Patrick Welch met his wife on a blind date on January 21, 1969, three years after he returned to Buffalo from Vietnam.
Welch, who served in the Marine Corps, saw warfare for six months before an injury in combat left him immobile for two years.
“Fourteen months of those two years I never got out of bed — I was either in a body spica cast, which is plaster all the way down from your armpits to your feet or I was in traction, which immobilized my body,” Welch said. “I laid there and got Demerol and beer.”
It was during this time the Purple Heart, that he wears daily, was given to him.
His physical wounds healed, but the mental wounds Welch sustained before and during Vietnam didn’t heal. Welch, like nearly 30 percent of Vietnam veterans, had PTSD, according to the National Center for PTSD by the U.S. Department of Veteran Services.
“It took me almost 20 years to acknowledge that I had a mental health issue — for all of those years I self-medicated and Doctor Jack Daniels was my counselor,” Welch said. “Every night Doctor Jack Daniels told me I was just fine, it was everyone else out there that had the mental health problems, not me.”
When Welch curtailed his drinking, he realized he needed help.
“It was about time for me to go in and seek some counseling to address the issues — not only from before I went into the Marine Corps but all of the traumatic experiences in the war zone,” he said.
As a teenager, Welch experienced a series of loved ones dying close to each other.
“I had about five experiences of PTSD before I ever got into the Marine Corps,” Welch said. “When I was 15 years old, my father drowned while we were scuba diving — that was my first exposure to PTSD.”
Six months later, three of Welch’s grandparents and one of his aunts died in his arms. The deaths were within one month of each other.
“That exasperated my PTSD, and I was a 15-year-old kid screaming for help,” he said.
But there wasn’t a word or common understanding of what Welch was enduring during his youth.
PTSD didn’t become an official diagnosis until the 1980s, after the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the guidebook for mental health diagnosis, in its third edition.
“The more I screamed for help, the more they punished me and the more they punished me, the more I acted out. PTSD didn’t exist back then and certainly, in the civilian world, nobody acknowledged that people had mental health issues. So they just labeled me as a problem child and punished me,” said Welch.
He was expelled before he finished high school.
“The school principal escorted me to the door one day and told me to get out, that I would never ever amount to a piece of crap and I was just a lost kid looking for help,” he said.
On his 17th birthday, Welch’s mother signed his enlistment papers. He was sent off to camp shortly after.
It was during his training that the idea of expressing pain was weakness was instilled in Welch, with the Marine Corps motto “Pain is weakness leaving the body” saturating his thoughts.
When Welch was medically discharged from the Marines he spent a year in the Naval Hospital in St. Albans followed by a year in the VA hospital in Buffalo.
“My introduction to VA health care in September of 1966 was not very good. It had a profound impact on how I viewed Veteran’s Administration,” he said.
That experience was the catalyst for Welch’s decades' long advocacy.
“That’s when I became an advocate for veterans because I received what I viewed as extremely poor treatment when I arrived in the hospital, and my sense was that if I was being treated that way so were a lot of my other fellow veterans that were going to be coming home,” he said.
“When we came back from Vietnam, we said it was all of those things and we need to talk about it and we need to come up with a methodology to help people who incur that malady.”
But Vietnam veterans like Welch felt isolated from their community, and even other vets.
“We had nowhere to go to talk to fellow veterans. We formed our own national service organization — Vietnam Veterans of America,” he said.
It was there that Welch found a home and worked his way up, advocating for better treatment from the local chapter president to serving on the national board while balancing another job, raising children and a marriage.
Since he has returned to Buffalo, Welch has volunteered, advocated or supported other veterans, many of whom struggle with PTSD as well.
While the number of veterans who have PTSD varies on the war they served in, The National Center for PTSD by the U.S. Department of Veteran Services estimates that between 11 to 20 percent of veterans who served in Iraq’s Operations Iraqi Freedom and Afghanistan’s Enduring Freedom have PTSD in a given year.
The center also estimates the 12 percent of veterans who served in the Gulf War have PTSD in a given year.
He mentors other veterans who struggle with mental health at the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court, an innovative program aimed at offering an alternative path for veterans who have entered the criminal justice program.
Welch admits his PTSD vocally at lectures and in the public.
“I admit straight away that I have PTSD and it doesn’t mean that I lived an abnormal life. I’ve lived a very successful — personal and professional — life and so can other people,” Welch said. “In fact, most people do lead very, very good lives with mental health issues.”
In their 51 years of marriage, they’ve seen the birth of their four children and five grandchildren.
Welch, now in his late 70s, spends his days dotting on two Pomeranians, Phoebe, 10, and Charger, 9, with his wife.
“We’re not broken people,” Welch said. “War doesn’t break us, war changes us.”
If you are a service member or veteran in crisis, or if you are concerned about one, call 1-800-273-8255. To learn more about PTSD and veterans, click here.