CLEARWATER — Ray Riley wanted to forget the horrors of Vietnam.
He lost a brother there. Sgt. William A. Riley has been missing in action for 49 years.
Riley himself escaped the jungles of Vietnam and made it back home with Silver and Bronze Star medals.
But he could not flee from the images that crept into bed with him each night. In dreams, he heard gunfire. Saw bloodshed. Felt the heat and attacked his enemies.
"I was like a lot of older guys who came back and didn't talk about what we'd been through," Riley said. "Years later when I talked, let's just say for years what I pushed down had been eating me up inside."
Now 66, Riley understands post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that caused him to relive the hell of Vietnam every night for decades.
That's why he and the other 550 or so members of VFW Post No. 2473 are sprucing up the post and starting a post-traumatic stress disorder training program.
It's all part of $75,000 in renovations to make the facility a more comfortable, therapeutic and fun place to come for younger veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Renovations began a year ago and will be completed soon — not a day too early, since VFW 2473 recently celebrated its 76th anniversary.
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Post Commander George Wiltshire wanted to do something to help the younger vets, too, but his methods and reasons evolved from a different era and experience.
The year was 1952. Wiltshire had just returned from 38 months of duty and an assignment as part of the Berlin Airlift. Back home, he walked into VFW 5343, in Villas, N.J.
No one welcomed him. Wiltshire remembers how estranged he felt entering the post filled with older veterans. He joined the VFW, but rarely returned to that post.
"At the age of 22, I walked in the VFW looked at the old veterans, 65 to 70 years old, and thought, 'What am I doing here?' " said Wiltshire, 79, of Clearwater. "No one said a word to me."
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One of the biggest improvements in the renovation was taking down a wall that opened space for dancers to move and bands to perform.
Bringing in almost nightly entertainment like Linda Peppa-Bills, 53, of Oldsmar — a local entertainer billed as Peppa, who performed last Saturday — is another way the VFW is reaching out to younger vets. So is purchasing new tables and chairs, painting and updating lighting.
Canteen manager John Smith, 63, of Clearwater said within two weeks the kitchen will have a new walk-in refrigerator, fryers and convection stove, and floor.
More visible to veterans are the gutted bathrooms, which will soon easily accommodate wheelchairs for disabled veterans.
"The place is being upgraded to make a more inviting atmosphere," said Wayne Erickson, 60, a post member from Clearwater. "There's more entertainment. Music almost every night. It's turned into an inviting place to come and enjoy."
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Building upgrades and entertainment can help relax veterans, but the post is looking beyond mere creature comforts. The group is forming a men's auxiliary, which will do fundraising and community projects, and planning the post-traumatic stress disorder training program.
Riley, his own post-traumatic stress disorder experience fresh in his mind, now understands that vets who speak about their experiences acclimate better, feel less alone and more supported.
That's why he watched closely when Ismael Moreno, a VFW member and active-duty member stationed in Jacksonville, showed Riley a plan to help younger veterans combat the disorder.
He said he knew when Moreno showed him a draft of the PTSD training video — Mommy What's Wrong with Daddy? — "we could connect older vets with the younger ones."
"We have a great opportunity to reach younger veterans," Riley said. "We all have scenarios and experiences to share. We understand the nightmares, the screaming.
"We'll have a PTSD training video to take back to the units, and help younger veterans avoid what many older veterans have suffered with through for years."