His family was together and he was enjoying Father’s Day, until someone suggested they sit down and watch Hacksaw Ridge on TV. The Oscar-winning biopic spotlights a conscientious objector who courageously assists the dying and wounded on a World War II battlefield.
“It was a bad day for me,” the combat veteran told a roomful of peers at the Garden State Diner in Wrightstown.
It was Monday morning, and the PTSD support group was in session — over eggs, bacon, sausage, creamed chipped beef, and coffee. Also on the menu: how to cope with the daily challenges that sometimes sap their spirit.
For veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, gruesome movie scenes depicting body parts strewn across a bloody field are not entertainment. Many witnessed hell in real time.
“Fortunately, I fell asleep,” the veteran confided, without offering his name, and then abruptly ended his remarks.
Tony Capone, a social worker who leads the group in this unusual setting — the windowless back room of a diner in the heart of Burlington County farmland — stepped in.
“Well, I’m glad you fell asleep. And if anyone wants that gory stuff, they can watch it themselves,” he said, indignant at the lapse in sensitivity, or perhaps the lack of awareness, about PTSD.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 20 percent of those who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade suffer from PTSD, 30 percent of Vietnam veterans, and 12 percent of Gulf War veterans. The mental condition causes anxiety, nightmares, and flashbacks, sometimes contributing to suicide.
More than 200 veterans from New Jersey and Pennsylvania have joined the Monday morning peer-support group that gathers at the diner. Typically, about 60 show up each week, 40 of them religiously. The only requirement to join the group: a medical diagnosis of PTSD.
The grassroots group emerged two years ago, after Capone retired as a PTSD support-group leader at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. Capone had worked for 42 years with the VA in Philadelphia and later at the Joint Base.
Within one year, the five veterans sitting around a table at the diner near the Joint Base turned into 50. Then, Bill “Tonto” West, one of the five founders and the current chair of the Monday morning meetings, coaxed Capone out of retirement.
Capone, 70, quickly agreed to return, as a volunteer, recalling with a chuckle his mother’s admonition that “helping others only counts when you’re not being paid.” Now he drives about 90 minutes from his home in Cumberland County to be with veterans who never stopped seeing him as a trusted counselor and a dear friend.
“We felt lost when Tony retired,” said West, a Marine who is also the president of Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 899 of New Jersey. West was diagnosed with PTSD in the 1980s, more than a decade after he witnessed 10 of the 14 men in his squadron die in an ambush. He said he struggles to put the past behind him. The camaraderie and support from other veterans is the key to moving forward, he said.
Ordway VanHee, another of the group’s founders who served in the Army in Vietnam, echoed the sentiment. “The only people you can talk to are the people who were there. … I buried my issues with what happened there 40-some years ago. This group is a way to be together with all my brothers.”
David Oslin, chief of behavioral health at the VA Medical Center in Philadelphia, said he was familiar with the group but was surprised to hear how it had grown.
“They have a roster?” he asked. “Two hundred?”
In 2015, after the Fort Dix clinic closed and the group sessions ended, Oslin said, the VA “offered to help them find a place, but they found a place on their own.”
“What’s different is they sort of did this on their own without the imprimatur of an organization,” Oslin said. “It’s good they’re still getting together. People taking care of each other is a wonderful thing.”
West said the VA had suggested the group meet at a clinic in Philadelphia, but many of the veterans thought the 40- to 60-mile drive was too long. By the time a new VA clinic opened in Marlton about a year ago, the group had already found its home.
Zach Rotsides, the diner’s owner, offered the use of the banquet room in the back for free “out of kindness and to give back to the veterans,” West said. He assured them that if the group grew even larger, he would just open up the folding doors and make more room.
Last week, 49 veterans came by motorcycle, car, and wheelchair-accessible van to the Monday morning meeting. They were a diverse bunch — age 30 to more than 80; black and white; one woman. Most had fought in Vietnam, the rest served in Korea, Iraq, and Afghanistan. (One member served in WWII but could not make this session.)
Some wore vests and caps decorated with colorful medals, while others arrived in T-shirts and shorts. Marines, Army, Air Force, and Navy were represented. Good-natured teasing, warm greetings, and raucous laughter led to a rousing Pledge of Allegiance, a prayer, several announcements, and then a “sound-off” in which the veterans took turns rating the previous week, from 0 to 10. Each could then explain the rating, or not.
Bob Hamilton, a Marine who served in Vietnam, labeled his week a zero.
The constant ringing in his ears “was killing him,” he said. His tinnitus came from years of repairing jet engines.
“Yeah, look on the bright side. You’re still ugly,” said one of his buddies from across the room. There were chortles; everyone understood it as a compliment.
Joe Tamayo, who served five tours in Korea, used his time to urge the veterans to put in for compensation from the VA, saying they shouldn’t be too proud to ask for what they deserve. He said that some veterans were making a mistake by not “owning up that we have PTSD” and that they should be compensated properly for serving their country.
Other veterans reported that they had better weeks. One took a motorcycle trip with other veterans to Maryland. Another said he volunteered to help with a local memorial to those who had died in combat. Yet others just shouted out numbers. There was a 5, there was a 7.
“Volunteering and helping others is a great way to help you get outside of yourself, so you aren’t ruminating,” Capone said. “But don’t even expect a thanks. It should be unconditional.”
When the breakfast meeting ended two hours later, many of the veterans were back to kidding one another as they filtered out. There were no goodbyes, only “See ya at the picnic” (Chapter 899 was planning an event on Saturday) or “See ya next week.”
For more information about the PTSD support group, email Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 899 New Jersey at firstname.lastname@example.org.