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50 Years Later, Vietnam Veteran Finds Help for PTSD

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Before leaving his house on everyday errands, the former force reconnaissance Marine would strap on a bulletproof vest, put his 9 mm pistol on his hip, his .22-caliber pistol in his back, his .380 pistol in his boot and stowed away his various knives.

For James Alderman, it was a routine that went on for 50 years.

After half a century of attempting to address his post-traumatic stress disorder on his own, Alderman sought out the inpatient treatment program at Bay Pines Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Bay Pines, Florida.

The Journey Begins

Alderman said he was a "music guarantee" when he went to Marine Corps boot camp and was going to be in the Marine Corps Band.

“I went there, and I could play the Marine Corps hymn forwards and backwards on four different instruments, but as I was sitting in my squad bay the drill instructors asked all the music guarantees to raise their hands. I hear garbage cans and bodies flying. I take my arm and ease it down because everybody who had their hand up was getting assaulted.

“They came up and grabbed me by the throat, threw me up against the back wall and said, ‘If you pass the audition, I’ll kill you where you stand and drag you out there and put you in that swamp.’ My drill instructor said I’d make a heck of a [reconnaissance] Marine. I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do that,’ and signed my name to the list,” he said.

‘So Everybody Else Can Sleep’

Alderman said he arrived in Vietnam on Feb. 7, 1967, and left March 5, 1968. He was with Charlie Company, 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, and was a Marine scout sniper and Vietnamese language instructor and coordinator.

He said he is most proud of not losing a man from his team during 13 months in Vietnam.

“I was the only team in recon -- we traveled in five-man teams -- and I was the only one who had no one killed while I was there. ... We had other teams completely lost, wiped out, gone forever, and so when I go to the wall and type their names out every year, I feel honored being here on their behalf,” he said, his voice cracking.

Shortly after Alderman arrived in Vietnam, a fellow Marine committed suicide and he had to clean up the remains. He also helped to recover other fallen troops, and the smells and visions still haunt him.

“In Vietnam, you saw carnage, death, sadness, destruction, fear, hopelessness, just pure unadulterated gut terror,” Alderman said. “We would travel in such small ... teams, and we were always outnumbered and outgunned but we had pride and were going to get the mission done. We saw things that would give you nightmares for the rest of your lives, but we carry it in our hearts so everybody else can sleep.”

‘My Life’s Over’

One incident in particular still haunts his nightmares, Alderman said.

“I was coming up a hill, and I was camouflaged in, and a man came across the ridge toward me with an AK-47 in his hand. He stopped right in front of me and turned toward me real fast, like that,” he said, snapping his fingers. “I thought he was getting ready to kill me because I’m lying at his feet. I didn’t know he didn’t see me.

“I’m sitting there looking at his boots, and I can see the AK-47 coming across, and he’s got the flashlight looking for me as it comes across. I can see his boots coming in and out of light. The AK-47 is about nine inches above my head. He took a quick step back, and the AK comes right towards my head. I let go of my M-14 and tighten up, thinking he’s going to kill me. I’m 19 years old. This is it for me. He went, ‘di di mau,’ which means, ‘Go quickly,’ and went on down the hill,” Alderman said.

“When that AK-47 had come to my head, I had thought, ‘My life’s over. I’m 19. I just want to tell my mom I was okay. I’m a United States Marine. This is what I do. This is what I train for.’ And this little voice whispered to me, ‘Jimmy, you’re going to be okay,” he said, tears running down his face.

Alderman said he dreams of that moment because he wasn’t in control. He said he can still taste the old vegetation, mud and rain from the boots of the North Vietnamese soldier.

When he left Vietnam and the sounds of bombs and chaos, there was no off switch.

When Alderman arrived home in St. Cloud, Florida, just south of Orlando; his father had fixed up his ‘57 Chevrolet. As he was walking down the hallway of his house to see the car, his girlfriend jumped out from behind him to surprise him. He attacked her, showing the first signs of PTSD.

After Aldderman got out of the military, “I started isolating myself little by little, and I didn’t trust civilians so much,” he said. “When I got out in 1975, programs like Bay Pines didn’t exist. They gave you your discharge papers and said, ‘Have a good life.’”

Over the next 50 years, Alderman fortified his house, got two Rottweilers -- Brick and Mason -- and limited his circle of friends. And he wouldn’t go to the store without his arsenal and bulletproof vest.

“Just think how exhausting that is to go through this on a daily basis, and I thought it was normal,” he said. “This is what I was trained to do, to protect people around me so if I go out, I can’t go out unarmed. There’s bad things out there in the world. I trust nobody.”

Life After the Marine Corps

Alderman met his future wife, Pat, while he was stationed in Parris Island, South Carolina. He said that since he was 12, he’d had a vision of his ideal wife, and when he saw Pat he had to meet her.

“I saw her and that was it, that was the face I had in my [head] since I was 12,” Alderman said. “We’ve been together since 1972. I love my wife dearly. She’s been going through this [PTSD and recovery] with me. She told me I needed to go do this [therapy].”

