My Life

Petaluma Veteran’s Day Parade

On Wednesday, November 11th, Petaluma hosted the largest Veteran’s Day parade in Northern California.  I love my hometown and this parade is one of the things it really does right.  For many years our local American Legion Post 28 has organized the event.  Thousands of people turn out – about 10,000 were expected this year – to pay tribute to our military veterans and service members.

Steve Kemmerle, commander of Post 28, faced a challenge just to make the parade happen.  Because of a city budget crunch, Petaluma officials asked the American Legion group to foot the bill for the extra police and traffic services needed on the day of the parade.  But the Post couldn’t afford the $12,500 price tag.  In order to avoid canceling the event, local businesses stepped in and donated the needed funds.  Like I said, I live in a great community.

This was the first time the Bernstein Institute participated in the parade.  We attached banners and signs to my truck advertising the institute and thanking the veterans for their service.  We said, “We’re here for you” – and we meant it.  My wife, Lynn, had signs made with the Bernstein Institute logo, including our full business title: The Bernstein Institute for Trauma Treatment.

The parade announcers (there were three) had a little trouble pronouncing “integrative”, but they and many spectators along the route noticed “trauma treatment”.  People are becoming more and more aware of the issues of veteran trauma and PTSD.  Almost everyone fervently hopes that real help will be available for vets returning from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other stations overseas who’ve been traumatized by what they’ve seen and experienced.

The parade had over 120 entries, including veterans’ walking groups, military vehicles, a Russian tank and artillery piece, flyovers by a Huey helicopter and a P-51 Mustang, antique cars and trucks, marching bands, Boy and Girl Scouts, color guards, equestrian groups, Civil War re-enacters – just lots and lots of people who wanted to honor our vets and remember their sacrifices.

Army Lt. Col. Steve Countouriotis was Grand Marshall of the parade.  He is a Petaluma resident who served multiple tours of duty flying Blackhawk helicopters in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  Spectators from all generations waved, clapped, and cheered as unit after unit passed.  Small kids waved flags and held up signs saying, “Thank you, veterans!”

We all need heroes to look up to, who inspire us with their courage and dedication to all that we hold dear.  Lt. Col. Countouriotis and other veterans like him are our “giants” and I appreciate their example to us, particularly our youth.

For me, the parade was a wonderful break from my heavy work load.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m grateful to be busy helping so many people who are really struggling right now.  But as I’ve mentioned before, I need to take mini-vacations wherever and whenever I find them so that I can refresh and renew my energy and spirits.  I needed to rearrange my patient schedule in order to take part in the parade and I’m so glad I did.

The weather was perfect – a beautiful fall day with blue skies and sunshine – and I relished every moment I was able to be a part of one of my beloved hometown’s best traditions.  My arm got sore from waving to everyone, but I had no desire to stop.  I saw people I knew and many I didn’t.  I shared a special moment with my family and staff riding with me in the truck.

We had the opportunity to demonstrate our support and belief in what our country stands for.  Veterans lay their lives on the line for our freedom.  Old-fashioned values, like service and sacrifice, are so often the ones that matter most.  They provide the foundation for our cherished way of life.

Thank you Lt. Col. Countouriotis, thank you Steve Kemmerle, thank you veterans of Petaluma and veterans everywhere, of which I am also one.  I salute you.

I Am A Veteran

In 1968, during the Viet Nam era, I enlisted in the United States Army.  I reported for duty at Fort Ord, California, where I went through boot camp and then was trained in advanced infantry.  Most of the men I trained with went on to serve in Viet Nam, but I didn’t go with them.  My father suffered a massive heart attack while I was at Fort Ord.  I was transferred to an infantry training Army Reserve Unit so that I could return home to help my family through our crisis.

I lost friends in Nam that I cared for deeply.  I carry a great deal of guilt and remorse – survivor’s guilt – about it to this day.

My time in the army changed my life.  It brought out the best and worst in me.  It showed me a lot about myself that I didn’t want to have to look at.  Today I have regrets about that time, because when I look back on it I know that I could have done a better job, have been a better soldier.  I lacked maturity and had an enormously negative view of authority.  I didn’t know better at the time, but I still have regrets.

Viet Nam was a different era, and a different war than Iraq and Afghanistan.  Our country was much more conflicted then about our military involvement, and public awareness and consciousness about our role in Southeast Asia was very high.

Frankly, and in contrast, until I enlisted I was in many ways unconscious to myself and to the larger world outside of New Jersey.  I was consumed with pain and anger over my abusive childhood.  I couldn’t or didn’t want to see any other life beyond proving myself on the tough streets of Newark and its nearby neighborhoods.

Then I started losing friends in combat.  And my infantry training was so vigorous and brutal (necessarily so, to try to ensure my survival on the battlefield) that my eyes began to be opened.  I started to consider things about life I had never thought about before – the really “big picture” questions for which I had no answers.

My time in the service was a life-changing experience.  The changes didn’t come from having a wonderful time, for sure.  They came about, like so many other changes in my life, from pain, struggle, and sacrifice.

I was traumatized by my time in the service.  I had many trauma-related reactions after returning home, but because of the rough life I was living I attributed them to my ongoing struggle for survival in New Jersey.  I didn’t realize how bad the whole experience had been until it was over and further events took me out of New Jersey and back to California, this time as a civilian.  Then I really started to feel the painful effects of my time in the service.  But that’s another story, one I may share another time.

A number of my fellow soldiers at Fort Ord were pretty confused.  The trauma from our intense training and from public animosity to the war took its toll.  I remember one guy who tried to use a hand grenade to blow himself up rather than go overseas to kill other people.  If I hadn’t stopped him, he would have taken me with him.  Like I said, it was a very confusing time.

Not like today.  Soldiers today are much more committed and well trained.  They are passionately patriotic.  They deserve our support.  They especially deserve to hear something they’ve told me means everything to them – to hear from us, after they come home, “Thank You”.

This Veteran’s Day, if you know a vet, tell him or her, “Thank You”.  Don’t let feeling awkward stop you.  Don’t let not being able to fathom what they’ve been through stop you.

Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Gulf, World War II – one thing remains the same.  Soldiers experience trauma.  Repeatedly.  Beyond our thanks, they also deserve to receive the help they need to heal and to return to the lives they left in order to serve us.  I want to use what I know to be a part of their healing.  This is what our Veterans Program at the institute is all about, and why I am so deeply committed to it.

It’s just that the need is great, and what our veterans can afford is relatively small.  So, I have a dilemma.  I need your help.  Stay tuned . . . .