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Casualties of War

Former Vietnam combat medic and Helping Hands Hawaii case manager Clay Park is still saving lives

photo: Jimmy Forrest
Clay Park joined the Army on a whim. Fresh out of Waialua High School, the 17-year-old was trying to support a friend, who didn’t want to go to the recruitment office by himself. The friend wound up failing the physical, but Park passed. In 1966, after being trained as a combat medic and dental technician, he was shipped off to Vietnam, where he saw some of the heaviest fighting of the war, including the Tet Offensive in January 1968.

Park left the Army later that year and went on to a nearly 30-year career as a dental lab technician for the Veterans’ Administration (VA). He also served as a National Guardsman for 24 years, retiring as a master sergeant in 2000.

Today, Park is a case manager for Helping Hands Hawaii, a nonprofit social services organization with a wide-ranging mission, which includes helping veterans in need of physical and mental health assistance. Earlier this year, he was honored by Helping Hands Hawaii as one of the individuals “for whom service is as much a part of life as breathing….”

Park took some time off from his busy schedule to talk with Hawaii Business about veterans in need, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the coming mental health crisis that may overwhelm Hawaii and the rest of the country.

Tell me about how you started at Helping Hands and what it is you do there?

I retired from the VA in 2003 and shortly after Dr. Luke [Helping Hands Hawaii senior program director Dr. Stanley Luke] called me and told me he needed some help. I used to work with him at the VA. I didn’t have any training in social work or mental health, but he thought that I could help with cultural competency [assisting with the Native Hawaiian clients]. I was only supposed to work for six months, but that was three years ago and now I help all veterans and their families.

As a case manager, I walk a veteran through the system – how to apply for VA benefits. I find them housing and food. I always carry canned goods in the back of my truck, just in case. For me, it’s about being an advocate for vets, who really don’t want to go through the system, but they need to talk to someone. I’ve gotten a few calls from wives, who say, “I want my husband back. This is not the man I married.”

You’ve gone to some unusual lengths to find veterans and get them help. Can you tell me about that?

The last vet that I found was on the side of the Pali. He wasn’t very high up, somewhere between Pali Highway and Kamehameha Highway, but in the deep, thick stuff. I’m an avid pig hunter, so it wasn’t very hard tracking him down. I found a guy on Diamond Head once and I only had a brief description: Caucasian male, who lives under a blue tarp. That wasn’t very hard either, once the police told me where the homeless are. Most of the time, they aren’t in the mountains. They’re in the city or on the beach. But I find them, and we talk and I bring them in.

What has happened to these veterans?

No one walks away from war unaffected. Everyone is wounded. You may not be hurt physically, but you are definitely affected mentally. Why is that? Why is it that a guy comes back and gets married and lives the Great American Dream – the house, the dog, the kids. But then, in his 50s or 60s, he takes a shotgun and blows his brains out. Why is that? It is because, when you are young, you stay busy. But as you get older, your body slows down, but your mind doesn’t. And you can’t cope. The ghost is always there and he comes to bite you every once in a while. Sometimes you just can’t keep him in the closet.

Look what’s happening now. The American forces are low, so they are sending these guys on two or three tours of duty. They come back with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), and they think they have fixed them up. And then they send them on their second tour. And they come back and they are worse, and they send them out for a third time.

Are you seeing a lot of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans?

I’ve seen a few, guys from my National Guard unit. But it’s really too soon. But we’ll see them, and it’s going to get nasty.

How so?

The problem is that they activated units that have soldiers in their 40s and 50s. They are married and have children and jobs. When we went, we were full of piss and vinegar. We were wet behind the ears and we didn’t give a damn about anything. When you go to war when you’re older, your body isn’t as strong as the young guys and your thinking is much different. It [your mind] can be damaged more easily and more deeply. They are saving limbs and putting in glass eyes, but what are they doing for these soldiers’ mental instabilities? They are trying, but there isn’t enough. They can’t keep up. It is ugly. An ugly picture.

Do you have a ghost?

Big time. But it is how you deal with it. And what you do with it. When that ghost comes out, do you let it drag you down, or do you put it back? When I came back [from Vietnam] I was angry. I was angry at the world. People were protesting the war, but they didn’t know what war was really like. All they knew was what they saw on TV. Eventually, I got busy, very busy. I learned how to drive all kinds of things, big trucks, planes, so I could be in control. I looked for natural highs, like flying. Helping people is another high.

When I’m with a vet on the beach or in a park, I’ll ask him: “What do you see?” They don’t know what I’m talking about. I tell them: “I see life. I see birds, trees and the sun. Today is today. Tomorrow may never come and yesterday is gone.”

You’re just one person. What you’re describing is a potential mental health crisis of epic proportions. Won’t you be overwhelmed?

I may be one guy from Helping Hands but, I’ve got “the Uncles,” Victor Opiopio, Sam Stone, Charles Kanehailua, James Opiana and all their wives. These are all guys who are part of my core group of veterans, who are willing to sit down and talk to these guys [fellow veterans in need]. They [the Uncles] aren’t getting paid. They are a network of people out there, who are willing to take a guy by the hand and walk them through the system. I’ve also got a gal at the VA who wants to help our group, as well as a VA doctor. We’re a small group but we’re thinking about the big picture. Are we prepared for what is going to happen? No. But if you can help one vet at a time, you’re doing something. We can’t just sit back and do nothing. I don’t have time to do nothing. I don’t.

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