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
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
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."