Donald grew up in Browning, Montana on the Blackfoot Indian Reservation, on his family owned ranch. He and his extended family worked the ranch raising cattle. When Donald was 16 he left the ranch to pursue his dream of “being a real cowboy.”
In 1966 Donald’s older brother was killed in Vietnam. December of 1969, at 19 years old Donald joined the Army. He was sent to Vietnam, where he served an 11 month tour the first time, and was 3 months into his second tour when the helicopter he was riding in was shot down. Donald sustained broken legs, broken hips, the loss of some teeth, and some cuts. He was sent to a hospital in New Zealand to recover, and when he was stable enough he was transported to Fort Hood Texas to further recover. After that he was sent to Fort Fitzsimons in Denver for rehabilitation, and then to a permanent duty station at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs.
When Donald came home to his family, he found himself to be very angry. He would lash out at others. He bounced from job to job saying “You didn’t want people to get to know you, because if they did they’d know where you’d been. Coming home from Vietnam wasn’t like it is today. You didn’t want to tell anyone where you’d been. People didn’t care that you were a Veteran. They were very judgmental.” Donald says “I was so angry, and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I knew there was something wrong, but I didn’t know how to handle it, or how to ask for help.” He recalls his Aunt telling him “No one could help you, we didn’t know how, and you wouldn’t let us.”
Some years later Donald was diagnosed at Fort Harrison with PTSD. He credits fellow Veteran, Rudy Riley, with helping him seek help. Donald says that when he got out to the VA the doctors he’d seen actually apologized to him saying “We’re sorry. You slipped through the cracks.”
Donald has been a resident of the Willis Cruse House for only a few weeks, but already he says “I like it. I think it provides a dignified way to get back into society. This is a place to make changes.” He further says “It’s still hard to trust people, but I’m learning. I’ve been away from people and society for so long, it’s a tough adjustment.”
Donald feels that when our Veterans return from overseas they should “have a place to go and process what they’re going through, and the things that they’ve seen. Maybe somewhere with animals, because you can learn to trust an animal easier than a person. They provide unconditional love.” He reflects “I think if I’d had something like that when I got back, I would have been better. I wouldn’t have gotten into trouble, because I’d have something to keep me busy, like work therapy. The ones returning need to know that it’s okay to feel. When I came back no one told you it was okay to have feelings. Rage, fear-no one said it’s okay. We need to show others that it’s okay, and that they can adjust. They should be allowed to process the anger.”
Donald’s goals for the future are to go to school, and open a dairy. He wants to make it a work program for veterans. They’d stay on the farm and learn how to work with others, and get some training. Donald would even like to offer certification so that when the veteran felt ready to leave the dairy farm he or she could go out and have a marketable skill.
Donald’s hobbies are working with horse hair, leather working and archery.
When he was asked where he’d be without the Willis Cruse House or the Montana Veterans Foundation he stated “If I didn’t get in here I’d be in prison or worse. “
*All veterans interviewed signed legally binding releases of their stories
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