Chip Miller is one of about a dozen military veterans arriving for a group therapy session at the Veterans Center on 3616 South Campbell Avenue in Springfield.
Miller, in his early 70s, is here for camaraderie and professional help in dealing with trauma he experienced as a younger man.
To kick off this week’s Sense of Community series on "Opportunities for Veterans" in our area, we’re looking at the mental health services available for veterans of the armed forces.
“I was in the anti-war movement over at Drury University. I used to meet with some professors over there at night," Miller said.
"I didn’t think it was right. I didn’t think we should be [in Vietnam],” he said.
It was the late late ‘60s.
“Some one at the draft board knew that my number was coming up, so to speak,” he said.
So he joined and was given three months to tie up loose ends, he said.
He went through Basic Training at Ft. Leonard Wood, then onto specialty training learning about small arms fire and weapons.
He’d grown up hunting, familiar with guns, so this suited him.
He landed in Maryland for more training, and came out top of his class, he said.
"So, I thought, ‘Oh, boy. Maybe I can stay here and teach.' Well, that’s not the way the Army works. The top three went to Vietnam, and the others went to Germany,” he said.
Chip Miller was, and is, an optimist. He said he decided to look at his deployment as an adventure—and at least he’d find out what was really happening.
He was assigned to a huge Army base, he said. It had a 21 mile perimeter, fenced-in perimeter and helicopers coming in and out.
He was there about three months before he had, as he describes it, a stroke of good luck. A civil affairs team had an opening. He applied, and before long, he was fixing windmills and learning the Jarai language in a remote, mountainous village with the indigenous ethnic group the French had called the Montagnards.
The US Army needed more grassroots support in the highlands, the mountains, to battle guerilla forces. So Miller was one of many GIs who lived among the Montagnards.
Miller slept in a sleeping bag in a one-room schoolhouse built by French Colonialists.
But he witnessed something one night that would come back to haunt him years later. He says he doesn’t mind talking about it.
"At night, we had Montagyards doing guard duty in bunkers around the fence," he said.
"I went out there and they had shot a mother and father and two children, a little boy and a girl," Miller recalls.
They had tried to warn the locals, he said, that anyone walking outside the village perimeter after dark could be mistaken for guerilla enemy fighters, and potentially shot.
But this family had been from a different village.
Miller said he lived with the imagery and the guilt of that for decades. He never said anything to his superiors. He began drinking about 8 strong beers each day, starting in the morning. And his behavior became unstable.
"I would go to the playground over right next to our house," he said. "I would go over there and get up on some of the things kids could crawl on and just hide, cry, and think about things."
On another occasion, he stripped all of his clothes off and ran down a country highway.
Each time, his wife came to find and console him.
Eventually, he tried to take his own life.
"What we want to do is put a helping hand out there in any way, shape, or form, to give people hope," said Rob Freeman, who works at the Veterans Center on South Campbell in Springfield.
There are four counselors working here, and they use a variety of approaches, including EMDR, metronome counseling, and group therapy. The counseling is provided free of charge to veterans and their family members.
"They do everything from anger management to family marriage counseling. So, depression, suicide ideation, military sexual trauma," Freeman said.
The center also provides grief counseling. And if someone has more serious needs, the counselors here can refer them to a VA Clinic in Branson or Mt. Vernon.
The Veteran Center is open from 8:00 AM – 4:30 PM Monday through Friday and the address is 3616 S. Campbell Avenue in Springfield. The phone number is (417) 881-4197. Veterans need to bring a copy of their DD-214 to seek services.