Don LaFond is 85 years old. Today he will put on his white cap, gray trousers and navy-blue jacket, and pin it with a Purple Heart. He will drive a few miles from his home to a cemetery in Los Angeles, where he will attend yet another Memorial Day service to honor those who, like him, sacrificed themselves in service to their country.
Don earned his Purple Heart during World War II, in the battle for Saipan, while trying to save a buddy. He talks about the experience in a quiet, humble way that befits a war hero, with two differences: he talks about how scary the experience was, and he talks about the experience at all.
“You never know where the bullets are coming from — over here, over there, coming overhead,” he says, pointing in different directions. “Mortar shells, bombs, artillery. You’re frightened. Anybody who says they’re not afraid when they go into combat, they’re a big… they’re a liar.”
Open discussions about the emotions and especially the fear of war are rare among older veterans. Don LaFond was no exception until recently. But when I meet him for the first time, that is just what he is doing, with a roomful of other aging vets.
Five men, some in ball caps, some with canes, sit around a table stacked with Oreos and cups of Seven-Up. “It’s my pleasure to introduce Donald LaFond, World War II,” says a woman in a brown suit, motioning toward LaFond, and then, continuing around the room, she goes on, “Roy Deretich, Korea. Joe Medina, World War II.”
Every one of these men is in his 70s or 80s. Every one fought in a war that ended more than a half century ago. And every one has been living with strange symptoms since then: constant nightmares, anxiety, emotional numbness. Most of these men had never given the collection of feelings a name. They’ve discovered recently it is called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.
“I’m 84-years-old now, and all this stuff happened when I was in my early 20s,” LaFond says. “It makes you wonder, gee whiz, if it will ever leave your mind.”
LaFond’s white hair frames a baby-face that hints at what he must have looked like when he first saw combat as a Marine in 1944, when he got his Purple Heart.
“What I was trying to do was help another Marine. He’d got a bullet through his mouth, and it came out by his ear,” LaFond explains. “I was dragging him back to safety, and that’s when I got hit. The bomb went off and the shrapnel caught me right in the stomach. Didn’t feel very good. But at the same time, what else can you do?”
As he recovered in the hospital, Don had time to reflect on what he had done. He was proud, and scared. And then, the war was over. He says the military gave him traveling expenses to get back home, “and that was about it. And I said, ‘What’s the story from here? Is there anything that I have to know about after I get out?’ They said ‘No, not a thing.’ So I figured well, I’m out of the war now, so I guess I’ll just get home and get a job.”
And he did. He had a successful career designing aircraft parts, then running a real estate business. But at night, he’d take sleeping pills to try to stop the terrors that, even now, 64 years later, jolt him and wake his wife.
In the nightmares, “it’s very weird, crazy things are happening. Bad things are happening,” LaFond says.
The Veteran’s Administration now estimates one in 20 veterans of World War II — the “good” war — probably have symptoms similar to LaFond’s and probably suffer from PTSD. The numbers are vague, because most older vets were never diagnosed. Back when these men were in combat, the term didn’t exist — it wouldn’t until 1980. Military doctors treated men for so-called “battle fatigue,” but only in very extreme cases which were kept very quiet. For the most part, vets like Don LaFond were expected to be heroic, then stoic.
So now, when they come in to the VA for routine medical exams and come out with instructions to go to a PTSD group therapy class, they don’t quite now how to take it.
“All we do is say ‘Why don’t you try it?'” says Leslie Martin, the woman in the brown suit who directs PTSD Outpatient Services at the Los Angeles VA who runs the therapy group for older vets. “And they keep coming, and I have more and more.” Martin has watched a parade of older men (she calls them her “guys”) come to see her in the last few years. Across the country, hundreds of thousands of older vets have recently begun seeking treatment.
Sometimes Martin asks herself: why now, after all these years? She thinks there are two main triggers. First, retirement: Men who long buried their war traumas under work and responsibilities have more time to dwell on old fears. Second, because we’re at war again now. “It’s everywhere,” Martin says. “There are movies about it, it’s on television.” And it brings things up again for her guys.
So in search of some comfort, they find Martin and her Older Vets PTSD Support Group. “And they come in, and there’s something about walking in to a group where there are other people, clearly from a similar experience, and it’s sort of like: ‘Where have you been all my life?'”
The men sit in a circle and shoot the breeze. Sometimes Martin prompts them with questions about how they’re feeling, and it can get emotional. When Sam Zavala, a big man who was a machine gunner in Korea, starts talking, he almost immediately chokes up. He describes how he felt when he first started coming to the group, a few weeks after the Iraq War started. He was recently retired, and he was having thoughts of suicide. He says he just couldn’t stop thinking about the war.
“I had too much time on my hands, and everything started coming to me, all the time I was there. I was there nine months, in combat. And I was very fortunate to be able to come back… Very lucky.”
Zavala grips his hands together and shifts his weight in his chair. “It kind of bothered me that I was able to come back and…” It takes him a very long time to finish his sentence. “We didn’t all come back. I was just one of the lucky ones to come back.”
As Zavala talks, people in the group nod and listen quietly. When he falters, they nod and listen too. Zavala composes himself and apologizes. “You come down here and you can talk to the guys,” he says, trying to explain why he feels more comfortable talking to this group of older combat veterans like him. “You don’t have to go into details. When you go into details, maybe you lose track of what you really wanted to talk about.”
“I figure that we’re different, compared to the regular person that hasn’t been in combat,” agrees Joe Medina, a slight 84-year-old with a trimmed goatee who fought in World War II. Medina is still a little skeptical of the group therapy process, though. After 60 years of silence, he says it’s hard to talk about this PTSD stuff.
“Not too many people know that I come to meetings,” he says. “People think it’s a weakness. I don’t want to be classified as such. Macho thing, I guess.” But Medina says he does have fewer nightmares since he’s come to meetings.
Don LaFond, the one with the Purple Heart, wonders out loud if his own nightmares will ever stop after all this time. Still, he says he takes every chance he gets to tell younger veterans, ones just coming out of war now, about his support group.
“At least, they know about it. Nobody told me about anything,” he says. “I want them to know about it.”
(You can hear the radio story I originally did about Don LaFond and his friends for Weekend America here: