For someone with such gentle eyes, Herman Williams has stories to chill the soul.
In a quiet voice, he told Tuesday of his time in Vietnam, of seeing his best friend killed, of having his entire battalion wiped out, of dealing with the demons of his own actions while in uniform, including “an episode” that led to the death of a Vietnamese baby.
There were also the war protests he found on return to the United States.
“It was crazy,” he said. “We’d just been through the worst any person could imagine. When my plane came in, we had to go to a different airport because of the riots from Martin Luther King’s assassination… and there were lines of protesters calling us ‘baby killers.’”
Williams, a member of the Marines’ celebrated Magnificent Bastards unit, was one of three Purple Heart recipients to sit down for dinner at American Legion Post 118 in Amherst, along with Lorain County’s Sam Felton Jr. and Collin Smith.
All three share another common tie — Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
For Williams and Felton, the meal was their first reunion in 20 years. Both were part of an important PTSD pilot program in the 1990s at the Veterans Administration hospital in Cleveland.
The two men embraced and recalled the doctors who taught them to cope with horrific memories of war, wounds just as deep as any bullet could make.
Williams was just 19 years old when he was shot not once, not twice, but three times in Vietnam.
His PTSD manifested over the following 20 years.
After returning stateside, Williams said he felt unable to find a sense of rest. He moved from job to job and even reenlisted in a search to find a sense of peace.
Today, after more intensive therapy, Williams has taken a job that will help his fellow veterans overcome their emotional injuries.Clients, often slow to open to others, find it easier to talk to fellow soldiers, he said.
Studies over the years have been split on just how many veterans have PTSD.
A third of Vietnam veterans are suspected to have dealt with PTSD, according to the National Vietnam Veterans’ Readjustment Study — but a 2003 look at the data suggested 80 percent reported “recent” symptoms.
A RAND Corporation study suggests 20 percent of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans have PTSD, clinical depression, or both. The numbers could be much higher among military personnel a year or more after returning from deployment.
What is more certain is that half of those with PTSD do not seek treatment.
And here’s a terrifying number: Twenty-two Americans who have served kill themselves each day in the U.S., according to a 2012 report by the Veterans Administration. Servicemen are more likely to take their own lives than civilians, a National Institutes of Health study found in 2014.
The Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center provides consultation, evaluation, and treatment for PTSD and a wide range of other mental health concerns, including depression, anxiety, addiction, anger management, and memory loss.
For assistance, call 877-838-8262 ext. 1035.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.
Jason Hawk | Amherst News-Times Herman Williams, Sam Felton Jr., and Collin Smith come together at American Legion Post 118 in Amherst. Williams, who served in Vietnam, has three Purple Hearts. Felton, also a Vietnam veteran, has two Purple Hearts and holds the Navy Cross. Smith, an Iraq War veteran, received one Purple Heart. All have wrestled with PTSD.