While most people spent Monday celebrating America’s independence and recognizing the men and woman who have served our country, for some veterans — who have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder — the holiday isn’t always an easy time.
One Las Vegas man shared his struggle in hopes that his method of coping might help other veterans who experience the same trauma.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs an estimated 30 out of every 100 Vietnam veterans have suffered from PTSD in their lifetime.
Some suffer for years without knowing they have it.
Bruce Empol was just a kid when he enlisted in the military to fight in the Vietnam War.
“Renewed hostile actions against the United States ships on the high seas in the Gulf of Tonkin have today required me to order the military forces of the United States to take action in reply,” President Lyndon B. Johnson said in a 1964 speech.
In September 1967, Empol joined the fight.
“It was like here you are a youngster and you’re put into a man’s world,” Empol said.
It was only a few months following his high school graduation. Empol was a machinist mate.
“We we’re up giving the ground support for the Marines and the army,” he said. “And then we went up to the Mekong Delta. We spent three days up the river.”
The 18-year-old served aboard the USS Fechteler, a gearing-class destroyer, tasked with search and rescue patrol, along with providing naval gunfire support off the coast of Vietnam.
“This was how close we were when we were giving ground support,” he said.
He saw things most teens shouldn’t have to.
“One day you would be taking on groceries, next day you’re taking on ammunition. You didn’t know if you were coming back or not.“
But Empol did come back. Honorably discharged, he was one of the lucky ones, but to this day he still carries the weight of his friends and the comrades he left behind.
Arriving back home, his unit encountered an entirely different battle.
“We got spit on. We didn’t get the parades or the hoorah,” he said. “We got looked upon that we were killers and it was wrong.“
It took a toll and Empol became aggressive and even attempted suicide.
“Little things set me off,“ he said. “ And even though you’ve been out of the service for 46 or 47 years, you watch a war movie or you hear a fire cracker and you’re back in there.“
Doctors diagnosed him with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It cost him his marriage. Since then, he’s remarried, but is still estranged from two of his children.
“I flew off the handle in a certain situation and my wife said, ‘You need to get help.’”
That’s when Empol finally reached out.
“I go to therapy twice a month and once a month with the VA.“
He also began the hands-on hobby of toy building in what he calls his “safe haven” in his garage turned wood shop.
“I made all of these. We got the Batman-mobile and then we have a dump truck and a backhoe,” he said.
It’s a therapeutic process that gives him peace of mind.
As he cuts, sands and brings each toy to life, it brings him back to a time before the war.
“It’ll get you out of that nightmare for a while.”
He even tests his toys.
“A good toy maker takes a toy, builds it, gets on top of a ladder and drops it. If it breaks, then you know the weak points and you put it together.”
You could say Empol has identified his own point of weakness rebuilding life after military service.
He says the one piece of advice he would give other vets who think they may have PTSD is to get help. He credits his coping with the care he received from the VA and encourages other vets to reach out.
Resources for veterans:
- National Center for PTSD
- Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
- Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255, press1 (text 838255)
- Call the 24/7 Veteran Combat Call Center 1-800-WAR-VETS (1-877-927-8387) to talk to another combat veteran
- Nevada VA resources: Nevada programs and VA Southern Nevada