Dale Johansen was a carefree Underwood farm boy when he joined the Army in 1963, but he changed after a tour of duty in Vietnam.
A short temper, jumpy nature and hyper vigilance continue to be some of the traits he experiences with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The condition, the result of his war experiences, has not only affected him, but also his wife, Betty, and their two sons. The family says they are lucky.
When Dale Johansen returned home after three years serving in Vietnam, he was a changed man. He and his wife Betty, talk about their journey in the years following his return home and how Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) affected Dale, his family and their friendships. The two now volunteer with Project New Hope to help veterans and their families cope with PTSD. Photo by Carol Stender
Dale, through the Veterans Administration, was diagnosed with PTSD. They have received counseling and caregiver supports and have mended relationships. Other families have not been as fortunate. They have faced divorce or suicide.
As a result of their experiences, the Johansens are determined to help other families. They are active volunteers in Project New Hope, a military family retreat, sponsored through the Minnesota Lions Foundation, where the entire family is offered counseling, support and activities.
“If we can keep a family from going through what our family went through, we will do it,” Betty said.
Project New Hope got its start in 2007 when the Lions discussed supporting the military. As he put it, Dale, then a district secretary, “shot his mouth off” about the need to support veterans. He was named to a committee, and the project was created.
A year later, Dale told his story with PTSD to Lions groups and support for Project New Hope grew.
Dale’s struggles started when his deployment ended. He’d enlisted at 19 in an effort to avoid the draft. He was one of four individuals who’d all signed up on the same day.
“I wanted to join the Army and to fly,” he said. “I thought that would be better than wading through the mud.”
He became part of a helicopter recovery crew and saw plenty of action. When his tour ended, he was stationed on the East Coast.
“I knew there was something wrong with me, but I didn’t know what,” he said. “I knew that I couldn’t go back home and marry someone there. They would know I was different.”
He was stationed in New York one summer on temporary duty when he met Betty. He was entertaining and had a great sense of humor, she recalled.
For two years they had a long-distance relationship before they married.
He attended school in Tulsa with other veterans.
“They seemed to have a brotherhood,” Betty said. “About 90 percent of the students were vets. He worked full time and went to school full time. He partied with alcohol and fellow vets on the weekends. One vet was constantly drunk, possibly killing memories or ghosts. Another vet just up and left one young daughter and a wife. About 38 percent of vets married before Vietnam divorced within six months of returning. I do not recall seeing any in their uniforms. There was no pride, only shame. No welcome home for these guys.”
The couple moved to Minneapolis where Dale worked for Northwest Airlines. They didn’t make many new friends, but Dale’s friends were all veterans, she said.
When Dale became unemployed, they moved to Underwood.
“We experienced his desire to return to ‘Nam because of his unemployment,” she said. “Today we hear this is quite common to have a desire to return for unfinished business, the brotherhood or for whatever reason.”
Dale experienced nightmares and flashbacks. His anger escalated about the workplace.
“When the boys were very young, their crying or their bickering between each other caused him to be irritated. We walked on eggshells because we did not know about triggers and then things would explode again. He was controlling and angry. He was fired from his job. I felt very isolated and lonely. There was no one to talk to.”
Betty turned to her faith. She took pride in the children and their activities, and she loved her job.
Then, 15 years ago, their lives changed. Their oldest son asked them all to attend a Vietnam exhibit at the Fargo Air Museum. It’s where they met their angel. At least that’s how Betty put it. The “angel’ was a social worker who worked with PTSD. She talked about the feelings PTSD provokes. Here was someone who understood what Dale was experiencing as well as the family.
“A huge weight was lifted from my shoulders,” Betty said. “It wasn’t me. It was this horrible disease called PTSD. This angel got him into group therapy and me into an occasional group for spouses. This has made a world of difference.”
Through the experience, they have the care they need, from medications and counseling to support groups.
“My husband and I attend every seminar or workshop that we possibly can on the subject of PTSD,” she said. “Knowledge helps to understand as much as possible because I have never experienced military combat.”
Project New Hope is open to all veterans and their families, they said. Volunteers staff the retreat, which got its start in central Minnesota. The retreat is free, and all meals are provided. The objective is to be a low-key retreat and to offer assistance as requested by the family.
Counselors are available all the time throughout the retreat. Sessions may include communications, anger management, relaxation and stress reduction, a self-care tool box, sleep solutions and problem solving.
There’s a need for retreat, the couple said, adding that the suicide rates for vets aged 20 to 24 are four times greater than that of civilians. About 25 percent of all homeless are combat veterans.
Even if the veteran doesn’t attend, family members can take part in the retreat, they said. One woman who attended the sessions told the couple she now understood what her ex-husband went through following his service.
It is a retreat for the whole family with childcare provided, Betty said.
“We help the veteran and their family adjust to the world because their world has changed,” Dale said. “They may not have a family anymore when they come back. They might not have a job. It’s not always their fault.”
The couple has seen some veterans not attend group sessions at one retreat then return during the next event and attend everything.
“If we can prevent a family from going through what PTSD has done to our family, I will be very happy,” Betty said. “We still cope with anger, startle response, overreaction, vigilance and forgetfulness, but I now know it is not me. We are in this together.”
The retreats are held at several area camps including Inspiration Point Camp in Clitheral; Ironwood Springs in Stewartville; Camp Friendship in Annandale; Camp Eden Wood in Eden Prairie; Camp New Hope in McGregor; Camp Courage at Maple Lake; Camp Courage North at Lake George; and Camp Vanasek at Brainerd.