Led was 51 years old when we met one early morning to go fishing. We became instant friends. Over the next few months and years, I would discover, one fishing trip at a time, that he had horrible asthma and respiratory sensitivity to smoke and fumes, itchy skin eczema, a serious fear of crowds and elevators, and he essentially never slept. He would work all day in a tire factory and usually fish at night until he got tired enough to collapse into bed and sleep. Fishing was his passion. That, and his amazing wife, were why he woke up every morning. He had been sleeping less than two hours every two nights for the last 30 years, and his wife and grandchildren had learned not to wake him because he would often awaken confused and violent.
He had grown up very poor in Florida, where he fished daily and hunted with a slingshot for food for himself and his foster family. He was a scrawny kid that learned early how to use his big hands to fight.
We met when he answered my ad in the local paper, placed in the Sporting Goods section on a whim. “New doctor in town looking for places to fish. Will you share?” it read.
I had just arrived at my first duty station in Fayetteville, NC as a new Army doctor after completing my three-year residency training. There were lakes and rivers all around Fayetteville, but where to go was a mystery to me. My phone rang the next day.
“Hey, are you the guy that put an ad in the paper about fishing?” Led began with his thick southern accent.
“Yes, I am.”
“Well, that’s the funniest ad I’ve ever read. I fish every day. When do you want to go?” he asked seriously.
“How about this Saturday?” I proposed hopefully.
“Great, I will pick you up at 6 AM,” he said cheerfully. And for the next six years, we fished often. I would tell him about my Army life as a doctor, my past Navy life as a SEAL (before going to medical school on an Army scholarship), and even a bit about working with the famed Army DELTA Force as a doctor. All he said in return was that he had done a tour in Vietnam, and the Veterans Administration had treated him rudely when he got out, so he never went back to them.
Led was now a large, imposing, and powerful man with working man’s hands and arms that barely knew their own strength. He could shoot a gun and a bow and arrow with uncanny accuracy. He carved intricate models of birds in flight from scrap wood. His innate ability to see a better way led to inventions at work and for fishing gadgets and lures that made things work more efficiently or catch more fish.
As the first in his family to graduate high school, he had been drafted when the war came. In boot camp, he gained weight quickly and grew two inches. Eating three meals a day was a new experience, and he took full advantage of it.
He returned from Vietnam after one year there and married the woman of his dreams. They adopted children that have blessed them with grandchildren, and their extended family remains close and interdependent. Led and his wife truly represent what makes America special: love and devotion to family and community.
“Doc, you’re in the Army. Can you tell me what this is, please?” he asked one late afternoon after our fishing trip. We were in his neat home eating fresh-fried crappie surrounded by walls adorned with mounted catfish, bass, and crappies that were all award-winning sizes.
He handed me a piece of paper retrieved from a kitchen drawer, and I read the words with stunned amazement.
“Led, this is your Bronze Star Medal citation from Vietnam. It says you were a machine gunner and one of the few survivors of your unit when a large enemy force overran it,” I stated with awe and confusion in my voice.
“Why are you showing me this?” I whispered.
“Doc, honestly, I don’t think that’s me. I don’t remember anything like that at all,” he added, confused.
“Oh, shit!” I thought. All of a sudden, the medical symptoms that I had been helping him with for the last six years made sense. He had severe PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), and I had missed that all these years. No wonder he would not talk to me about his military past.
“Led, this is you, and awful stuff happened to you according to this. You have blocked it out of your memory. But it explains to me why you have been having trouble sleeping, and many of the other symptoms I have been treating. If you let me, I would like to start you on a medicine that can help you sleep and feel better,” I ventured cautiously.
We had been friends long enough now that he trusted me. I started him on an antidepressant and waited to see if it would help. I knew it would.
He called three weeks later.
“Doc, my wife, Mary, told me to call you. I slept six hours last night. I don’t ever remember doing that. You are a miracle worker, and I have energy again. Please promise me you will keep giving me this medicine,” he finished in a frantic voice.
Led started to get better. His asthma, eczema, and breathing issues improved also. Thirty years of PTSD had affected him in so many ways. When we spoke of his fear of elevators or crowds, he remembered being warned in Vietnam that a group of three or more men standing together became a target. He kept to himself then and now.
“Led, it is time to go back to the Veterans Administration,” I started one afternoon. He recoiled physically.
“Look, you are not a rich man, and you have a wife, kids, and grandkids to help. The VA owes you long-overdue help, and they can provide that now. In addition, and this is important, you are eligible for compensation for your condition. They should pay disability benefits to you monthly, and it will be free of taxes. It could be significant,” I concluded.
“What do I need to do?” he asked reluctantly.
“You need to fill out a form. I have printed it out for you. All you have to do is answer the questions about the unit you were assigned to and write a brief statement about what happened the day they attacked your unit. It is simple. They will verify it, and then you will meet with their VA doctors,” I finished.
He agreed, and I gave him the three-page form to complete.
Two weeks later, I called to ask if he was done with the form.
“I can’t do it. I have tried. I just can’t think about that time and make the words come. I’m sorry, Doc,” he whispered.
“OK, Led, no problem. Let’s do it together. I have a copy of the form here. All you need to do is tell me the story of what happened, and I will fill in the form for you. We only need one traumatic event to document a place and time. Why don’t you start with your job as a machine gunner? Tell me about what happened that day.”
By the time I stopped him, he was sobbing uncontrollably. I was stunned and crying with him. He had endured combat at its worst, and I had documented seven different horrible life-altering events. Any one of them would qualify him for the diagnosis of PTSD.
I took him the forms to review and sign, and we mailed them to the local Veterans Administration.
Led now has his hard earned100 percent disabled and is receiving the compensation he earned. He worked and retired from his tire job after forty years on the line. He enrolled in a PTSD counseling group, which he attends faithfully, and is doing well on medication.
I moved away, but we still fish and chat sometimes. His family makes sure we get a Christmas present every year, and we send him one in return, grateful for his family’s friendship.
I still kick myself for taking six years to make his diagnosis!
** This story is an excerpt from “Swords and Saints A Doctor’s Journey” by Robert Adams www.swordsandsaints.com