Aspen Times Weekly cover story: Aiming for inner peace
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Jahzeel Sequeira squinted through the peephole down a short, brown barrel of a rifle used in the Korean War. With sniper-like patience, the former Navy corporal took aim at a poster of Osama Bin Laden more than 50 yards away. He squeezed the trigger, adding to the chorus filled with the familiar sounds of war.
Sequeira’s instructor, peering through binoculars at the target, delivered news of the shot. “Looks like he won’t be having children anymore,” the instructor said, sending both men into laughter.
“I haven’t shot any gun since 2003,” Sequeira said. “That felt really good. It was nice to get the adrenaline going again.”
Last week, Sequeira and more than 100 veterans of American wars converged on the Basalt State Wildlife Area Shooting Range, one activity in the 26th annual Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic. The weeklong event with more than 400 veterans was co-sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Disabled American Veterans and is one of a yearlong series of events held in the area that supports disabled veterans.
While the soft-spoken Sequeira, who served in the Navy from 2003 to 2006, reacquainted himself with rifles, he showed no ill effects of his multiple spinal injuries suffered in his three tours of duty. But not all his injuries were physical.
Bob Perigo, the clinic’s shooting-range coordinator and Vietnam War veteran, can look in the soldiers’ eyes and know if they faced war.
“Many of them still have the 1,000-yard stare,” Perigo said. “You look right at them, and you keep looking straight through them. They’re just not quite there yet, and it will take a long time.”
Since the war against terror began in earnest in 2003, soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan have been dealing with a different struggle from what Perigo dealt with after Vietnam. Many have come to the mountains to get training and support from programs with the U.S. Adaptive Recreation Centers and, more locally, groups such as Challenge Aspen and volunteers at the T-Lazy-7 Ranch, who bring soldiers out every year to go snowmobiling.
Post-traumatic stress disorder now afflicts 21 percent of soldiers returning from war, according to a recent Veterans Health Administration study. The February study sampled 500,000 of the approximately 2 million soldiers who have returned from the Middle East.
A former search-and-rescue officer, Sequeira is one of those afflicted with the disorder.
“I get mad very easily, and it feels like the world is coming down on me,” he said. “It’s a very different experience when you have post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Sequeira, 30, struggles with nightmares and sometimes sleeps just two or three hours every night. The mental problems were compounded when the military discharged him three days before the end of his service in 2006 due to complications with updating his personal information to his superiors, according to Sequeira. After three tours of duty – participating in Operation Iraqi Freedom, working in aviation management and helping with rescue operations in the 2004 Indonesian tsunami – he wound up homeless for six months in California.
“I had nowhere else to go,” Sequeira said. “I finally got some help from a friend and got back in touch with my family in Florida. If it wasn’t for my family, I wouldn’t be here today.”
With his family in Miami, he received help from Veterans Affairs and began treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. He tried to hold a job like a regular citizen, working at a Cheesecake Factory and at another time as a substitute teacher, but was uncomfortable in the crowds.
Problems with adjusting to normal society is one aspect where Perigo can help – or at least relate. When Perigo came home in 1967, after 32 months in Vietnam, he said he “went into hiding about my service to the country.”
“There were a lot of bad vibes toward military guys,” he explained.
As Perigo, 68, applied for jobs, he would intentionally leave out his military experience on job applications. Eventually, he found work as a bodyguard in Chicago and then moved to Aspen to follow the same line of work.
Soon, Perigo found a job as a carpenter and created his own business. By 1980 – more than 10 years after his service ended – he started to feel a part of the community while getting involved with the Roaring Fork Valley Veterans Affairs group.
“I feel it’s important now to do as much as I can to be involved in charitable events because I want to see these folks get the treatment they deserve,” said Perigo, who now lives in Carbondale. “Not the treatment we never saw and never had.”
Events like last week’s sports clinic at the shooting range teach participants they are not alone with their disabilities and difficulty transitioning back to civilian life. Mike Partridge, a Vietnam War veteran from Olympia, Wash., came to the clinic for his second time because of the closeness he experienced with his fellow Marines. He converses with Marines coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan and believes they have a lot more resources than he did.
“They don’t want to ask for help, however,” Partridge said. “It’s getting better for them. They just have to want to do it. … It’s hard to get a warrior to ask for help, but at least it’s available.”
In the past six years, more veterans have reached out. According to the Veterans Health Administration, the Army diagnosed 10,756 troops with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2010, up from 4,967 in 2005. An exact number of soldiers with the disorder is unknown because soldiers hold back on admitting their troubles. While the number is increasing and resources for veterans have been expanding, Perigo believes aid is still not where it needs to be.
“It’s gotten a lot better in the past 24 months,” he said. “The line used to be outside the hospital. Now they’ve brought that line inside, but it’s still a wait to get help.”
Since 2005, the VA has hired an additional 3,000 mental-health physicians, but the issues of re-integrating with society go beyond the physical and mental. Like Sequeira, many struggle with finding work. For veterans younger than 24, the unemployment rate is almost 40 percent.
“There’s little evidence of them being let back into the work force, but a lot of them aren’t ready to come out yet to work,” Perigo said.
So first they come here, to western Colorado, to heal.
Gulf War veteran Mike Pyle carefully laid down the modern, black military rifle and turned around to high-five friend Jeff Saddler.
Pyle was diagnosed with cancer 11 months ago. The chemicals he breathed in his Navy flight squadron in 1991 finally afflicted the 41-year-old. After losing his right leg, Pyle has been in remission since February. The two men discussed the recoil of the gun and how Pyle forgot how much of an effect it had on his aim.
“This is a blast. It’s unbelievable,” Pyle said afterward. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I like getting with all of the other service guys, and it’s a great time. I’m now just living life.”
Saddler sat down where Pyle finished shooting and took aim at five hanging bowling pins 30 yards away.
“Technically, I’m not supposed to be able to walk,” he said.
Forty-five-year-old Saddler suffered severe spinal injuries in 1987 when he fell out of his Navy helicopter onto the deck of the USS Belleau Wood in the Pacific Ocean.
With each shot the veteran took, a pin swayed back and forth – signaling a hit. Saddler is quite familiar with guns; he now works as a gunsmith in Virginia.
Because of treatment, many veterans such as Saddler and Partridge, who was a city planner in Lynnwood, Wash., for 15 years and suffered from multiple sclerosis, can become productive citizens again. The activities on the shooting range, according to Perigo, prove that veterans are as capable as anyone else despite the handicaps.
“This is so challenging to all the vets,” Perigo said. “Some of them have only one arm, so we need to teach them how to shoot again. A lot of them came here thinking it wasn’t possible.”
During the four days of shooting at the range, scores of volunteers helped veterans find targets. As Partridge walked away from the range, the few targets he did hit were enough for the veteran to feel accomplished.
“I’ve never been treated better my whole life,” Partridge said. “We’re treated like kings here.”
“I hope they will walk away feeling accomplished in something,” Perigo said. “I hope they walk away with a smile on their face from hitting targets.”
After hitting four out of five balloons with a crossbow and then shooting Bin Laden in the groin, Sequeira posed for a picture with the Korean War rifle.
He removed his glasses and wiped his forehead with his sleeve. The man who is uncomfortable in crowds and dislikes commotion stood tall as a melody of bullets resounded behind him.
“Being here at the winter sports clinic, it means a lot to me,” he said. “It shows me that people do care about us, and it helps me get out and see something good coming from my life and hope for the future.
“It’s good to see that not all injuries are physical. It really impacts me to see brothers and sisters of mine struggling through the same thing.”
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