Veteran returns to Vietnam, spreads hope for PTSD healing
By MIKE TIGHE
May. 12, 2018
LA CROSSE, Wis. (AP) — Bob Steenlage practices what he preaches about keeping a daily log of 10 things for which he is thankful, although some might find it odd that sometimes includes contracting shingles two years ago.
They might find just as puzzling Steenlage's gratitude for the Lyme disease that afflicted him shortly thereafter. As if on a roll, another conundrum is his ability to express gladness about being diagnosed with cancer.
The 77-year-old Steenlage credits the trio of traumas two years ago with helping him tackle head-on the post-traumatic stress he thought he had brought under control since his service in the Vietnam War more than five decades ago.
The circumstances, added to the cajoling of his wife, Bonni, and their children for five years to visit Vietnam in a quest for healing, finally persuaded him to do just that.
The La Crosse Tribune reports that the two-week Southeast Asian pilgrimage that Steenlage and four of his five sons undertook in January has been such a source of healing that he is in demand to speak to veterans groups and the general public about it.
His next such presentation, "Fighting Back: Bob Steenlage's Story of Inspiration and Healing," took place May 10 at 10 a.m. in the Cleary Alumni and Friends Center at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. The title of his talk echoes that of the 2002 book, "Fighting Back: The Inspirational Story of Bob Steenlage," by Mike Chapman of Newton, Iowa.
"I'd never been so mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted" as during his struggle to overcome the three illnesses, Steenlage said in a phone interview.
Steenlage's PTSD put him on a markedly different path from the one he traveled early in life, when the native of Britt, Iowa, became a four-time Hawkeye State high school wrestling champion, competing in divisions on either side of 100 pounds.
That prowess on the mat prompted his recruitment to West Point, where he became captain of the wrestling team, was undefeated in dual meets all four years and was selected to the NCAA Division I All-American Wrestling Team in 1966.
After graduating from the prestigious Airborne and Ranger schools, Steenlage was deployed to Vietnam with the class of 1966, roughly a year after he and Bobbi were married and when she was pregnant with the first of their eight children.
"I lost one-20th of my West Point classmates who were killed there," he said. "One-sixth of my classmates were wounded or maimed, and many of us who returned have PTSD."
Steenlage himself nearly was killed on a special mission shortly after he arrived in Vietnam, and the Viet Cong overran the U.S. forces, he said.
Delivery complications almost killed Bobbi and their firstborn son, Eric, who suffered from a cleft lip and palate so severe that he has endured multiple surgeries, Steenlage said.
Steenlage, a career officer who resigned as a captain at the end of his four years of duty, was a platoon leader and company commander in the 4th Infantry Division in Vietnam, where he also earned a Bronze Star.
After retiring from the Army, he was a high school science and math teacher and wrestling coach for 13 years and was a highly ranked sales and marketing rep for decades, along with being a highly sought-after inspirational speaker.
In 1977, the Steenlages bought a 111-acre farm in Trempealeau County, on the assumption that rural ambiance and living close to nature would make it easier to cope with PTSD, he said.
"I read that plants and animals don't think, so they're in sync with nature," he said. "It's a soothing effect."
Although Steenlage benefited from some of the calming influences, he admits with a laugh, "I never was good at the farming."
The PTSD demon that Steenlage believed he had vanquished remained restless and ready to pounce at the trip of the right trigger, as PTSD sufferers know.
For Steenlage, nightmares were the spark.
"I thought I had PTSD under control, but two years ago, all the disruptions — business, politics, even memories of Vietnam — started bothering me. I started having excessive nightmares," he said.
"When you have nightmares, you need sleep, and you want to sleep, but you're afraid to because you'll have nightmares," he said.
Stress and its weakening of the immune system made Steenlage an easy target for the painful rash of shingles, which took over the right side of his body.
On the 10th day, the shingles rash seemed to move to the left side, an erroneous conclusion disproved when doctors at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Tomah discovered that it was Lyme disease, resulting from a deer tick bite — a downside to living in a rural wooded area for mental healing, he observed wryly.
On the positive side — Steenlage's daily lists of 10 things to be thankful for has the flip side of also chronicling life's negatives in a search for the positives — he said, "If not for the shingles . they wouldn't have found the Lyme disease."
A VA doctor noticed a mark on his forehead that had cancerous potential, but a biopsy determined that it was a basal cell carcinoma easily treated with freezing.
Steenlage was not so lucky with a tiny spot on his cheek, which turned out to be a cancerous melanoma that already had spread to his lymph nodes but was treated successfully.
"The sequence of things was amazing," he said.
Those treating Steenlage at the VA — readjustment counselor Mary Haupt at the La Crosse Vet Center in particular — joined the chorus of the Steenlage family urging the patriarch to seek closure through a journey to Vietnam.
"She is wonderful," Steenlage said.
Along with sons Keith, John, Timothy and Eric, Steenlage traveled to Vietnam, where he was stunned during conversations with a few Viet Cong from his era, but mostly descendants of those who had been combatants, he said.
"I found that they felt if we could have met Viet Cong soldiers on the street instead of in combat, we could have been friends," he said. "They blamed the Vietnamese government, the U.S. government and the Chinese.
"They all had PTSD, too," he said, although their chosen remedy was eons behind that available in the United States.
"There, they just drink strong rice wine," Steenlage said, sounding amazed at the concept.
Those conversations, along with the discovery that the war pitted plain old U.S. citizens against common Vietnamese folks, were turning points for Steenlage.
"I can't even describe how big of a lift that was for me," Steenlage said. "The way they treated us was the opposite of the ugly American."
On the flip side, the fact that Vietnam allows its citizens free access to cellphones and the internet has made them students of U.S. history, he said.
"They can rattle off facts about Abraham Lincoln and Washington," he said. "They said, 'We hate China — they've always been a burden to us. We have no time for Russia, either.'"
During Steenlage's speaking tour, which the VA has encouraged to present his story of hope to veterans, he said has found many people who inspire him as much as he seeks to offer solace.
He cited the example of an Iowa man who had been born blind, and Steenlage approached him after the talk.
"I leaned over to the guy, and he grabbed me by the back of the neck and pulled me down," Steenlage recalled. "He said most people who are not blind don't know what it's like. After he had heard what some veterans cope with, he was inspired, because he said he's not alone."
Even as Steenlage delivers his remedial message, the benefits boomerang toward him, he said, adding, "The more I am in a giving mode, I can stay on the right side of PTSD, the better off I am.
Steenlage strives to impart "two absolutes" in his presentations.
One is his recommendation that, at the end of the day, people write down 10 things they are thankful for, along with 10 things that aren't going so well in their lives — in a quest to make them better.
"I never would have thought I would be thankful for shingles, but I am," he said. "And I am thankful for having Lyme disease.
"I challenge anybody to be thankful," Steenlage said. "It will change their life."
The second challenge is to be kind, regardless of a situation, said Steenlage, who added that he is the type of guy who will step in when he sees instances of bullying.
"So many times, kindness has pulled me through," he said. "How people treat you is huge."
Information from: La Crosse Tribune, http://www.lacrossetribune.com