The following article was written during the 1st Stand Down held in Ferndale (2004). I’m reproducing it here because the web site that carries it year-round, VA Watch Dog Dot Org, is shutting down. It’s founder, a great veteran’s activist, Larry Scott, is dealing with health issues and cannot continue keeping his informative blog up any longer.
Photo: Dave and Shirley Stancliff stocking food to take to the Stand Down.
By Thadeus Greenson/The Times-Standard
Dave Stancliff's adult life can, in many ways, be broken into two parts: two years of military service and more than 30 years of pain.
Unlike some war veterans, whose wounds can be seen in the form of missing limbs and shrapnel injuries, Stancliff's wounds are less visible and more elusive, but no less painful. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has wreaked havoc on Stancliff's life, manifesting itself in the form of panic attacks, flashbacks, agoraphobia, nightmares and a general distrust of humanity.
For Stancliff, a light is emerging at the end of a long tunnel and, through helping others, he is beginning to help himself. Working with the inaugural North Coast Stand Down -- an outreach program for local veterans taking place this weekend at the Humboldt County Fairgrounds in Ferndale -- Stancliff is realizing he is not alone and, in fact, his story has universal themes that are all too common. Meanwhile, the local community is showing its support for those in Stancliff's shoes by firmly standing behind the event.
Stancliff's pain is one that is hard for most non-veterans to understand. It's the pain of seeing one of his best friends killed in an ambush in Cambodia. It's the pain of witnessing carnage so savage that movies and stories can't capture it. But, perhaps most of all, it's the pain of being abandoned.
After serving in Vietnam, Stancliff returned to the United States not to a parade or a sea of understanding, but to anger pointed directly at him. He was spit on, he said, and called a baby killer.
Haunted by the hatred he felt and the carnage he witnessed, Stancliff tried to go on with life the best he could. He went to Humboldt State University and became a newspaper editor. Things seemed OK, but never good, until 1991 when he was the managing editor of five weekly papers in Southern California.
”After the Gulf War in 1991, something snapped,” Stancliff said, adding that the sight of parades welcoming troops home, in contrast to his own homecoming, was too much for him to handle.
”I was pissed at the world,” he recalled. “I couldn't even deal with my editors and writers anymore.”
Consumed by an anger he couldn't explain, Stancliff returned to Humboldt County and, in his own words, became somewhat of a hermit.
Senqi Hu, chairman of the Humboldt State University psychology department, said this is a common story. He said PTSD is a response to traumatic events like natural disasters, sexual assault and, in veterans' cases, combat.
”After a disastrous event, people develop chronic, long-term psychological distress, depression for example, chronic fear and anxiety, and sometimes mental dysfunction,” Hu said. “Symptoms often include recurrent and intrusive memories of the traumatic event, recurrent distressing dreams that replay the event and extreme psychological and physiological distress.”
In Stancliff's case, this meant rarely leaving the house, preferring to remain in surroundings that he could control. He couldn't work, couldn't take his wife, Shirley, out to dinner and he could not bring himself to attend his three sons' high school graduations.
”I can't say how bad I felt,” he said.
Though he has spent years in therapy, Stancliff has just recently begun to come out of his shell, as he put it. About a year and a half ago, Stancliff's brother died and something inside told the veteran that he needed to make a change.
A short time later, Stancliff placed a call to the local veterans center and asked what he could do to help.
It just happened that plans were in the works to hold a Stand Down, a massive outreach event to link up veterans with social services to improve their lives -- from legal and psychiatric advice to help with housing and medical aid. According to the event's Web site ( http://www.vietvets.org/ncsd/ ), “the term 'stand down' is a military one that is used when combat troops are pulled out of action, and sent to an area of relative safety to get medical attention, clothing and other supplies.”
With his background in the newspaper business and his personal battle with PTSD, Stancliff seemed a perfect fit to be the event's public affairs coordinator.
”I feel that God has really worked me into this position,” Stancliff said. “It's therapeutic, the idea of getting outside yourself and helping others. It's been stressful, I won't lie to you, but the bottom line is I'm doing something I never thought I would be able to do.”
Stand Down Director Carl Young understands Stancliff's fight, because in many ways it is similar to his own.
