Led had been my fishing buddy for six years when he finally told me about his military experiences in Vietnam. He had grown up very poor in Florida, where he fished and hunted with a slingshot for food.
We had met when he answered my ad in the Sporting Goods section of the local paper, looking for places to fish. My first duty station after completing the three-year residency training was in Fayetteville, NC. There were lakes and rivers all around, but where to go was a mystery.
“Hey, are you the guy that put an ad in the paper about fishing?” Led began with his thick Southern accent.
“Yes, I am.”
“Well, that is the funniest ad I have ever read. I fish every day. When do you want to go?” he asked seriously.
“How about this Saturday,” I proposed.
“Great, I’ll pick you up at 6 AM,” he chuckled. And for the next six years, we fished often. I would tell him about my Army life as a doctor, my past Navy life, and even a bit about working with DELTA Force. All he said was that he had done a tour in Vietnam, and the Veterans Administration had treated him rudely when he got out. He never went back to them.
Led was a powerful man with a working man’s hands that barely knew their own strength. He could shoot a gun and a bow and arrow with uncanny accuracy. He carved intricate models of birds in flight from scrap wood. His innate ability to see a better way led to inventions that made things work more efficiently. He was the first in his family to graduate high school and was drafted when the war came. In boot camp, he gained weight and grew two inches. Eating three meals a day was a new experience.
He returned from war and married the woman of his dreams. They adopted children that have blessed them with grandchildren. Their extended family remains close and interdependent. Led and his wife represent what makes America special: love and devotion to family and community.
He also had medical issues, including horrible asthma and respiratory sensitivity to smoke and fumes. He rarely slept. He would work or fish at night until he got tired enough to collapse into bed and sleep. He had been sleeping two hours every two nights for the last thirty-five years. His wife and grandchildren knew not to wake him as he would often awaken confused and violent.
“Doc, you’re in the Army. Can you tell me what this is, please?” he asked one late afternoon after our fishing trip. We were in his neat home. They adorned the walls with mounted catfish, bass, and crappie that were award-winning sizes. He held out a piece of paper.
I read the words with amazement.
“Led, this is your Bronze Star Medal citation from Vietnam. It says you were a machine gunner, and one of the few survivors of your unit, when a large enemy force overran it,” I stated with confusion in my voice.
“Why are you showing me this?” I whispered.
“Doc, seriously, I don’t think that is me. I don’t remember anything like that at all,” he added, confused.
Oh, no! I thought. Suddenly, his symptoms made sense. He had severe PTSD, and I had missed that all these years. No wonder he would not talk to me about his military past.
“Led, this is you, and awful stuff happened to you according to this. You have blocked it out of your memory. But it explains to me why you’ve been having trouble sleeping, and many of the other symptoms I’ve been treating. If you let me, I would like to start you on a medicine that can help you sleep and feel better,” I ventured cautiously.
We had been friends long enough now that he trusted me, so I started him on an antidepressant once a day and waited to see if it would help.
He called ten days later.
“Doc, my wife, Mary, told me to call you. I slept six hours last night. I don’t ever remember doing that. You’re a miracle worker, and I have energy again. Please promise me you will keep giving me this medicine,” he finished in a frantic voice.
Led continued to get better. Thirty-five years of PTSD had affected him in so many ways. He could not be in elevators or crowds. He remembered being warned in Vietnam that a group of three or more men standing together became a target. His memory was poor, and he had horrible anxiety issues.
He was brilliant, an inventor with admirable skills, and at work, he fixed things. As a tire line-worker, his mechanical improvements to his machines made him the top producer by a large margin. He saw mechanical things and knew how to make them work better. They offered him promotions, which he always turned down. His hands were muscular and substantial, yet he carved me a tiny intricate bird in flight from dark wood. I admire and treasure it in wonder that his hands could create such art.
He had felt safe as a loner and would often go fishing at night because he could not sleep more than two hours at a time.
“Led, it’s time to go back to the Veterans Administration,” I started. He recoiled.
“Look, you’re not a rich man, and you’ve got a wife, kids, and grandkids to help. The VA owes you long-overdue help, and they can provide that for free. Also, and this is important, you’re eligible for compensation for your condition. They pay disability benefits to you monthly, and it’s free of taxes. It could be significant,” I concluded.
“What do I need to do?” he asked reluctantly.
“You need to fill out a form. I have printed it out for you. All you have to do is answer the questions about the unit they assigned you to and make a brief statement about what happened the day they attacked your unit. It’s simple. They will verify it, and you’ll meet with their VA doctors,” I finished.
He agreed, and I gave him the three-page form to complete.
Two weeks later, I called to ask if he was done with the form.
“I can’t do it. I’ve tried. I just can’t think about that time and make the words come. I’m sorry, Doc,” he whispered.
“OK, Led, no problem. Let’s do it together. I have a copy of the form here. All you need to do is tell me the story of what happened, and I’ll fill in the form for you. We only need one traumatic event to document a place and time. Why don’t you start with your job as a machine gunner? Tell me about what happened that day.”
By the time I stopped him, he was sobbing uncontrollably, and tears welled up in my eyes too. I was stunned. He had endured combat at its worst, and I had seven different horrible events documented. Any one of them would qualify him for the diagnosis of PTSD.
I took him the forms to review and sign, and we mailed them to the local Veterans Administration.
Led is now one hundred percent disabled and receiving VA compensation. He worked hard and retired from his tire job after forty years on the line. He enrolled in a PTSD counseling group, which he attends faithfully, and he is doing well on medication. I moved away, but we still fish together, trade Christmas presents, and keep the families connected.
I kick myself for taking six years to make his diagnosis, but I celebrate his continued friendship. We both support each other and our families and reach out for mutual support regularly. Neither of us thought that a fishing trip, with men of such different backgrounds, would lead to a life saved and a friendship for life.
Note: This tale of two friends comes from a chapter in my book Swords and Saints A Doctors Journey.