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Catching a break at Malaekahana, on O‘ahu's windward coast.
Vol. 11, No. 3
June/July 2008

  >>   The Giving Tree
  >>   Green Chic
  >>   Town & Country

In Country 

story by Rose Kahele
photos by Sergio Goes


When the call came in, details were sketchy. There was a Caucasian male, possibly a veteran, living under a blue tarp on the slopes of Diamond Head. Not much to go on, but Clay Park had found other lost and troubled veterans with less.

Park is always ready for times like this, keeping a stash of canned goods in the bed of his pickup truck. He drove out toward Diamond Head, where he met a police officer who pointed out an area where homeless people usually camped.

“You aren’t going up there, are you?” asked the officer, looking at the aloha shirt-clad Park.

“I’ll get my BDUs [battle dress uniform] and boots, and I’ll be back.”

It didn’t take Park, a skilled tracker and avid pig hunter, long to find him. As he approached the campsite, he greeted the man as he greets all his lost veterans, with name, rank and MOS (military occupational specialty). Park had been a sergeant and combat medic in Vietnam.

There was immediate recognition. “Man, you guys had a dirty job, bro’,” the man said.

“Yeah, but let’s talk about you,” said Park. He then explained the benefits and services available to the veteran. They could be substantial if he qualified, but he needed to come in and apply for them first. “Let me walk you through the system,” Park offered.

The veteran balked at the idea. Park continued, looking into the distance, “What do you see out there?” he asked.

“Nothing. The ocean, cars.”

“Well, I see life. The birds are alive, the trees are alive,” said Park. “It’s all around us. And I thank God every day that I’m alive, because today is today. Tomorrow may never come and yesterday is gone. Let’s get you some help.”

A little later, the veteran agreed to come in. In his four years as a social worker, Park has never failed to bring a lost veteran home.

Usually, Park’s job as a case manager and veteran’s specialist with the social services organization Helping Hands Hawai‘i involves more paperwork than legwork. It’s not a glamorous or well-paying job, and to hear him describe his day-to-day duties, one could easily mistake him for a hustling salesman making cold calls. He helps veterans in need identify programs available to them and ensures they receive the benefits. He assists them in finding housing and food, and he provides counseling. Sometimes he just listens. Park hands out his business cards and offers advice at diners, public events, parks and social gatherings—anywhere, on or off the job, that he runs into a fellow vet.

Last July, in an effort to address the growing demand for services, Helping Hands established a stand-alone veterans’ service unit. Currently, Park is its only staff member and the sole occupant of a spacious three-room office in a Kane‘ohe medical complex. This one-man army’s latest project is signing up as many recently retired National Guard personnel and reservists for their Veterans Administration benefits before their application deadline, two years after their discharge. Many of these soldiers may not need help now, but Park wants to make sure it’s available when they do. And, if Park’s own experience is any guide, they will.

Park’s job is vital, one that he is uniquely qualified to do. As a former VA employee, not only does he know firsthand what beasts state and federal bureaucracies can be at times, but he has also been “in country” (in the combat zone), where he treated countless casualties during a long tour of duty in Vietnam.

Many of the veterans Park is assisting suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a condition brought on after witnessing a traumatic event. Once called “shell shock” or “combat fatigue,” symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, feelings of detachment, irritability, difficulty concentrating and sleeplessness. PTSD is as old as warfare itself, but each war, each battle and each horror is unique.

“No soldier who has been in country comes out unaffected. When you go to a war zone, the war never ends in the battlefield,” says Park. “You may come home, get married, have children and live the American Dream. That’s because when you are young you get busy. As you get old, your body slows down, but your mind doesn’t. One day, something clicks, and you can’t cope.”

Park knows what he’s talking about. At 19, he was sent off to Vietnam as a combat medic, attached to several different squads that patrolled the country’s western border and regularly pursued the enemy into neighboring Laos and Cambodia. He saw some of the heaviest fighting of the war, including the Tet Offensive in January 1968.

Park has never been diagnosed with PTSD, but he almost certainly suffers from it. After he returned from Vietnam in 1968, he was plagued by nightmares, suspicious of nearly everyone and angry at the world. For several months, he slept with a loaded .357 Magnum under his pillow. He got into fights, and he tried, unsuccessfully, to pacify his ghosts with antidepressants and alcohol.

Park tried to get on with his life. He trained for four years to be a dental technician and was eventually hired by the VA to make dentures and crowns. He married his high school sweetheart and had two children. But the marriage fell apart after nine tumultuous years. When he married again several years later, he was drunk during the wedding ceremony.

“I can’t take responsibility for this marriage, because I’m under the influence of alcohol,” he’d whispered to his bride-to-be during to the ceremony.

Park’s recovery was slow, achieved through sheer guts and determination. He, like other veterans before him, got busy with his life—almost at a furious pace—and he picked avocations that put him in control, literally. He quit drinking after he woke up in a North Shore cane field, not sure how he got there. He earned his pilot’s license and flew the radio traffic reports in the mornings and delivered inter-island cargo on weekends. He joined the National Guard, where he learned to repair and drive 10-ton trucks and eventually reached the rank of sergeant major.

Meanwhile, he rediscovered his Native Hawaiian culture, studying under kahuna la‘au lapa‘au Papa Henry Auwae, a renowned Hawaiian herbalist. Auwae and other kupuna (elders)—none of whom had seen combat—counseled Park, helping him deal with the contradictions in his life and channel his energies toward helping others heal.

“I came to my kahuna [Papa Henry] one day, and I told him that I had a problem. I was studying to be a healer, but at the same time I was also a drill instructor, so I was training people to kill,” says Park. “He said, ‘Maybe you are looking at it the wrong way. Maybe you are training people how to survive.’”

Park points out that in pre-contact Hawai‘i, warriors would give up their lives before battle in a funeral-like ritual. They went to the fight as dead men. If they did survive their war, they went through another ceremony that brought them back into the living world. “We never did that for our vets,” says Park. “My goal is to bring back as many people as I can.”

Lately, Park has been waging this war on multiple fronts. Last year, he visited Washington, D.C., three times, where he spoke with US Sens. Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka about the fate of Hawai‘i’s veterans and the looming health care crisis as thousands of soldiers return home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Back home, he’s enlisted the help of a small band of brothers he calls, “The Uncles,” four fellow veterans and their wives who are available at a moment’s notice to offer counseling and additional support to clients. The men, Victor Opiopio, Sam Stone, James “Kimo” Opiana and Charles Kanehailua, are not only combat veterans; they are also disabled. They know from experience the frustrations of dealing with the VA as it processes paperwork. The Uncles, none of whom are paid, encourage other veterans to trust the system and to persist even when frustrated. They also encourage vets to trust themselves, undoing the bit of military culture that has traditionally labeled psychological distress as a weakness.

“Only someone who has been there can see the whole picture,” says Park. “This problem is so big; we just started last July, and we are getting overwhelmed. But it’s a start, and if we can help one veteran at a time, we’re doing something. We can’t sit back and do nothing. I don’t have time to do nothing … I don’t.”

Park’s work at Helping Hands may be the final stage in his own healing journey, but every day, with every veteran and every story shared, it could also be his undoing. He’s now seeing men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Although their wars are a world away from his, the fear, confusion and horror is the same—and still fresh in his mind.

“All these years, I’ve been handling the ghost, putting him in the closet. But it is getting harder, because I see these guys coming back,” says Park. “Now, I’m trying to help people again, and I’m trying to push harder, but the harder I push, the more it takes its toll,” says Park.

But he isn’t afraid. He’s too busy.

Many here in Hawai‘i are still in country, and Clay Park’s determined to bring them home. HH