Pat was a Marine corporal who served for four years. Bay Pines was the first time they were away from each other since their wedding.

He said there were times when he felt hopeless. He and Pat lost a two-year old. They were homeless at one time, and he was jobless at another. They struggled at times, but had a business together for 30 years. He retired in 1996, but never realized he had PTSD.

“If it weren’t for this place here, I’d have committed suicide by now. I was hopeless. I had that 9 mm to my head more times than you can imagine and just never squeezed the trigger off. That’s how it all started,” he said, a tear running down his cheek. “I was a lost soul.”

Alderman described a moment two years ago when he woke up panicking, feeling like his heart would come out of his chest. He grabbed the back of his chair and for five hours, he sat motionless with terror and numb to what was going on around him. He was taken to the emergency room and had tests done. When the doctor told him he was the healthiest 65-year old they’d ever seen, Alderman finally started seeing a therapist.

He said he was hesitant to admit he had PTSD and seek treatment in the beginning, but he reluctantly entered into the program.

What was his attitude before? “I’m tougher than a bucket of nails. I’m one of the best trained Marines the Marine Corps has ever had. I’ve been a drill instructor and a sniper. I’ve killed more people in more ways than you can shake a stick at. I can suck it up and that’s what they tell you to do. I was shot through my left arm and don’t have the use of these fingers. I still survived 50 years without the use of my left hand. I sucked it up for 50 years. You’re not going to tell me how to do this,” he said.

He said he went to Bay Pines and inspected the area before he went to his interview. He then called his wife, who told him, “You get off your behind and go in there. You made it this far. It’s just another step, that’s all you’ve got to do. One more step, and you’ve got this, and you’re going to leave a mark on this place.”

‘Stuck in Time’

Alderman said he went to the front door and said, “I’m a United States Marine, and I’m here for help.”

“I was kind of embarrassed to ask for help, especially [for] something going on in my head,” he said, wiping away tears. “I can control everything else. I’m a great shot. I’m great at hand-to-hand combat. [But] I’m almost paralyzed up here because I’m stuck in time. All of a sudden, here it is, this little light comes on, and I’m going, ‘I’ve got this.’ I just needed a little help.”

Alderman told his therapist he just wanted a little light, a little hope and a sense of purpose and help. He said the therapists gave him tools to help him cope with his nightmares.

“If you come here and have the same experience I do, you’ll leave a better person,” he said. “You’ll have a little hope and purpose, that’s all I was looking for. I’m not expecting to get cured. There’s no way you’re going to cure this but they gave me tools to handle it. Now I have purpose and new friends.”

Rachel Dyson, a pre-doctoral psychology intern, was Jim’s therapist at Bay Pines.

She said Alderman was very open with her about his story and had an energetic personality.

“Jim did a great job,” she said. “This is not an easy program to be a part of. We ask a lot of our clients, and we are asking them to do a lot of things that are difficult that pretty much anybody who comes into this sort of situation is going to struggle with. Jim really pushed himself to do things that would be difficult but he felt would be helpful, so right from the start, he came into this with this attitude of wanting to make improvements because he felt he really needed this.”

She said his turning point in the therapy was when he started to realize why he was experiencing some of his PTSD symptoms.

“Once he was able to recognize where the symptoms were coming from and why it was coming up for him that was a very powerful moment, just being able to understand why we have some of the symptoms and experiences we have can be very powerful,” she said.

Alderman underwent exposure-based therapy so he was exposed to the emotions that come up with regards to his traumatic experiences to help him better process them, she said. He learned skills to better process his emotions and learned to recognize his triggers as well as coping tools. The best coping skill he learned was that he needs a support network, such as the friends he made at Bay Pines. He plans on taking his new friend, retired Army and Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran Al Alcantara cliff diving.

Ask For Help

“Reach out and ask for help. You’ll be happy you did,” he said. “Along the way you’ll meet some absolutely phenomenal people on your journey, people just like you. You think you’re by yourself. There’s people all around you doing the same thing you’re doing, sitting there thinking about it. Days go by, the months go by, the years go by, the decades go by and then all of a sudden you look up in the mirror and you don’t even recognize who that is anymore. What do you have to lose? That hope is better than being in isolation and despair, hopelessness, no friends, no family, no future. Search out and find somebody who can help. Now I have purpose and new friends. I’m going to be okay; I really am. I have hope.”

Alderman made many friends at Bay Pines and reached out to his fellow veterans, trying to be a positive force in their lives. He said Pat is dismantling his arsenal at home, and he plans to chop down his gates and firing positions at home. He also plans to expand the bird sanctuary in his backyard. He said his biggest challenge will be going shopping while unarmed.

“I’ve got some relief, and I’m going to have some fun now. I’ve got purpose,” he said, adding that he plans to volunteer at a senior citizen community and homeless shelters near his home.

“I cry a lot now but it’s not out of sadness; it’s out of joy. That voice still says, ‘Jimmy, you’re okay. You’ve got this,’” Alderman said.

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