When the sun goes down, anxiety sets in.
Howard Burch is haunted by sounds, smells, horror and grief.
After the 1983 suicide bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, Burch was among the U.S. Marines on body detail.
“We had to go in and take the 63 bodies out of the embassy,” Burch said. “My job was to bag ’em and tag ’em. That’s something you can never live down, never forget.”
He returned home, terrified of sleep and the nightmares that menaced him. Life centered around avoiding sleep at any cost. Two failed marriages, drug addiction and homelessness ensued.
In 1997, Burch was diagnosed with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. But he didn’t receive appropriate treatment, he said, and spent years on the streets.
Finally, Burch, now 52, of Chester, Pa., is part of an intensive program to treat the disorder at Martinsburg VA Medical Center.
In a show of gratitude and support for Burch and combat veterans like him, the Izaak Walton League in Clear Spring hosted Wounded Warrior Day. More than 30 PTSD treatment program participants — including men who served in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan — attended the event Saturday.
Steve Wachter of the Izaak Walton League said though the group is a sportsman and conservation organization, its members were compelled to host an event honoring veterans. A Vietnam veteran himself, Wachter said the welcome he received when he returned home from the war was “very, very dismal.”
“We wanted to show appreciation to the men and women who have served. This is the best thing we could do as an organization to honor our veterans,” he said. “We wanted to welcome them home, share a day of camaraderie and just get ’em out of the hospital.”
The league offered fishing, archery, horseshoes, music and food to the veterans.
Burch said the gathering was “humbling.”
“This thing shows me that somebody really cares,” he said. “To feel like the things I’ve accomplished in life matter, even if it wasn’t much to some.”
Lee Williams, 63, of Easton, Pa., served in the Vietnam War. Williams said when he returned to the U.S. in 1972, he and other veterans were “cursed at and spat upon.” Unsure how to deal with the devastation and isolation of PTSD, he turned to alcohol and became a loner. Williams has found some hope through treatment, and said he was inspired by the warmth and friendliness of league members at Saturday’s event.
“There’s good food, nice fishing, nice fresh air. People care,” he said. “It makes me feel good inside. I wish it would have happened 40 years ago, you know? This has been a wonderful day.”
Jerome Hill, 28, of Oakland, Calif., who served in the U.S. Army in Iraq and Kuwait, was pleased to catch four fish at the event before shooting a crossbow and playing numerous games of horseshoes with friends.
“It’s a lot of fun out here getting to see nature,” Hill said. “Seeing people that wanna help us out, you know, can make a real huge impact on us. To have people supporting us while we’re going through this therapy.”
Jim Dlhosh, a recreation therapist with the VA Medical Center, said events like Wounded Warrior Day help veterans become reacclimated to social situations and bolsters them emotionally.
“It means the world to them to be thanked for their service. It has such an impact, it’s immeasurable,” Dlhosh said. “It touches them deeply.”