For years, Greg Doering wanted nothing to do with Veterans Day.
He shunned parades, ceremonies and appreciation of his service. They brought back painful memories.
But in 2004, he put a sticker on his truck acknowledging he was a Marine combat veteran. It was a gift from an old buddy from Vietnam who knew Doering suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. His friend felt he deserved recognition.
But Doering, 71, of Clinton, was conflicted. Half of him was proud of the distinction he’d earned. But the other half was deeply troubled by his experiences in Vietnam, in 1968 and 1969, and what happened when he returned home.
Until recently, he’d shared his combat experiences with only a few. He’d told even fewer of what happened next: He said he was sexually assaulted by care providers in the psychiatric ward at Camp Pendleton in California.
Years of therapy, counseling and writing have helped Doering find some peace. It’s his struggle between honor and indignity.
“Over the years, the layer of trauma has been peeled away,” he said. “I have learned to let go of the bitterness as much as possible. I knew I was injured, but not broken.”
Doering joined the Marines in December 1967. He felt duty-bound to do his part — his father was a World War II veteran.
Enlisting also served as an escape from a shaky home life. His parents were alcoholics. His father, who suffered mental breakdowns triggered by war memories, killed himself when Greg was 15. His mother was emotionally and physically abusive.
The Marines offered stability.
“I loved the Marine Corps in the sense of discipline, order and boundaries,” he said. “And if I was going to die in Vietnam, I always appreciated the fact that they never left their dead behind.”
Doering was assigned to be a truck driver, but the Tet Offensive of 1968 — a massive surprise attack on American forces — put him on the front lines as an assistant mortar gunner.
He was sent to the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Vietnam, called the DMZ for short. Marines grimly joked that it stood for “Dead Marine Zone.”
Doering hauled water, rations and mail to the combat bases of Ca Lu and Vandegrift. It was a fun job at times. He has a picture of himself grinning widely at the driver’s seat of a Mule, a small utility truck.
But danger was constant out in the bush. Doering, whose job was to carry mortars on his back, helped search the jungle for the North Vietnamese Army.
But the enemy found them. Doering’s company suffered heavy casualties in an ambush at a place called Hill 512.
Doering, under fire for the first time, was ordered to take the wounded to helicopters. He slipped as he helped carry a wounded corpsman, causing the man to scream in agony.
The violence and chaos had a profound impact on him.
“The emotional intensity, the chaos … I was changed after that,” he said. “I have a picture of myself leaving Hill 512 and the look on my face says it all. The energetic, fun-loving jokester was gone. The reality was too much.”
The next six months were more of the same: one miserable, hot and violent day after the next. Then Doering was transferred to a motor pool to complete his 13-month tour.
The damage was done. Combat had drained his spirit and made him short-tempered and paranoid. He sought refuge in booze and marijuana.
Already running on four days without sleep, he partied hard the night before his flight home. It all caught up to him on the plane over the Pacific Ocean. He was a mess.
“I knew I was acting weird,” Doering said. “I (had) a sense they were assigning people to shepherd me on the plane. In clinical terms today, I had severe PTSD.”
When his plane landed at a Marine base in Southern California, he asked to be sent somewhere quiet so he could rest.
Doering was taken to Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton. He said he was given a couple of red pills, and he passed out.
The next morning, Doering awoke feeling refreshed. He asked a corpsman for his uniform so he could leave. But he was told he needed special authorization.
That’s when Doering noticed grates on the bulletproof windows and heavy mesh wire around the nursing station. He was in a psych ward.
His nightmare then got much worse. Doering said he was assaulted by corpsmen with a tool used to insert suppositories into coma patients. A shocked Doering disassociated from the attack. He was lucid enough to hear a doctor storm in and stop the madness.
He woke the following morning, freshly bathed and wearing new pajamas. But his nightmare continued. Doering said he was threatened with further abuse if he refused to take antipsychotic drugs. He said he was labeled a schizophrenic.
Three months and three hospitals later, he received a medical honorable discharge as a lance corporal.
Doering, deeply scarred by the ordeal, later described it in a 89,000-word manuscript. But he never pursued legal action.
“I was never able to get over the embarrassment of feeling like a failure as a Marine,” he said. “The label of schizophrenia exacerbated the feeling that I had no grounds or credibility. It was so haunting to work through that, I could not see the point in dragging myself and family through something I did not understand.”
The following year after his discharge was a blur.
“I came back home and I was 70 years old, mentally,” he said. “I had to deal with things that people didn’t have to deal with. You were old before your time.”
Doering qualified for a 100% disability rating from the Veterans Administration, and earned an associate degree at Seattle Community College in 1972. He blended in with the anti-war movement, growing his hair long and denying his service. He started a family and began a career as a dental lab technician.
But he was haunted by his past. He was prone to outbursts and resented authority. He divorced, lost his business and was fired from three jobs. Then, in 1983, he met his soon-to-be second wife, Carol. They married in 1984, and with her support, he confronted his Vietnam experiences. He volunteered with a program that helped veterans and was counseled to address his PTSD.
Still, the war wouldn’t let go. Though he was never violent, Carol recognized when he was struggling.
“There are some people who lash out, but Greg goes inward,” she said. “He beats himself up and gets into a quiet, depressive state. He would act on his behaviors by overspending, overdrinking and overeating.”
By 1998, his struggles had reached a tipping point. He needed help.
His savior was Arlington resident Harold “Doc Woody” Woodruff, who served as a Navy corpsman in Vietnam.
Doc Woody was a hero among local veterans. He was a social worker in Everett who specialized in outreach for homeless Vietnam vets.
Woodruff was the first person Doering told about his experiences at Camp Pendleton. Doc Woody said he was ashamed of his fellow corpsmen.
Woodruff connected Doering to another counselor, putting Greg back on the road to recovery. Doering opened up about his trauma with counselors and other Vietnam veterans.
“My trauma was severe, deep and horrendous, but I did stick with a system that helped me up and lifted me out of it,” he said. “And thank god for my wife. If anybody deserves a medal, it’s her for what we’ve been through in 35 years.”
Doc Woody died in 2004 at age 58 from Agent Orange-related health problems. Before his death, he gave Doering a Combat Action Ribbon sticker to put on his truck.
But it didn’t bring him pride — at least, not yet.
He was appreciative when strangers thanked him for his service. But deep down, it still hurt.
Instead of “Happy Veterans Day,” he suggests people ask, “Are you at peace?”
Doering has wondered that about himself. Just the other day, a woman thanked him for his service.
She told him how painful it was for her as a girl to see what was happening with the war. That would’ve turned his stomach into knots not long ago, but not this time.
His journey to recovery has come a long way.
“I’m at peace enough with the experience to accept any expression people want to offer.”
Evan Thompson: 425-339-3427, firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ByEvanThompson.