Pain rises from past for retiring Vietnam vets
By Denise Crosby firstname.lastname@example.org August 14, 2012 5:24PM
Long time Vet advocate Dave Bee of Aurora is struggling with PTSD from his days in Vietnam. He is now getting help and wants others to know how common this sydrome is. | Steven Buyansky~Sun-Times Media
How to Help Veterans
What: Music Fest 2012, featuring country singer Ricky Lee and the Mustangs
When: 1-5 p.m. Saturday
Where: Batavia VFW, Route 25
Cost: $10 per person, $20 per family; includes concert, hot dogs, hamburgers, brats.
All proceeds go toward Honor Flight, Hope for Tomorrow and the National VFW.
Updated: September 12, 2012 5:17PM
Dave Bee’s name fits him. He’s always busy. Has been since I got to know him over the years when he’d call the newsroom wanting publicity for this or that.
This or that always meant fundraisers for great causes in our community. He’s been involved in everything from playing Santa Claus for the kids at Hope Wall School in Aurora to raising cash so a homeless fifth grader could go to Washington, D.C., and receive a national scholastic award.
Still, as an officer with the Aurora VFW and Amvets, most of Bee’s volunteer efforts centered around veterans. Go back in our newspaper library, and his name pops up in a host of events ranging from raffles to spaghetti dinners.
But Bee had not called for years — until this week, when he asked for a small story about a music concert Saturday at the Batavia VFW that will benefit the Honor Flight’s program to ferry World War II vets to the D.C. memorial; and Hope for Tomorrow, a local organization helping veterans with addictions.
It was after he and I began chatting for a while that Bee explained why he’s not been so busy lately.
The problems, he told me, started in 2005 — after he retired from the maintenance department at West Aurora High School. Having spent a lifetime working and raising a family, the now 65-year-old was truly looking forward to a less harried schedule.
But instead of retirement being “the happiest time of my life,” Cpl. Dave Bee, who had led a squadron of Marines through the bloodiest year of the Vietnam War — including the surprise Tet Offensive in 1968 — began experiencing flashbacks from these “14 months in hell.”
Suddenly, this social, outgoing man was struggling with depression. He became increasingly withdrawn from the activities that had given him such pleasure; unable to share his feelings even with his tight-knit family.
“He just never talked about it,” says his 28-year-old son Charlie. “I know how Pops is. He didn’t want to burden others.”
Ironically, Bee’s first flashbacks were triggered while playing Santa Claus. There was something about seeing the severely disabled kids on the ground that created images of fallen comrades of long ago. It hit so fast, Bee sent a letter to Hope Wall giving up his role as St. Nick because of “circumstances beyond my control.”
As involved as Bee was with veteran’s issues, it wasn’t until last year, when he attended an annual Vietnam reunion in Kokomo, Ind., for the first time that he realized he was struggling with post traumatic stress disorder. By talking to others, he also found out PTSD is “unbelievably common” for Vietnam vets after they retire.
According to a recent Stars and Stripes online article, that’s because major life events like retirement often trigger personal reassessment and forgotten memories. But for Vietnam vets who received no welcome home parades and had limited mental health options, this sudden loss of structure could lead to “serious psychological issues” as their generation — the average age of a Vietnam vet is 65 — enters retirement age.
It’s easy to “push these bad memories to the back of your mind when you’re busy,” Bee says. But when you suddenly have all this time on your hands, “it hits you in the face.”
Erica J. Borggren, director of the Illinois Department of Veteran’s Affairs, calls Bee’s story an interesting and important case. While post traumatic stress has certainly become a major focus for troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, this late onset brought on by retirement is not a “broadly recognized narrative” for PTSD.
By speaking so publicly about his mental health, Bee hopes to change that.
Since January, the Aurora man has been under the care of a psychiatrist and social worker, and plans to join a recently formed support group of Vietnam vets who meet regularly to discuss their struggles. “There are so many bad memories, you never forget,” he says. “But you learn to deal with them.”
And as he does so, Bee is getting back in the swing of things: On a bike ride down Lake Street in Aurora last Thursday, he passed the Hope for Tomorrow sign; and when its director, Jeff Gilbert, came outside and told him about this weekend’s music festival, Bee knew immediately what he had to do.
“So do you think you can put something in the paper about the fundraiser?” he asked me. “It’s a great cause ... with 100 percent of the proceeds going to help our veterans.”
Bee is back. Busy as ever.