GRAY — Glen Lowe served in the Vietnam War for 18 months. Then he returned to the United States and spent three decades isolated from the world.

He was on guard, distrusting of anyone other than his family. He avoided anyone who could do him harm, which he believed amounted to most people.

But this month, for the first time that he can remember, Lowe spent five days with a group of people he didn’t know and shared with them a part of himself that had been mostly shut away.

He joined a group of disabled veterans and hunting guides who came together on May 6 to hunt wild turkey, as part of the Veterans Adaptive Sports and Training program at Pineland Farms.

Thanks to the outdoor program, a few encouraging doctors and therapists, and his own willingness to learn to trust again, Lowe felt for the first time in 35 years what it means to laugh with strangers, as he watched with a hunting guide he didn’t know a wild bird parade around and come in to a call.

“I don’t know how to put a value on it, as far as the self-esteem it’s given me. The camaraderie is a big deal. So many years spent isolated from people, this helps a lot,” said Lowe, 66. “The (bad) thoughts are not all gone. I still pull back sometimes. It’s easy to do. (Post-traumatic stress disorder) is always there. I feel safe pulling back. But now I have a choice.”

• • • • •

Lowe entered the military at age 19 after growing up in Washington County. The armed services afforded an exit from one of the poorest counties in the nation. The sense of service also called to him, he said, and his family supported him in the decision to enlist.

He served in the Air Force in Vietnam, and was stationed in Laos, where he flew different missions along the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail. He was the sergeant of a unit made up of 14 men who all specialized in one aspect of their aircraft’s mission.

“I was responsible for landing gear and flight control,” Lowe said. “We flew missions on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. What we were doing was making rain during the dry season, with silver nitrate mixture. It turned the dirt in the dry season to mud, the worst mud you ever saw. We flew reconnaissance missions, to follow troop movement. We reported anything we spotted. But mostly we hampered North Vietnam from using the trail, to cut off their supplies to their troops.”

When his first tour was complete, he received an honorable discharge. He returned to the United States on May 13, 1970, and began the work of re-entering society.

“The whole thing about coming back to the States and the reception in San Francisco and feeling like I was a step behind everyone, it was hard. People were spitting on us. I never really caught up as far as feeling like I fit in. It’s been a difficult adjustment,” Lowe said. “I isolated for years. I shut everyone out. I was still living by survival skills. I didn’t know how to enjoy anything, so I was not living. I was just surviving.”

He first went to community college in North Carolina and earned an associate degree in automotive mechanics. Then he came back to Maine in 1974 to try to start building a life. He got as far as Freeport, bought land, built a log cabin and an automotive shop next to it.

The house he fashioned “into a bunker,” so he could watch anyone who approached it.

He started a family and raised two children, a son and daughter, whom he sent to private schools – Catherine McCauley and Cheverus high schools in Portland – so they could have more opportunities than he had growing up. Both children went on to graduate from college, a point of pride for Lowe. His children were his only concern.

“I worked overtime at being a parent. I saw too many things done to children in Vietnam,” said Lowe, who is divorced. “I never spoke to my son or daughter about it. I worked seven days a week. That was easier than having to talk to anyone. Emotions are very tough for me to show.”

Lowe remained largely locked away, unable to share emotions and scared to try.

If he went to his son’s swim meets at Cheverus, he stood off by himself against a wall. He cheered for his son, but spoke little to other parents. When customers came to his shop, he only spoke to them about the work needed on their cars and trucks. He let his automotive shop consume him.

“It was not unusual for me to be up there past midnight,” he said. “The public often assumes that veterans suffering from (PTSD) are involved with alcohol or drugs. The ones I talk to are workaholics like I was.”

• • • • •

Once his children left for college, Lowe, almost by accident, began to take steps to help himself. In 2004 he went to Togus, the veterans hospital in Augusta, to see if he was eligible for health insurance.

“I didn’t go near the VA before. I didn’t think anything was wrong with me. I just thought I was different,” he said. “And I was helped by two very good doctors. They explained I was cutting myself off. I didn’t trust anybody. I had to learn that was a trap. They said that type of thinking was more damaging to me than any damage any enemy could ever do.”

The pair of doctors, a psychologist and psychiatrist, helped lead Lowe out of his shell. Lowe’s recreational therapist at Togus, who worked with him in the veterans sports programs, called Lowe’s journey a success story.

