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A war wound that never seems to heal

Fellowship Story Showcase

A war wound that never seems to heal

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Years after his service in Vietnam, Steve Champeau is still battling the demons of past trauma; local officials are seeing more such cases as images from Iraq inflame symptoms.
The Tribune
Sunday, November 11, 2007

Steve Champeau has sad, tired eyes. He speaks cautiously, rarely laughs and rations smiles. His demeanor is not unkind — just worn-out.

He is tired of fighting.

Champeau, 58, of Oceano, returned from serving in Vietnam in 1973, but his fight never ended. A new, unnamed and invisible enemy stalked him every day.

For 30 years, his family bore the brunt of his anger at this unknown source.

He kept it mostly at bay until the U.S. began waging its war against terrorism. Then Champeau’s persistent anxiety, sleeplessness, anger and depression worsened to the point he could not concentrate or hold a job.

Doctors identified his adversary in 2004 as post-traumatic stress disorder.

The diagnosis brought relief and answers, but not an end to his battles. Now, he is fighting to regain control of his mind and for the veterans’ disability benefits he believes he deserves.

“I’ve lived with this for 30 years,” he said. “I’d like the next 20, 30 or 40 not to be the same; I’d like it to be better.”

Sue Champeau believes the Iraq war elevated her husband’s symptoms to their current debilitating level, although, something was bound to push him over the edge, she said.

“The Iraq war is like a burr in my side that I just don’t need,” Steve Champeau said.

It is impossible to escape the media coverage, and he sees too many similarities to the war he fought — a war he said had no winners.

Seeing young veterans in his therapy groups, who have come home from Iraq and Afghanistan full of rage and determined to drown their emotions in alcohol like he used to, frustrates him.

Champeau dreads to think another generation of soldiers and their families will suffer through combat-induced post-traumatic stress disorder.

Psychological sledgehammer

Many Vietnam veterans who squashed their PTSD symptoms for decades are now seeking treatment for the first time, said John Riley, a San Luis Obispo psychologist who counsels local veterans through a contract with the U.S. Veterans Health Administration.

“The current war is inflaming their symptoms,” Riley said.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a psychiatric condition that can occur after a traumatic event, such as military combat. For some people, it’s a temporary problem, and for others, it’s chronic and lifelong disabling condition.

The disorder can emerge immediately after an event or years later — triggered by stress or another trauma.

PTSD symptoms fall into three main categories: re-experiencing the trauma through nightmares and flashbacks, retreating from life, and being hyper-vigilant.

Common symptoms are sleeplessness, persistent anger, depression, anxiety and an inability to concentrate.

Champeau has them all.

His treatment includes individual therapy sessions, group therapy and five daily medications to help him sleep and manage his anxiety and depression.

Studies show that between 18 percent and 30 percent of Vietnam veterans developed some level of PTSD. Soldiers involved in active combat have the highest rates of PTSD-related disability.

Riley compares combat to a sledgehammer in its ability to shatter someone’s psychological and emotional foundations.

“The more exposure,” he said, “… the more likely (it is) they’ll have problems.”

Champeau volunteered for three tours of active duty, putting him in Vietnam for 33 months.

“I’m the poster boy for not sending these guys back (to Iraq) again and again,” he said.

In Vietnam, most soldiers did a one-year tour of duty and never went back. Nearly half of the soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have done more than one tour, and many do not know when their service will end.

The Pentagon reported in June that 38 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq or Afghanistan reported psychological symptoms within four months. Within a year, between 10 and 25 percent were diagnosed with PTSD, the report said.

Enlisting to fight

Champeau was the oldest of nine children raised in central Massachusetts. After graduating from high school in 1967, he went to nearby Amherst College on scholarship.

A political conservative and descendent of military men, Champeau did not fit in among the majority of students on campus protesting the Vietnam War. He protested their protests, and by the end of his first year he enlisted in the Navy. He was 19.

