The image is seared into George Koerner’s brain.
Koerner served with a U.S. Air Force fire rescue and recovery unit in Vietnam in the late 1960s. He remembers responding to a fire in an airplane hangar.
“I heard this tremendous scream and realized I couldn’t get them out,” Koerner said. “It took us hours to put that fire out.”
Once inside the hangar, body bag in tow, Koerner found one of the victims – or what was left of him.
“The only thing left was the belt buckle and zipper,” he said. “But you have to take everything you can. And you have to live with that.
It’s hard to do that.”
“When you see your brothers the day before… you have a bond with them. You maybe talked to them the day before or hours before.
“To this day, it’s hard for me to sit by a campfire. That wood starts to burn and I hear the snapping and cracking… I’ve got to walk away. Those are the same noises I heard trying to rescue our brothers.”
That was just one of the horrors Koerner, 72, saw during his six years in the military. He also recalled taking wounded soldiers off helicopters – soldiers mortally wounded but still clinging to life, the pain muted by morphine running through their veins.
“You would see them torn up; you could smell the blood and see the tears in their eyes,” he said. “And you’d lie to them. We would tell them, ‘You’re going to be OK.’ I tried to do everything I could, but I lied a lot to those brothers.
“And you’d see all those flag-draped caskets.”
To deal with the pain, Koerner, then 21, would drink. Excessively.
“I drank a lot. That’s how I suppressed my memories,” he said. “We would work 24-hour shifts, and when they gave us two or three days off, we drank… from morning to night. Many times I didn’t know where I was when I woke up.”
Koerner was discharged on Dec. 23, 1971. He remembers coming home to Milwaukee with $35.
“The uniform came off, and it was no more,” he said.
But at home, there was no escaping what he had been through and how life had changed.
The connection to longtime friends had been severed due to the war and the sentiment stateside surrounding the war.
“I drank a lot. That’s how I suppressed my memories. We would work 24-hour shifts, and when they gave us two or three days off, we drank.
Work was hard to come by, and Koerner was beset by loneliness and isolation.
“I was disconnected with people, I was nervous. I didn’t know what was going on. I’d be talking in the middle of the night. It was like I was right back there again.”
He soon landed a job at Miller Brewing Co., which was both a blessing and a curse: He had good pay and good friends, but also easy access to alcohol.
He married in 1974, and he and his wife Jane raised a son and a daughter.
But Koerner admits it was Jane who did most of the work.
“I worked six or seven days a week,” he said. “I couldn’t understand why my son and daughter didn’t bring their friends over. It was because their dad was a complete asshole.”
At Miller, where he ended up working for 36 years, Koerner met Jeff “Doc” Dentice, known to Milwaukee VA Veterans as the driving force behind the annual “Christmas with the Vets” program.
It was Dentice who saw what was going on with Koerner. He saw the drinking, the acting out, the angry outbursts and recognized what it was.
“After 39 years I finally came to VA. Ever since that day, I have been getting help. It has given me another day in my life to see the sunrise and sunset.”
“He told me, ‘George, you need to get help,’” he said.
But Koerner wouldn’t listen. He feared losing his job, or worse, being “put away” for being “crazy.”
But Dentice was persistent.
“’Come with me. You need to focus on now,’” Koerner remembered him saying. “I was afraid, but I knew I had to do something. I didn’t know what PTSD was. All I knew was how to drink and how I acted.
“But within days I knew. It was a godsend.”
Like many Veterans, Koerner lived with his PTSD for decades before seeking help.
“After 39 years I finally came to VA,” he said. “Ever since that day, I have been getting help. It has given me another day in my life to see the sunrise and sunset.”
Koerner has taken full advantage of the many services available to Veterans struggling with PTSD, including support groups, tai chi, yoga, physical therapy and working with psychologists, including Drs. Mindy Marcus and Matt Vendlinski.
He has benefited a great deal from tai chi, saying it helps to calm his mind when he recognizes rising anger within him.
“The slow moves, the slow motions… It calms me down a little more,” he said. “When I see something that pisses me off… I stop and I think. I go through the moves in my mind. Or if I’m in my living room, I get up and do it.”
And that’s one of the benefits of tai chi, said Ericka Napoli of the Whole Health Department, who leads the tai chi class.
“Tai chi uses slow, rhythmic movements along with focusing on the breath and being mindful and present. Practicing that can help decrease heart rate and blood pressure,” she said.
“When you’re starting to feel elevated, or really agitated, going back to that breath and mindfulness approach that we teach can really help with PTSD symptoms. Controlling the power of the mind to not allow those worrisome, angry thoughts – that’s all part of tai chi.”
Marcus agreed, saying those fighting PTSD benefit from becoming their own “self-coach.”
“We teach them to tune into their internal experience,” she said. “That’s an important skill – to know what is happening inside of you. When things bubble up, (they realize) ‘I need to do something right now.’”
The first step
Koerner knows he has not been “cured” of his PTSD, but he knows he’s not that angry, bitter, isolated man he was for so many years.
“I can see improvements,” he said. “I still have nightmares, but it’s better.”
And he has become a cheerleader for the treatment he has received through the Milwaukee VA.
“I tell these young Vets it took too long for us to come out, but we’re getting good help,” he said, admitting the first step is the hardest.
“I was afraid. It was scary,” he said. “But the VA is the best. Anything I can say or do to be helpful to younger Veterans is a blessing.”