At 18-years-old, Steve Barrett joined the army and volunteered to go to Vietnam. While Steve’s friends back home were going to drive-in movies and out on dates, he was fighting for his life and those of his buddies in Vietnam. “It taught me, don’t sweat the small stuff because there may not be a tomorrow.”
Steve Barrett has lived in Decatur most of his life. He attended the same schools as his father, Winnona Park Elementary and Decatur High. In 1965, when Steve was 18-years-old, he joined the army and volunteered to go to Vietnam. “My father was a colonel. He taught me that if you were a soldier you do what soldiers do. You go to where the action is. That was just ingrained in me.”
While Steve’s friends back home were going to drive-in movies and out on dates, he was fighting for his life and those of his buddies in Vietnam. “It taught me, don’t sweat the small stuff because there may not be a tomorrow. I had many buddies die and it taught me at age 19 that your life may not exist a moment from now.”
Despite experiencing the horrors of war, nothing prepared Steve for the trauma that he experienced upon his homecoming in 1967. “When I got to the Seattle airport I was met with name-calling (‘baby killers’), protesters, and a society that wanted to disassociate itself from the military establishment. We were treated as if we had a communicable disease. It was the biggest shock of my life. Vietnam veterans quickly learned to ‘shut down’ and not talk about their experiences, even with each other. It was our form of survival, yet, this ‘shutdown’ tended to exacerbate whatever emotional problems we had developed in Vietnam. “
After returning from Vietnam, Steve silently suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Despite the nightmares and anger he completed his college education with a Masters degree in Social Work. He went on to have a career in the Air Force as a clinical social worker and later at Emory University, Grady Hospital and finally at the Atlanta VA Medical Center where he facilitated PTSD groups for Vietnam combat veterans. Yet, Steve was still unable to talk about his own experience.
“It wasn’t until 1999, when a friend gave me a Vietnam Veteran hat, that I realized I had done nothing wrong by volunteering to go to Vietnam in 1965. It was my reaction to the ‘homecoming’ which had generated my feelings of shame and guilt for serving in the military, not my service. In 2008 I took the big step and walked in my first Fourth of July parade. It was truly a heartwarming, goose-bump and teary-eyed experience. Hearing crowds of people yell ‘Welcome Home’ is an experience that cannot be described in words.”
Steve retired from the VA in 2015. “I take tai chi and yoga and spend a lot of time with my dog Annie. I travel with my wife and dog. Just trying to stay happy.”