PERU, Ill. (AP) — As a young U.S. Marine in the late 1960s, Roger Reynolds, of Ottawa, fought for his country in the jungles of Vietnam.

“The time I spent in Vietnam turned me into a crazed, heartless killer,” admitted Reynolds.

“I caused a lot of death and destruction while I was over there and, on Valentine’s Day, 1969, I shot and killed my best friend during a night fight in the jungle. That mission — my buddy’s death — has become my eternal nightmare. I know it will never leave me.”

With little memory of his last days in Vietnam, Reynolds came home to La Salle County — like many returning combat servicemen and women — suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Part of his personal salvation came years later, as he helped form a peer-led, community-based group at the Veterans Administration Clinic in Peru for local veterans affected by PTSD.

These days, as a steel-minded leader of that group, Reynolds, 68, fights for the proper mental and physical care of fellow former servicemen with the men themselves and the VA.

At weekly meetings, he is the organizer of discussions that range from personal family problems to medical issues, from recurring nightmares of combat trauma to dark depressions.

In the private gatherings, the veterans share their fears, pain, heartaches and, perhaps most importantly, fellowship.

The articulate Reynolds explained, “Once home, returning vets, especially those of us who experienced combat, often miss the big picture of their lives by dwelling on the small details of their problems. Many combat veterans never return to the civilian life with the personality and the mental stability they had before they went into the service.”

He said, “This a not a social gathering. This group is designed for problem solving. We talk about things that many of us haven’t even shared with our families. There is no pity or shame given here. There is only compassionate understanding and genuine support. Here, at these meetings, we provide each other with the tools, the courage, we vets need to live our everyday lives.”

Reynolds said he regularly goes to official conferences or medical appointments with his fellow veterans to offer support, guidance and advice as to how to effectively navigate the often maddening maze of the VA program.

“We insist that VA officials treat us with respect and compassion,” he said. “We were trained to fight (in war) and now, we will stand and fight for each other. We know how to fight.”

Group member Jerry Zibert, a Vietnam Army veteran from Spring Valley, said, “The good thing about the personal stories we share in this group is that we all can relate to the other person’s problems.”

He said the interaction gives each of them hope, courage and vital information how to cope in daily situations.

Zibert said, “I first met Roger in a local hardware store. Although I was a stranger to him, he knew instantly that I needed help. He bought me into this group and now, I have found the weekly meetings have helped me tremendously.” Zibert said he rarely misses a meeting.

“Many of us feel alone,” said Zibert. “Our discussions, our confessions gives each of us vets strength to face our fears — to find a path out of dysfunctional problems some of us have. We lean on each other in here.”

During the sessions, Reynolds constantly reminds fellow veterans a person must take care of themselves before they can help someone else.

“I have done that,” he has told them. “At times, I have forgot to take care of myself. I have been in dark places. I have had thoughts of taking my own life. It was my friends who saved my life. Please, always take care of yourself first, then go on to help others.”

Reynolds called his work with the PTSD group his “life’s calling.”

He said, “This is what I was always meant to do. My time here is to help my brothers with their problems and to find answers for them to survive each and every day. Vets with PTSD often miss the big picture of their life by focusing on the small details of their personal problems.

Together, we try to solve problems before they become unmanageable — because when that happens, tragedy happens.

“This group has saved lives, but we haven’t always been successful. A few years ago, we lost a member from here who took his own life. I took it hard, because I didn’t pick up on his pain. I have sworn to myself and to the others that we will not lose another member of this group.”

During his session, Reynolds points to each and every man, asking them how their life is going and how (and what) they are feeling. No person in the sessions escapes from giving him a response. The discussion then goes around the room with profane humor, unabashed love and compassionate understanding.

“What we do is crack the shell open and that it is very often hard to do,” said Reynolds. “We allow them to get out of the dark to let the light in. Together, we work on solutions without a judgment. I bare my soul so others can find the courage and strength to talk, to find the path to an improved existence.”

Group member Robert Pobanz, of Ottawa, an Army Vietnam combat veteran, praised the sessions.

“In here, I have found the tools to deal with issues in my life,” he said. “How to cope. We work together. There is trust. When I am here, I never feel alone.”

Reynolds said, “I love every one of these guys. We have a bond. When they hurt, I hurt. When they’re sad, I’m sad. And when they’re happy, I’m exuberant. I would do anything in my power to protect them, to help them. But there is so much anger. There is so much pain. And society — the VA itself — has a hard time understanding that. At our meetings, there are tears, but there is never any shame. Trust is paramount to each and every man here.

“We stand and walk together. I know there will never be an end to my personal nightmare, but I also know there’s no end to my commitment to these men — my brothers. We’re linked by our combat experiences. We’re linked by our nightmares. And now, we’re linked by our strength. At one point, we were all prepared to give our lives for our country. We’re connected by the horrors of war and our love of this country. Yes, our war combat is over, but our fight is not.

“I have become my brother’s keeper and that is just fine with me.”

___

Source: The (Ottawa) Daily Times, http://bit.ly/2bS3Jxz

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