key to living a healthy, enjoyable life is how you deal with this stress.”
To contact writer Shelby G. Spires, call 744-4494.