Local veteran’s return home not an easy one
Recorder/Paul Franz Veteran J.D. McCaughey of Greenfield is a Greenfield Community College student. Purchase photo reprints »
Editor’s Note: This is the first in an occasional series of stories about the homecoming experiences of local war veterans.
GREENFIELD — When John David McCaughey returned from his deployment to Panama in April 1990, he was handed a business card with the name of a preacher on it and told to get some rest.
“There was no debriefing,” he said. “There was no psychological help. We were just sent on our way.”
He said depression, anger, stress and excessive drinking got the best of him.
McCaughey, who is known as “JD” to his friends and family, was still in high school when he made the decision to join the U.S. Army, because his grades were bad and his life was headed in the wrong direction.
“I was smart enough to see that my life wasn’t going well and I needed a change,” said McCaughey. “I didn’t come from an affluent, rich family, so going into the Army, I thought, would be the quickest way to get training and a job.”
McCaughey, who was born in Holyoke and raised in Ware, signed up to join in February 1987, graduated from Ware High School that May, and in August he was on his way to basic training at Fort McClellan in Alabama.
In December 1989, he was deployed to Panama, where he earned a combat ribbon. He had seen his first firefight on Christmas Eve 1988 in Honduras, but hadn’t been a part of it.
In December of 1989, the United States invaded Panama in what was known as “Operation Just Cause.” The invasion, which occurred during President George H. W. Bush’s administration, happened 10 years after the Torrijos-Carter Treaties were ratified to transfer control of the canal from the United States to Panama by Jan. 1, 2000.
During the invasion, de facto Panamanian leader, general and dictator Manuel Noriega was deposed, president-elect Guillermo Endara was sworn into office, and the Panamanian Defense Force was dissolved.
McCaughey said when he arrived in the southernmost country in Central America, he barely got off the plane when he was issued live ammunition and given a mission to set up a checkpoint on a bridge.
“I knew it was going to be different than what I had experienced to that point,” said McCaughey. “My entire family was stressing, because at that time, there was no way to keep in touch with me, like there is today.”
Even though it was one of the shortest armed conflicts in United States history, McCaughey said it was intense with the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines all participating.
“I didn’t sleep for three days straight,” he said. “I fell asleep leaning against a Humvee one day because I couldn’t keep my eyes open.”
McCaughey did duty in a prisoner of war camp processing center and served as a military police officer.
“I saw what a dictator does to people’s bodies in that POW camp,” he said. “People had been beaten, tortured and starved. It was terrible.”
“On my very last day of duty, I was shot at,” he said.
Returning to the states
McCaughey said by the time he got back to the states, he had repressed many of his memories of his time serving.
He said he spent the next 20 years drinking, getting into fights at work and elsewhere, and dealing — or not dealing, as was the case — with stress and life.
“I had all sorts of medical symptoms,” said McCaughey. “I couldn’t relax or get comfortable anywhere.”
He said he couldn’t keep a job or a relationship.
“I had a fear of loss, so I’d sabotage my relationship or job so that it was my choice, not theirs, when it ended,” he said.
In 2002, he went to the Veterans Administration, asking for help with his alcohol problem, anger outbursts and general unhappiness.
“I would have full-blown rage over silly things,” he said. “I was popular in high school, but that person had disappeared. No one wanted to be near me — even me.”
McCaughey said he didn’t get any help at that point, so he went away, and in 2004 he went back and asked for help again.
“Again they told me there wasn’t much they could do for me,” he said. “In 2006, I pleaded with them, but they did nothing.”
Later that year, when he was working in a nuclear plant, he went to its employee assistance program and started seeing a psychologist.
By that time, he had been divorced twice.
“I had a daughter and son by that time and had lost custody of both of them,” he said. “I never got physically abusive, but would punch inanimate objects and scare people.”
In June 2009, McCaughey said he was living off of his savings with his third wife.
“I started selling vacuum cleaners, but my depression and attitude were so poor, I lost my job,” he said. “My house was foreclosed on and my car was repossessed. I begged, borrowed and stole to get my Jeep back.”
Back to the VA
That December, he decided to try the Veterans Administration one more time.
“I was in the office not more than five minutes when the man who turned my life around told me he could get me help,” said McCaughey, who said he wasn’t sure why the VA had never helped before.
“It didn’t happen right away,” said McCaughey. “I still had a few more problems after that, but I eventually made it to detox at the VA hospital in Leeds and that was the beginning of my healing.”
McCaughey said people don’t always understand the psychological damage done to someone when they’ve been in combat and seen the things he’s seen.
“You can’t see the type of horror that happens to other human beings and not have it affect you,” he said. “The VA Administration is much better than it used to be. Now, it’s ready to help right away. There are all sorts of programs. That wasn’t always the case.”
In 2010, McCaughey took some time off, because he had been officially declared a mentally-disabled veteran. He said it was time to really take care of himself.
“But I needed something to do, so I started thinking about school,” he said.
He checked with the VA to see exactly what types of benefits he was entitled to, and he started looking online for programs he might be interested in.
“I submitted an online application to GCC in 2012,” he said. “When I arrived at the school — I had heard about Veterans Network (VetNet, a student club for veterans) — I went right to the VetNet office.”
McCaughey said VetNet Coordinator Diane O’Hearn and the veterans who volunteer and spend their time there were welcoming and ready to help in any way they could.
He said they helped with everything from choosing classes to talking about how to acclimate to giving him something to do to help other veterans.
McCaughey said starting school so many years after graduation caused him stress, but VetNet helped him slowly adjust.
“It took a couple of weeks to settle down with VetNet’s help,” he said. “I finished that semester with two As for my two classes.”
Today, McCaughey is a member of the Greenfield Community College Student Senate and is president of VetNet.
VetNet does outreach to veterans taking classes at GCC, offers academic advising and success planning to them, and offers transition services. It also coordinates academic, financial, physical and social needs of veteran students.
This past semester, he started working on projects like the RAMP Project, which helps disabled civilians and veterans throughout Franklin County make their homes more accessible. He also became a member of the GCC Student Development Committee.
He most recently became a student trustee, elected by the student body at GCC, and earned four As this past semester.
“I feel like I have a new life,” he said. “I do have a new life because of people who cared about returning veterans. It just took me 20 years to find it.”
“Now, I can help others who are returning from serving their country,” he said. “I eventually want to go into social work and continue on this path. I don’t want servicemen and servicewomen to have to wait as long as I did.”
McCaughey said he plans to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in spring 2015 or 2016 and will then go on to get a master’s degree.
“In less than five years, I could be doing what I want to do,” he said. “Maybe someday I’ll have the opportunity to do for others what others have done for me.”
For more information about VetNet, call 413-775-1882 or visit: www.gcc.mass.edu/veterans.