He was 26 and back from Vietnam, his body riddled with gunshot wounds, his leg pierced by shrapnel from a grenade. On the surface, it appeared Don Elverd had survived. He even had the three Purple Hearts and the disability check to prove it.
But as he sat in the bar, night after night, a man haunted by the friends he saw killed and by the things he did, he knew the war was still going on inside of him.
In fact, it was the perfect mix for an alcoholic: “I was young, I had no responsibilities, I had a regular check from the government and I had enormous rage,” Elverd said.
By then, Elverd had already been in and out of detox. He’d had three seizures due to excessive drinking. Several attempts at sobriety failed. He was stuck.
The owner of his favorite bar had the photos of all the local young people killed in service on the walls. One of them happened to be Elverd’s good friend Rex Young, who died during one of the many firefights they engaged in as part of the 25th Infantry Division.
“I sat there and drank, with him looking at me every night,” said Elverd. “I don’t know if I was drunk or delusional, but he [the photo] said to me: You got to come home. We didn’t get to come home. The enemy didn’t kill you, but you are killing yourself.”
That was it. Elverd checked into Hazelden addiction treatment center in Minnesota. That was more than 39 years ago. In the years since, Elverd got a master’s degree in psychology and began helping military members with addictions. Hazelden sent him to get his doctorate, with a focus on people who have experienced trauma, such as police officers and emergency room workers with drug or alcohol problems.
“I didn’t volunteer for this,” Elverd said. “I was drafted.”
Elverd knows now that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, which they simply called “readjustment issues” when he got out of the service. He had the nightmares, the fears, the unbridled anger and resentment. He didn’t feel like he fit into society, and he now sees himself in the young men and women who come to the meetings and retreats that he holds for veterans.
“The situations are all different, the uniforms are different, the acronyms and weapons are different, but the issues are all the same,” Elverd said. “Sometimes people did things that they feel very badly about. They were called to do things that most citizens don’t have to do.”
Many vets have a hard time with traditional AA meetings, where they sit next to people with very different stories behind their addictions. “They say, I can’t relate to these people, they’re all whiners,” said Elverd. “They haven’t been through the same things, I can’t tell them my story.”
When Elverd has a retreat, though, he hears the stories and he can see the others in the group nodding their heads. “I tried to take away their last excuse not to go to treatment,” he said.
Elverd still meets with his own group of vets, many who are wounded physically or mentally, to keep himself grounded. Together 32 years, they call themselves the “Dented Helmets Group.”
“I take off my Hazelden hat and my psychologist’s hat and I’m just one of the knotheads,” Elverd said.
Elverd, 69, now lives alone on a small horse farm outside of River Falls, Wis. It’s filled with photos, medals, and memorabilia from Thailand, where he recently bought a house. When he hosted his buddies from the 25th Infantry, they couldn’t help but notice he chose a place with good cover and sightlines to the perimeter.
“It’s quiet and peaceful and people just leave me alone,” Elverd said. When hunters come through his woods with guns, he shoos them off, but he doesn’t tell them why.
“I’m good with my war and proud of my service,” Elverd said. “On the battlefield you see the ultimate acts of sadism, cruelty and inhumanity, but you also see these amazing acts of graciousness and selflessness. I get to choose the ones I see now.”
Elverd still has a photo of the friend who spoke to him from the grave. It’s in his office at Hazelden, along with the photo of another friend from his unit.
“These guys are looking down on my shoulder right now, to see if I’m still looking after the troops,” he said. “I believe we define ourselves by getting in a circle and telling our stories. [Addicted vets] often ban themselves from those circles. Brothers, I want you back in the circle, I want your stories.”