After leaving Vietnam in 1974, where he served in the Navy, Young arrived in his hometown of Santa Cruz dressed in a pearly white uniform and was in no way prepared for the reception he received.
”I got off the Greyhound bus and had a gal run up to me and spit on me and call me a baby killer,” Young said, adding that the experience was enough for him to fall into a six-month bout of depression.
Young has also found solace in helping others. He helped organize the first Stand Down in the north San Francisco Bay Area and, after moving to Fortuna a year and a half ago, jumped on board planning the first Stand Down in Humboldt County.
Also living with PTSD, Young said he deals with his issues, in a large part, through writing and helping others by organizing Stand Downs, which were nowhere to be found when he returned home from Vietnam.
He still marvels at how a Stand Down could have changed his life.
”I would have found out that a lot of other people had similar experiences and there were a lot of positive things out there,” he said. “I would have been able to turn around a lot of things with my life.”
Both Stancliff and Young said they feel this is a critical time for outreach because they know the statistics.
They know that, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, 200,000 of the nation's veterans don't have a house to sleep in on any given night, even though 89 percent of them received honorable discharges from the military. They know that, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, there are more than 14,000 veterans in Humboldt County. They also know that every day troops are returning home from Afghanistan and Iraq with the scars of war.
According to a 2003 study in the New England Journal of Medicine, about 17 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq come home with PTSD. Stancliff and Young said they have heard about studies, some by the Defense Department, that put that number closer to 30 percent.
Hu warned that even those numbers are flawed, since many returning soldiers don't seek help, pre- ferring to keep their problems to themselves, and thus don't show up in surveys and studies. Hu added that it is important for people with PTSD to get professional treatment as soon after the traumatic experience as possible because it increases the success rates of treatment.
”With the help of psychologists, they can talk about the issues and the psychologist can guide them to a new way of thinking,” he said. “That's why psychological treatment is so important.”
Young said this is an urgent community issue affecting many aspects of society.
”There's a real need to come to the forefront on this because the government isn't going to,” Young said. “I really feel that doing these stand downs, and outreach in general, should be a national priority.”
Judging from the response to the North Coast Stand Down, many locals seem to agree.
Mary Vellutini, who owns the Vellutini Baking Co. in Eureka, has a World War II veteran father and a son currently serving overseas. She jumped at the chance to do something to help out, and her baking company is donating 3,200 cookies to the event.
”Being a small business, we can't give financially as much as we would like, but we can give products,” she said. “We can give cookies.”
She said helping was kind of a non-decision.
”You want to help because everyone is someone's son or brother or father,” Vellutini said. “It's just important to acknowledge what they do. There aren't enough heroes in the world. I don't even know how to put it into words.”
Shirley Stancliff, who recently agreed to be the event's food coordinator, said the outpouring of community support has been both unbelievable and heartwarming. With a host of donations from local businesses and community members, coupled with a large, private donation from Esther Phelps of Ferndale, Shirley Stancliff has compiled enough food to feed 400 people three meals a day for the entire weekend.
She said a donation by the Humboldt County Cattlewomen's Association of $350 worth of tri-tip, coupled with the grilling services volunteered by Rob Dunn of McKinleyville's farmers market fame, will give veterans a special Sunday treat.
”It's awesome to offer these vets the opportunity to have the kind of food they might not have otherwise just to make it special for them,” she said. “I want them to know they're honored and respected.”
Though the community's support brings a smile to Shirley Stancliff's face, nothing makes her happier than seeing her husband out in the world again.
”It's just awesome seeing him do this,” she said after spending hours shopping with him recently at Costco. Despite breaking out in a sweat, Dave Stancliff made it through the shopping trip, hurdling personal demons on his way to helping others fight the same battle he confronts daily.
He said he takes things day to day. He still takes sleeping pills to block out the nightmares, struggles to forget while still remembering, and he still likes to sit with his back to the wall in public places to make sure nobody is coming up from behind. He has hope, though, which wasn't always the case -- hope for himself, for others and for his country.
”These guys have no hope and think their lives are gone, and it's not true,” Dave Stancliff said of some of his fellow veterans. “Give them a hand up, not a hand-out, that's our motto. This is an example of taking care of our own. I can't change everything everywhere else, but we can all make a difference right here where we live. If we serve one person and change their life, (the event) will be a success.”