By PETER SUR
Tribune-Herald staff writer
KEAAU — Timothy Briggs left the Army in 1977, but he was still addicted to danger. So he became a wilderness firefighter.
“When you can feel your heartbeat in your eyes,” he said, “It’s like, all right, it’s game on.”
In 1976, Briggs was in the middle of an infamous border skirmish between the two Koreas that resulted in two U.S. Army officers being hacked to death with axes by North Korean troops during a tree-trimming mission.
“We weren’t sure what was going on. It was a lot of yelling in Korean and English,” Briggs said.
His unit, which didn’t have loaded weapons, scared off the enemy soldiers by firing blank cartridges. “I actually picked up one of the guys and I carried him,” Briggs said, recalling how he looked down and saw the man’s blood on his uniform.
After careers fighting wars and forest fires, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2000.
He was among a number of people who on Friday attended an event for displaced and homeless veterans at the Keaau National Guard Armory. The fourth such event of its kind, veterans and their families were encouraged to come and seek help on a variety of issues.
The turnout was not as high as organizers would have hoped, but those who attended were able to get counseling, health screenings and essential toiletries.
“The purpose of this event is to outreach to the homeless veteran population,” said Carolle Brulee-Wilson of the Disabled American Veterans and auxiliary, Puna Chapter 9.
Felipe Sales, the team leader, or director, of the Hilo Vet Center at 70 Lanihuli St., was also on hand. The federally funded center does counseling for combat veterans and their families.
Sales counsels veterans to get their minds out of a combat zone. Describing the effects of war on the brain, Sales said that soldiers need help transitioning from a war zone to suburbia.
“They’re very worked up. They’re hyperactive,” Sales said. Eventually they can become withdrawn and isolated.
“A lot of them like to come to Hawaii. It’s quiet,” he said.
Also present was Beth Ananda-Stout, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner.
The symptoms of mild PTSD are similar to that of mild traumatic brain injury, Ananda-Stout said, and she sees a lot of both in soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Symptoms of TBI may include depression, substance abuse and dysfunctional relationships, she said.
On one side of the cavernous building were blankets, donated shoes and bags with rolls of toilet paper. On the other end were tables and displays where veterans could talk to health professionals or representatives from Catholic Charities Hawaii to seek help.
There was some entertainment, too. A 15-member chorale ensemble from Oahu, Melemai Kapu‘uwaimai, sang hymns in one corner of the armory. At 10 a.m., a man dressed as Capt. Jack Sparrow strolled past the tables to entertain some of the children of veterans.
“Stay in school. Study hard,” the pirate said to some of the kids, while handing out golden coins. “We do have enough basketball players.”
Sometimes veterans don’t need to be exposed to combat to receive intense psychological stress. During the Vietnam War, John Demo was sent to California to work in the orthopedic unit of a Navy hospital.
“Marines came back missing arms, missing legs,” Demo said. “I could not process it.” He was honorably discharged for medical reasons.
James Turner was another veteran present. A combat-wounded infantryman in Operation Desert Storm, Turner had found himself homeless before finding help and deciding to help other vets.
Turner said veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are being exposed to a lot more stress than what he experienced, but at the same time, “They’re getting better treatment and they’re getting more attention.”
Email Peter Sur at firstname.lastname@example.org.