It was four long decades ago, but the stigma that followed Vietnam War veteran Lindsay Peterson upon his return home is as vivid as yesterday.
The shunning he experienced is something the Clinton native said he’ll always remember, even though he wishes he could forget. For Peterson, the healing still continues 43 years later, but has been eased somewhat through the assistance he recently provided to a group of soldiers who themselves are in the midst of coping after service abroad.
This summer, with the help of the City of Clinton, Peterson donated time, equipment and academic materials to teach two SCUBA courses for wounded warriors, troops from the Warrior Transition Battalion (WTB) at Fort Bragg. With vans at its disposal, but little money in the budget, the WTB jumped at the use of the Clinton Recreation Department pool rather than one at Fort Bragg because the soldiers could utilize the rec pool when it was closed.
“They were more than happy to come over here,” Peterson noted, “because any pool we would’ve used at Fort Bragg would have been on a shared basis.”
Eight soldiers and the WTB coordinator Capt. Amanda Miller took the course following open-water training at Fantasy Lake SCUBA Park, north of Raleigh. The course was held at Royal Lane and the Rec Department was “very gracious” to allow it, as they have been with Boy Scout programs initiated by Peterson, he noted. Similarly, the Clinton Fire Department filled air tanks for free for the dives.
Peterson reached out to Miller at the beginning of 2015 with the idea of holding a SCUBA program.
“I thought this was a phenomenal idea,” Miller said. “We have no budget and he said he could get everything we need. We really want to thank him as well as the City of Clinton for everything they did for the soldiers. The soldiers really enjoyed the program. Now they have a lifetime certification. It meant a great deal to them and to the Warrior Transition Battalion.”
In existence since 2007, the WTB’s goal is to provide competent and compassionate leadership “through command and control, complex case management, comprehensive transition planning and primary care” in a safe environment that promotes the optimum healing for the wounded, ill or injured soldier so they can return to the force or transition to civilian life as a productive veteran.
“Warrior Transition Battalions were created to take care of not just the medical needs of soldiers, but the emotional needs, mental needs and setting up for success as a veteran once they transition from the service,” said Miller, who has worked at the WTB for two years. “It is the most rewarding job I’ve ever had in my entire life. I get to work with the soldiers to do different sports and activities — everything from Crossfit to cooking — really anything the soldier has an interest in to help with their healing, physically, emotionally and mentally.”
Being able to be a part of that process of lending a helping hand to young soldiers meant a great deal to Peterson.
“Our service people deserve a lot of credit — there’s a lot being done and more should be done for them — and I felt the need to do something,” he said.
In 1969, Peterson went on active duty for a four-year commitment, ultimately serving 33 months in Southeast Asia. When he came back to the States, he spent his last year in Fort Lee, Va.
“I was kind of insulated from what a lot of the ill feelings were (about the war), I guess. In October of 1972, I put on my uniform and came home for homecoming at church and was absolutely amazed by the number of people who walked right by me — people who not only didn’t speak to me but wouldn’t look me in the eye,” he recalled. “I’ve never forgotten that. It hurt. It really hurt.”
It’s a feeling many Vietnam-era veteran carry with them today.
“I told (the soldiers) when I started working with them how lucky they were to have people come up to them and thank them for their service and tell them what it means,” Peterson said.
Times have changed and people now thank Peterson for his service to his country. When he uses his Lowe’s card to get a discount, the cashier might share their gratitude. It means the world, he said.
“You can’t imagine how good it feels,” said Peterson. “So this process of teaching this course was as much a healing process for me as it was for these fellas.”
He praised Miller for the job she did lining everything up. Miller reciprocated, noting Peterson’s diligence in getting everything donated. His instructor organization donated the academic materials and the certification materials, which alone cost about $160 an individual.
“We cannot thank you enough,” Miller said to Peterson, who was recognized along with City of Clinton officials at a recent City Council meeting. “We really appreciate all your time and everything you did to set this up. I can’t tell you how much it meant to those soldiers.”
On behalf of the commander and sergeant major of the WTB, Miller presented framed certificates to Peterson, Clinton Fire Chief Scott Phillips and Clinton Recreation Director Jonathan Allen for their “outstanding dedication and service” to the Fort Bragg WTB in organizing the WTB SCUBA Certification Program.
Their efforts made an immense impact on the soldiers’ well-being and quality of life, Miller said.
“We gratefully acknowledge your devotion and sacrifice to our wounded, ill and injured soldiers,” Miller said, reading the inscription on one of the certificates. “Your support is in keeping with the finest military traditions, and reflects great credit upon the City of Clinton.”
The certificate noted the appreciation of the Warrior Transition Battalion, Womack Army Medical Center and the United States Army as a whole. Peterson said he was thankful for being part of the experience, one the city helped to bring to fruition.
“I can’t tell you how much I got out of this,” he said. “I probably got more out of it than they did.”
Reach staff writer Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.