Vietnam vets find peace through peer support

Navy veteran Oliver LaRay, Marine veteran and Peer Support Specialist Geri Hunt, and Army veteran Mike Nole meet outside the Northwest Primary Care Clinic for the Pathways to Recovery program. (VA photograph)

When Oliver LaRay first arrived in Saigon in 1967, he was only 17 years old.

A firefighter in the U.S. Navy, he joined the reserves in high school, and graduated early so he could serve on active duty. But it wasn’t until he arrived in Vietnam that he realized what war was really like. “I cried every day for the first month I was there,” he said.

The tears wouldn’t last long, as LaRay quickly found himself seeing combat daily while manning a twin .50 caliber machine gun aboard a patrol boat, on search and destroy missions in the inland waterways of Vietnam and Cambodia. “We had more interactions with the enemy than anyone I knew,” he said. “As part of the ‘brown navy,’ we were asked to go on missions where it was too dangerous for helicopters to fly.”

LaRay’s closest brush with death came on the night of Jan. 30, 1968, when he and his unit were attacked by the Viet Cong as part of the larger Tet Offensive. LaRay remembers running out of his barracks and coming face-to-face with an enemy soldier. “The first thing I see is this teenager who couldn’t have been any older than me, staring down his sights directly at me. He had me dead to rights. But he never shot. He simply laughed and moved on. To this day, I will always remember his face and that moment.”

That same night, in Quy Nhon, Mike Nole remembers the red alert that announced the Tet attack on his base.

“It was scary, like the whole world was coming to an end,” Nole said. The 20-year-old soldier was nearing the end of his first year in Vietnam, but he, along with the other soldiers in his company, were not prepared for the attack. “I was stuck guarding the generator, and it was so loud, I couldn’t hear anything. I kept wondering, ‘What am I going to do if they come for me? Grab him by the throat? Gouge his eyes out?’”

Unlike LaRay, Mike Nole was drafted into the Army in 1966. Trained as a generator operator, he also found himself doing various odd-jobs after deploying to Quy Nhon in March 1967. For a few months he worked night shifts refueling generators. Later, he drove a daily truck route between bases. Most of Nole’s memories of the Tet Offensive attack have been buried, and he said that he tried to shut most of those experiences away.

While LaRay and Nole never met while serving, their shared experiences and struggles, both in country and upon return, are common to many veterans who served in Vietnam.

LaRay experienced prejudicial treatment from Naval officers, and several fights left him with an administrative discharge from the Navy in 1968. Nole was honorably discharged in the same year, after which he returned to southern Nevada and worked on stage construction for shows on the Las Vegas strip. He struggled with alcohol, leaving him at odds with family members.

Both veterans also struggled to identify with American society in 1968. They were called baby-killers by some, and others had simply forgotten that they had even left for Vietnam in the first place.

“In movies, John Wayne depicted the Vietnam battles as glorious, and that the soldiers would return as heroes,” LaRay said. “It wasn’t anything like that. There was no discipline. There were no heroic returns.”

And as was the case for many veterans, both men also faced challenges at home and suffered silently through their PTSD for years. Nole self-medicated with alcohol and tried to forget what he had experienced. LaRay found that the only way he could get a full-night’s sleep was with sleeping pills. Like many veterans, LaRay and Nole didn’t want to acknowledge their PTSD, and they didn’t want to talk about it with a civilian. “Psychiatry did not work. It was just some guy who had never experienced war who would make you lay down and tell you that you were crazy,” LaRay said.

It wasn’t until they heard about the Pathways to Recovery program through the VA that they decided to share their experiences.

“These veterans come to our groups, and hearing other stories, they know that they are not alone,” said Geri Hunt, a peer support specialist at the VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System’s Northwest Clinic. “I think that’s the main reason this so many veterans have found success, they now know they aren’t the only ones having similar thoughts and feelings.”

The veterans in Pathways to Recovery represent all branches of service, from Vietnam through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They meet weekly to offer support and share their stories with one another. “This group is designed to help veterans with mental health issues in their recovery, and to improve their quality of life,” said Hunt. “This is a strengths-based group. It focuses on how veterans can use their many strengths and resources to set goals and achieve recovery in many areas of their lives. The group does not focus on specific diagnoses, symptoms or treatment.”

For Nole, LaRay and the many other veterans who participate in Pathways to Recovery, it has become more than just a weekly meeting. “We socialize outside of the clinic,” said Nole. “A bunch of us go bowling together, and they have always supported me.” And their appreciation extends to the VA peer support team, many of whom, like Hunt, are veterans themselves. “She’s my hero,” LaRay said of Geri Hunt. “She cares because she’s been there.”

Pathways to Recovery program is open to all veterans and encourages healing through peer support. Groups meet on Mondays from 10:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. at the Northwest Primary Care Clinic (3968 N. Rancho Drive in Las Vegas). Interested Veterans can contact group facilitator Hunt at 702-701-0602.