As a petty officer second class operations specialist, he gathered information on enemy targets and planned battles. He was a “brown water sailor,” stationed on ships close to shore or sent on missions up jungle rivers at night to plant electronic devices. His crew frequently dodged enemy fire.

One battle torments Champeau most.

While he was on break from the ship’s combat information center, where he helped coordinate attacks, a missile struck the ship. The lights went out and chaos erupted. While he ran back to his post, wounded men grabbed at him for help, screaming in pain. Blood splattered the ship’s walls. A buddy died.

While Champeau waited in Danang for his final flight home in January 1973, he began a drinking binge that lasted the next 12 years.

“I drank myself into a black out,” he said, “because I didn’t want to deal with the nightmares and the stuff in my mind that was coming back.”

He sobered up in 1985, but his flashbacks and rage continued.

An invisible enemy

Two years after returning from Vietnam, Champeau married his best friend’s younger sister. He was 25, she 20.

He was a party animal, burying his feelings with alcohol. He hoped marriage would make him feel normal.

The Champeaus had four children as they moved from Massachusetts to Wisconsin and finally to Oceano nearly 20 years ago. Steve Champeau worked in management at manufacturing plants.

He provided for his family, but changed jobs every few years, usually after a disagreement with a boss. He said he was stubborn and inflexible.

“I was doing the best I could,” he said.

He had a short temper and flew into rages after minor provocations. He would scream, for example, if one of his sons failed to return a tool to his work bench.

He loves his wife and children but said he was always emotionally unavailable. His family tiptoed around him.

“I used my anger to build walls up between me and the people I love,” he said.

He never talked about Vietnam.

His symptoms boiled over in 2004. He lost his job and couldn’t find a new one. His nightmares and anxiety increased, and he couldn’t sleep or concentrate.

After three decades in denial, he and his wife went to see a psychologist at the VA health clinic in San Luis Obispo. She diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I felt like a big weight had been lifted off of me,” Sue Champeau said. “I went home and told the children, ‘It was never us. It wasn’t ever that we were doing something wrong.’”

Steve Champeau, too, felt relieved, but after the diagnosis his depression and anxiety overcame him.

“All of the stuff I had been holding in came pouring forward,” he said.


Between November 2006 and March 2007, Champeau spent 94 days as an inpatient at the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Menlo Park, California.

While there, he unpacked all the rage and guilt he had carried for three decades. He relived the battles and confronted his fears and sadness. He returned home ready to continue his treatment, but learned the level of services he needed, particularly one-on-one counseling, was unavailable.

“I unpacked all this baggage and then had little help to sort and repack it,” he said. Champeau said the VA psychologists and social workers are outstanding, but overwhelmed.

In November 2005, he applied for full disability from the Veterans Administration and in July 2006 was awarded a 30 percent disability rating. He immediately appealed and is still waiting for a decision. His VA psychologist wrote two letters on his behalf, attesting that his PTSD symptoms make it impossible for him to hold a job.

Champeau does not know when he will have an answer.

“I’m a control freak, and I have no control over what’s going on with my life in the VA,” he said. “It’s infuriating.”

A family ordeal

PTSD affects soldiers and every person in their lives, Sue Champeau said.

“Even when (Steve) stopped drinking, he wasn’t there,” she said. “He got dressed and showed up but he wasn’t there. He was still back in Vietnam. He never came home.”

She is a librarian and loves escaping into stories, but for 32 years, she has stood by her husband through all his nightmares and tempers.

Since his diagnosis, Steve Champeau has talked openly with his three grown sons and daughter about his illness and asked for their support.

He needs it. His PTSD is rearing its head like never before. Sue Champeau said living with it is tougher now than ever, but naming it and knowing it can be treated gives her hope.

She compares it to having cancer and needing chemotherapy to get well. The treatment makes you feel worse, but without it, you don’t have a chance.

“Now is our chemo time,” she said. “Even though you’re in hell, you can hope it’s going get better.”