Published on November 10, 2015

Learning to cope with the horrors of warLearning to cope with the horrors of war

In 1969, Peter O’Donnell was a 20-year-old gunner in Vietnam. But those images of holding a hill against the enemy never fade. He constantly sees “the best friends I ever made” fall before his eyes.

O’Donnell was wounded three times in battle, in his back, knee and forehead. But his physical scars pale next to the emotional toll he suffers. “I saw things you can’t get out of your head. How can you?” he explained. “I lost virtually everything over there. My pals, my faith.”

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Peter O’Donnell cooking at veteran BBQ

For years after he left the military, everything was empty. “More than once, I came so close to pulling the trigger and killing myself.”

And yet O’Donnell is among the more fortunate veterans suffering from mental health conditions, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or Traumatic Brain Injury. Many can’t hold a job or even maintain a home.

But O’Donnell persevered. He married, raised a family, and owned and operated a restaurant in East Falmouth before retiring recently.

A dozen years after returning from Vietnam, something clicked. O’Donnell realized that if he didn’t reach out for help, he would “forever be lost along wandering lanes with no ends.”

It started with writing stories and poetry–even if in the beginning he was the only one to read them. Years of counseling followed. Then O’Donnell began to join support groups like the Cape and Islands Veterans Outreach Service. There, he met others just like himself, ready to trade in the beer for some honest talk and shared dreams.

“Most soldiers earn their stripes on the way back,” he says now. And the way back never ends.

For veterans like O’Donnell, the Veterans Outreach Service helps to light the way. The agency, which is supported by Cape Cod Healthcare’s Community Benefits program, serves more than 1,000 veterans a year, and its food pantry serves an equal number of veterans and their families, says retired Major Gregory Quilty, the group’s executive director.

“It’s so rewarding dealing with veterans in need. You’re taking care of the troops. It’s like being back in the Corps again,” he said.

There are an estimated 23,000 veterans living on the Cape, according to the Veterans Administration. About 1,500 served in Afghanistan and Iraq, and of those, nearly 500 suffer today from psychological or head injuries, according to the Bob Woodruff Foundation.

The numbers don’t stop there. The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that 37 percent of 250,000 military spouses studied nationally were diagnosed with anxiety, depression or sleep disorders. One third of children with at least one deployed parent have acute stress, Giambusso said.

Then there is the specter of suicide among veterans, many suffering from PTSD and TBI. Their numbers total a staggering 22 a day, according to a recent U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs study. Those age 50 and older account for almost seven of 10 suicides, according to the study.

“And those numbers represent only those who have been identified,” says Regina Giambusso, case manager at Cape & Islands Veterans Outreach.

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Michael Quinlan at veteran BBQ

For O’Donnell, the decade after he returned home was “the loneliest of the lonely.” To this day, he calls it “the gates of hell.”

He couldn’t share the pain with his family and friends back in Falmouth. Instead, he gravitated to other veterans who were trying to drink their memories away. “We self-medicated at beer joints,” he said.

Michael Quinlan knows that story all too well. Even after 23 years of counseling, every day is a new battle, accompanied by the familiar faces of old comrades in battle. Quinlan is president of the Veterans Outreach Service. Like O’Donnell, it took him more than a decade to recognize he needed help. Until then, his only therapy was “crying alone.” He found he could not trust anyone.

He suffered from “startle response,” which is what happens when PTSD sufferers may hear a car backfire and will suddenly “hit the deck,” as if they have come under enemy fire. For Quinlan, even a hand placed on his shoulder unexpectedly might cause him to react dramatically.

PTSD sufferers will remain over-stimulated long after the initial startle, experiencing heightened symptoms, such as an increased heart rate.

Quinlan slept on his couch for 30 years after he returned from Vietnam. He and his wife, who he had met when they were in high school, eventually divorced. “I came back a different person, and eventually, the marriage fell apart.”

For the last 23 years, Quinlan has continued one-on-one counseling, understanding it is a day-to-day journey that will continue throughout his life.

This fall, the service opened the Grace Veterans Program in New Seabury to provide holistic wellness programs. “This is not a boys’ and girls’ club for veterans,” said Quilty. “We are focused on veterans who are in need.”

The program offers therapies like yoga, Reiki, mindfulness, and “general wellness,” he said.

“When I got out of the Marine Corps, I moved to the Cape and became a financial planner. I began volunteering with the veterans a few hours a morning,” said Quilty. “But I soon found that I was deeply touched by their striving to heal, and I decided to work here full time.”

Learn more about the Veterans Outreach Service and how you can help.