Donald the Veteran


by Karen Helen Szatkowski
used by permission of the Ventura Breeze

Donald Hillburn volunteered for the war being waged in Vietnam. He showed up to fight. The rest of his story there is piled upon the stacks of stories of other Vietnam veterans and their similar dark nightmares. He struggled with substance abuse and teetered on the edge of homelessness upon returning. But this story rises above the many possible bad outcomes of that set of facts because of his own character and self-discipline and the response of Project Understanding along with Section Eight Housing.

To understand Donaldʼs story it is important to know that he grew up in small town America here in Santa Paula. Graduating from Santa Paula High School in 1966 he entered the Army and started a one year training period, consisting mostly of combat engineering. Once completed, he spent the next year of his young life in the jungles of Southeast Asia trying to stay alive.

This is the setting of his introduction to drugs and alcohol tinged with fear that was fully acknowledged if not encouraged by the commanders and officers in the field. The self-medication was cheap and always available with pretty much 100% participation by his comrades as Donald remembers it.

There was no such thing as posttraumatic stress disorder in those years and no serious acceptance in the medical community for its symptoms of nightmares, loss of interest and instability, flashbacks, anger and headaches. The clouds of napalm, the explosions and gunfire left Donald his two biggest handicaps; the nightmares and the inability to develop a rooted existence and they have never subsided. He feels compelled to change jobs and marriages and residences after just a few short years. He did establish himself here upon discharge, off and on, as a mechanic in the oil fields and with other employers.

Donaldʼs grandmother, who raised him, died in 1978 leaving him with few ties to Ventura County. He hitched a ride to Petaluma, in Northern California and settled in for decades, collecting friends and employers. By now he had accomplished a fragile control of the drugs and alcohol as he felt very connected to Petaluma and his life there.

However he still dealt with the same reluctance to commit to a job, a woman or a home. Sometime in 2010 he started having breathing problems, was diagnosed with a serious case of pneumonia and spent two weeks in the hospital. When he got out the breathing did not improve much and he was confined to a portable oxygen tank.

He returned to Ventura in 2012, carrying his tank and mysteriously found that the ocean air relieved his breathing somewhat but not his joblessness and homelessness. Someone recommended Project Understanding and he credits Hank Koozehkanani and other staff there for helping him escape the streets and into a very livable duplex which he can pay for from PTSD disability benefits. He does run low on food occasionally but Donaldʼs is a story of what can be fashioned by the veteran himself, the community and the government in catching a deserving veteran on the way down and providing a soft landing worthy of an American solution for our veterans.