DUBLIN, GA (WALB) - With information from the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center-
Florida native Gus Allbritton was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1969, and Uncle Sam shipped him out to Southeast Asia, where the Vietnam war was raging.
"I was scared to death!" Allbritton laughed during a recent interview. "I didn't know where Vietnam was or what to expect, I just knew that the Army told me to go and I went."
Allbritton served in the Army until 1971, and along the way, received three Purple Hearts, a Combat Infantry Badge, Vietnam Cross of Gallantry, Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal, and a National defense Ribbon.
He returned to Florida, and tried to put the war behind him. He became a deputy sheriff and court bailiff, a bail bondsman and bounty hunter, and even earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Florida.
Be he carried emotional baggage from his combat experiences in Vietnam, and realized they couldn't be ignored forever.
"A lot of times I couldn't sleep. Memories would come flooding in and I would find myself reliving things that I had never wanted to think about again. I wanted to get back to the business of living a regular life, but I was having trouble doing it," Allbritton said.
Then he did something that he never thought he would-- he went to the VA.
"I didn't know much about the VA but what I knew wasn't good. I heard all of the horror stories and decided right out of the service that I didn't want to go to the VA for help."
What Allbritton did not know at the time was that he was suffering with something that was not going to go away and that was adversely affecting his efforts to resume civilian life. It was only after visiting the VA that he learned about post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
"I had heard of shellshock and knew a little about what it meant," Allbritton said, "but I didn't really understand the extent of what the condition could do to a person's life. I had never heard of PTSD or what the VA could do to help but I finally went to my local VA and found out about it, which was one of the smartest decisions I ever made. It saved my life."
After going to the VA and getting counseling and attending classes that taught coping skills and educated him about PTSD, Allbritton went from barely making it through the day in some cases to getting back into the social mainstream. Before he realized it, he was interacting with the VA in ways that he could never have imagined.
"I went from being reluctant to being treated at the VA to joining the team as a volunteer. If someone had told me when I got back from Vietnam that I would spend a large part of my life volunteering with the VA, I might have said something crude and would have at least told them that they were greatly mistaken," Allbritton says with a smile. "Man, was I wrong.
Allbritton started volunteering with the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center in Dublin in 1991 after then-medical center director Bill Edgar asked him to assist in finding other veterans needing help with PTSD.
He joined the Combat Veterans Group, a PTSD support group, and has never looked back. "I started volunteering with the VA because I realized that it could do for my fellow veterans what it had done for me and I wanted to be a part of helping them realize what was available to them. For me, it was a way of continuing to serve," Allbritton said.
Allbritton serves on 17 committees and work groups, and is often sought out by VA management and staff for his opinion about how the VA is doing and how it can do better. He currently has over 20,000 hours as a volunteer with VA.
It has been a long time since the young Army veteran left Vietnam and combat behind to try to get back to the business of living only to encounter difficulties that he could not have anticipated, but the way Allbritton sees it, things could not have worked out better.
"I came back looking for one life and ended up finding another. Volunteering has become a way of life for me. If I'm not volunteering with VA, I'm working with my church. I see volunteering as a ministry for me. Not only does volunteering with VA allow me to give back to my fellow veterans, it helps me to feel like I'm still serving my country," Allbritton said.
"Service is my life, and what I do at VA allows me to serve my country, my community, and my fellow veterans. Looking back on my time in Vietnam, I now see very clearly what I was fighting for. I ended up having a good life after all."