The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

December 2003
FEATURE
   
 

"We Look Out For Each Other"
Tony Catapano and Veterans Over the Horizon

BY JIM BELSHAW


Tony Catapano calls it a two-headed snake: Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) on one side, the addictions - alcohol and drugs - on the other, feeding off one another, bringing grief to everyone who comes close, destroying marriages, driving away children, making you feel unique, alone, knowing you are the only one who believes it is normal to sleep an hour or two every night, knowing it is normal to lose your temper at the smallest perceived slight and go into a rage.

"It's always right there for me," he says, speaking of the sense of purpose he awakes to each morning - staying sober and combating the PTSD.

Before 1997, Catapano didn't know what PTSD was. He said he was an alcoholic and a drug addict with four failed marriages behind him and estranged children who would have nothing to do with him. He was 19 years old when he went to Vietnam with the Marine Corps. He is 55 now, the president of VVA Chapter 272 in Greeneville, N.C., and a founding member of Veterans Over the Horizon, a "band of brothers" who first met in a church in Centerport, N.Y., in the spring of 1998.

"Six guys sitting around talking back then, and right now on an average Tuesday night, there's between 40 and 50 people," he said. "There has to be well over 100 members in the group total. When I moved to North Carolina, I cried. When I go up there to visit, it feels like I'm coming home."

In March 1997, Catapano said he had a "complete breakdown." He spent 30 days in the Northport, N.Y., VA psychiatric unit. Then for three months he was member of an outpatient PTSD therapy group that met once a week. Everyone in the group thought they needed more. Once a week, with only a few minutes for each man in the structured setting, wasn't sufficient.

There were other problems, too, roadblocks that prevented them from speaking openly. At Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, they felt uncomfortable in the presence of those who weren't Vietnam veterans. The non-veterans didn't speak their language, hadn't touched their experiences. Catapano said the veterans couldn't tell them about the nightmares. If they talked about flashbacks, they might first have to define the term.

Six of them went to a church in Northport and asked the priest about renting a classroom. It cost $25 a month. They asked for PTSD outpatient clinician Jack Maloney's blessing. He gave it and continues to refer men to the group.

"They couldn't address special issues related to the trauma and how it related to substance abuse at AA and NA meetings," said Maloney, who now works at the Manhattan Vet Center. "I felt they needed some place off campus where they could talk about PTSD and substance abuse at the same time. AA has meetings for lawyers, dentists - specialized meetings such as that. Here in New York City, they have special AA meetings for actors where they talk about specific issues related to their careers. So our guys started Veterans Over the Horizon. Everybody could talk.
Everybody was reading from the same menu. They needed that."

Catapano said with no therapist in the group, the talk was more relaxed. No one would be taking notes; nothing would go into a file.

"You weren't going to be psychoanalyzed," Catapano said. "It freed up your mind. You could say anything you wanted to say in the Tuesday night group. Any subject was open. The new guys usually sit around quietly for the first week or two until their butts are on fire and they have something to say."

Over time, a closeness grew. The group was small, the same faces week in and week out. Almost all of them had been in the in-house PTSD unit at the VA hospital. They lived together. They shared both childhood stories and Vietnam stories.

"It was the same feeling we got in Vietnam," Catapano said. "You become family. People drift in and drift out, but if somebody doesn't show up for a couple of weeks, someone will get on the phone and call him. They'll go his house looking for him. We look out for each other. It's what you felt in Vietnam. It's that closeness of the guy next to you in the squad. We can look at each other and tell when something's wrong."

Catapano said that since he has been in recovery, he has walked three daughters down the wedding aisle. Before that, they wouldn't talk to him. He had lost his family, as many of them do.

He is married again, too.

"I decided to fight for this one," he said. "We've been together for 13 years. She's my rock. She watches me like a hawk. Time in these programs is worn like a badge. If you stay awhile, the wounds can heal. The wounds you have caused can heal. After awhile, you pick up the phone and apologize to your daughter. Sometimes they call back, sometimes they don't. It's not unusual to hear someone say, 'I talked to my son today for the first time in 20 years.' When someone gets up and says something like that, the applause is deafening. It's like a warm breeze blowing through the room."

When Catapano moved to North Carolina, he asked permission to use the chapter's building to set up a Veterans Over the Horizon meeting. Meeting on Monday nights, the group is small, though growing, with a therapist in Greeneville recommending that clients join.

Catapano sees the meeting as an extension of the chapter's already established programs to aid veterans in need.

"We have a relief program where guys can bring in their light bills, car payments, whatever," he said. "We have a committee that analyzes these things and can write checks to veterans. We have a food pantry set up. That's what Veterans Over the Horizon is all about. It's what we have to do to heal ourselves. We can't count on the VA; we can't count on the government to give us anything. We have to help each other."

He would like to see the program go nationwide in every chapter. He believes its importance cannot be overstated.

"Being on the receiving end of that kind of care and compassion is like falling in love for the first time," he said. "It's the only way I can describe it."

   

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