“He didn’t think it would be possible to be around others in the same way. The social component in recreational therapy is a huge part of it,” said Liz Marrone, who oversees the Golden Age Team of veterans at Togus that Lowe now competes on.

“When Glen started here, he was observing more, taking in the whole scene, he was more guarded. You definitely didn’t see him smile. I just waited for him to be ready.”

In 2011 when Lowe went to his first Golden Age Games in Hawaii with the Togus group, it was the first time in decades that he participated in an event with friends. He flew across the country with the veterans he knew on his team and took his first steps beyond the fear that trapped him since the Vietnam War.

“I remember watching him shoot horseshoes and me feeling euphoric,” Marrone said. “He didn’t win gold, but he competed the whole day. Just to watch his face, he was happy. I think that experience was life-changing. But I also think anytime Glen goes through something new, he goes through that process all over again.”

Marrone said Lowe’s slow transformation over the past 10 years is nothing short of remarkable.

“His dedication never wavers. He still comes back. Even if he takes a break, he never really takes a break,” Marrone said. “He’s a leader now. He’s one of my captains. It’s pretty cool.”

There still are setbacks, Marrone said. It’s common for a veteran to have an episode, a dark moment, for a gym light or a sound to remind them of a bad memory from war.

“It happens quite often. We work one on one to help them overcome it at the time,” Marrone said. “Having the other veterans around helps. They encourage the person to continue, and notice if they’re withdrawing.”

When Lowe joined the Veterans Adaptive Sports and Training program at Pineland Farms four years ago, it helped him further.

• • • • •

This month, Lowe faced a new challenge – taking part in a turkey hunt with a group of people he had never met, who came to Pineland Farms from around the country. Kristina Sabasteanski, the director of the Pineland Farms veterans program, didn’t know if Lowe would show up at the hunting camp, where he would be hunting with guides and veterans who were strangers.

“I didn’t want to leave my home for the night or the wild animals I feed there,” Lowe said. “I guarantee you Kristina didn’t think I would show.”

Lowe said it helped that Sabasteanski was there. In the three years she’s run the Pineland Farms program, Sabasteanski has worked with 150 veterans. She is not only an occupational therapist, she’s the spouse of a veteran of the Iraq War and one who has lost a brother in military combat. So she understands the veterans she helps.

“Maybe people with post-traumatic stress syndrome think there is something wrong with them. But it’s a natural reaction to extreme stress,” Sabasteanski said. “They’ve seen people blown up, maybe they saw their buddy shot next to them – it’s not normal. Then they come back to Maine and people are worried about their dryer breaking, or having to shovel snow. It’s hard for them to relate to life here.”

Sabasteanski called Lowe a few times in the month leading up to the hunt. She worried he would be too frightened of the unfamiliar to try. And when he did show, she worried he wouldn’t stay. He was quiet and withdrawn.

“I had reservations. I got up at 1:45 (the first night) and read downstairs until the others got up,” Lowe said. “There was so much anxiety. I didn’t know who my hunting partner would be, or how the hunt would go.”

• • • • •

Lowe was guided by Paul Butski of New York, a three-time Grand-National turkey-calling champion, who came to help the veterans program. So his turkey-hunting guide was a man who knows birds.

The turkey Butski lured in with chirps and calls for Lowe was an older bird that showed its years of experience, moving cautiously. The wild turkey took a full 40 minutes to come close to the hidden hunting group, and Butski delighted in the show it offered.

All the while, he whispered to Lowe, telling him not to move until the bird was in range. When it was, Lowe killed it with one shot.

Butski said the excitement shared by the three hunters watching was pure euphoria, and visibly lifted Lowe.

“He was pretty to-himself at first. And then once we were enjoying the hunt, prior to him killing the bird, you could tell he was opening up a lot,” said Butski. “For someone who has never experienced something like that, just you interacting with nature, whether or not you kill a turkey is immaterial. If you get to work a bird, to have it put on a show, you wish everyone could see that. When Glen thanked me I could tell he was sincere. I’m a good judge of character. This meant a lot to him.”

At some point that first day of the four-day camp, sometime after Lowe woke up and before the group came in from the woods for lunch, he started laughing and sharing stories with the other hunters. Exactly when the shift occurred is hard for him to say.

“I’m not sure I noticed,” he said with a grin.

 


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