Vietnam veteran with PTSD finds hope through VA outpatient center
SALEM – He was 20 when he landed in Vietnam. A few months later the Infantryman killed a Vietnamese soldier. Before his tour was over and he came home to Virginia, he had killed two more.
“I remember the face of the first one every day,” James “Blair” Draper said. For more than 43 years afterwards, Draper didn’t sleep. He was afraid to go outside with the porch light on. He was angry. And drinking.
Draper, who is now 67, served in Vietnam from April 1966 until April 1967. Although he started getting angry easily shortly after he returned, he didn’t realize he had Posttraumatic Stress Disorder until recently, when he was talking with a deer-hunting buddy.
A recently opened outpatient program at the Salem Veterans Affairs Medical Center, the Center for Traumatic Stress, has given the Army veteran help – and hope.
“I really didn’t know anything about PTSD,” said Draper.
“I was hunting on one of my friends’ farm. I was skinning out a deer, and this fellow was talking about he had to go to the VA in Salem for Post Traumatic. I stopped skinning out the deer and started talking to him.”
For almost two years, Draper has driven from his home in Martinsville to the Salem VA to get help with living by learning to confront his terrors a little at a time.
At first he went to a psychiatrist at the VA. “He was real nice and understanding, but wanted me to take some medication. I didn’t like it. I got real at ease with him. I told him one day ‘Somebody’s got to do something for me,’ ” Draper recalled. “I was getting worse.”
The psychiatrist told him there was a class starting up that December, and asked him if he would like to go. He went, twice a week for more than a month then.
A doctor at the Center for Traumatic Stress that opened in December 2010 and was dedicated in June 2011 worked with Draper, leading him through painful memories. “She asked me if I had ever killed anybody. I told her I did. I remembered the first one. I see his face every day,” he said.
She wrote out a program of things Draper had to do.
“I had to sit outside with the light on in my carport. I’d stay out there a minute or two,” he said. “Each time, it got better, a little better. Finally, I stayed out there 45 minutes.”
He practiced the “exposure therapy” the psychiatrist told him to do. “I had to go in a Vietnamese restaurant and see how it affected me. I had to go into Walmart,” remembered Draper, who said he was wary of new people and while driving a car would constantly look in the rear view and side mirrors. Doctors attributed it to soldiers in combat having to be on guard 24 hours a day, Draper said.
Baby steps by baby steps, he found the prescribed actions were working. “I could function,” he said.
“That January was the first time in 43 years I slept without waking up.”
He continues what his doctor told him. “This is something you have to do every day. If you don’t, you’ll slip right back. I don’t get as angry as I used to,” Draper said, with a slow, wide smile. “I’d just blow off the handle. I’m a lot calmer.”
That’s not to say Draper couldn’t hold a job and lead what looked like a fairly normal life to anybody who didn’t know what was going on inside him.
He hunted and fished for “just about anything – trout, bass, crappie, bluegills” – and worked in textiles most of his life, until the textile industry in Martinsville closed.
Soon after he returned from active duty as an E-4, Draper joined the Army Reserve Unit that met at the post office building in Martinsville.
He and his wife, Ida, have been married 44 years. They have two children, James Draper Jr. and Jason Draper, and he has two daughters from an earlier relationship, Pamela and Robin. There are 11 grandchildren.
“We keep the youngest son’s children at night,” said Draper, whose pride in his grandchildren is evident. “All my grandkids are pretty smart,” he said.
Draper was raised in Martinsville and stayed there. “After I left Vietnam, I didn’t want to move anywhere else.”
His advice to other men and women who might have PTSD is to get help.
“Overall, the outpatient progam at the VA in Salem is one of the best programs for veterans, especially from the Vietnam War. I’m just thankful the VA took time and studied these people with PTSD. It’s the best program for any combat veteran they’ve got.”