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For years, Leonard “Lenny” Horst, 64, a retired U.S. Navy chief petty officer, has kept his military mementos in boxes.
The Sequim Navy SEAL, who retired in 1984, served five tours (1967-1971) in the Vietnam War, moving across the country and fighting in several battles. The seasoned soldier said if he looks at the photos and papers about his military time it triggers his post-traumatic stress syndrome, a psychological reaction to highly stressful events.
He and his son Leonard “Len” Horst Jr., 32, a firefighter/paramedic with Clallam County Fire District 3, are looking to gain fresh perspectives on a country that Horst saw as war-stricken. They left Nov. 4 for an 18-day trip up Vietnam’s eastern coastline with an Australian tour group.
“I’m not going back to Vietnam. I’m going to Vietnam. It’s new faces and new people,” Horst said.
Through his years of counseling and help from Veterans Affairs, he said, looking through the items in his boxes might have triggered anger, but now he feels sadness.
“I want to get a different perspective of the country from what I’ve seen before,” Horst said.
“When something triggers, I don’t want to go back to that period. If I get a trigger, I want to go back to someone picking fruit or someone smiling at me rather than frowning at me.”
Their trip begins in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, (see map) where Horst proposed to his wife, Wanda, over the phone. The trip ends in Hanoi.
Horst’s son said he had a great childhood but his dad’s experiences led to some problems in coping with post-traumatic stress.
His father has moved away from prescribed medications and continues counseling while finding coping and catharsis through gardening and his family business, Earth CPR, an organic gardening supply store.
“Now that he’s gone away from medications, I’ve got my father back,” the younger Horst said. “Seeing him doing something new (with the business) is a perfect opportunity to go to Vietnam and put a new face into the experience and see it as the world sees it. I hear all the stories of Vietnam, and when I think of Vietnam, I think war. I have a vision of my own and it is skewed.”
Wanda Horst, married for 40 years to Leonard Horst and mother of their two children — Len and his elder sister Becky — said her impression of the trip is that it won’t wipe away the past but may help soften it in her husband’s mind.
“I know when he comes back, he’ll be dealing with the same issues, but my son is going to see the area and with more experience under his belt be able to interact with his father,” Wanda said. “Hopefully, (Leonard) can go into things lighter and that he has a whole new layer.”
Wanda said her husband often would talk to them about his experiences and he always was informing them.
“Now he and my son are going to have a similar experience and (Len) will be able to talk back to his dad and have a conversation,” she said.
She finds that the business and gardening are a good combination for her husband.
“Now we’ve replaced some of the war stories with farming knowledge,” Wanda said.
The elder Horst said he’s attracted to the idea of Vietnam’s agricultural sustainability.
“They rely on water buffaloes and simple machines. To me that’s sustainable agriculture,” he said. “I want to observe and see how far they’ve progressed in 40 years and experience it as an eco-tour.”
He and his son want to see tourist sites, the food and people.
“Even though we look at people throughout the world, we might still have prejudices, but really we’re all human and have the same hearts,” Horst said.
“We all have children and that’s what I want to enjoy. (My son and I) want to see the whole spectrum of humanity.”
During his military tenure, Horst freed prisoners of war, swam in dangerous waters, served on the Apollo recovery crew and more.
He chooses not to glorify these experiences because he doesn’t want to make war seem “flowery.”
Horst entered the U.S. Navy because of his love for diving, his commitment to God and country through the Boy Scouts and a pledge he made in 1963 for freedom at a rally in Washington, D.C.
Asked if he was proud to be a Navy SEAL, he responded:
“Unequivocally, in my heart, till my dying day will I be proud of the individuals that I worked with — those gentlemen that gave their all. There are some SEALs that went by the wayside and fell in the reeds, and the people I want to remember are those who contributed to the war effort and those who helped their fellow man and families in the community by being a loving father and husband even though we had adverse situations.”
Horst does not hesitate to say he has post-traumatic stress disorder but said some soldiers might be afraid to open up about their experiences.
“The veterans that are coming home, or the veterans of the past, there are some times we are so proud that we don’t ask for help,” he said. “We are in denial and sometimes things will sneak up on us and we don’t know it is happening.”
One of his mottos is that behavior can change and that people need to understand the psychology of what’s going on in their minds.
“The war might be over but the cost of war goes on,” he said.
Horst wrote the following poem for veterans:
“There are different seasons for given reasons/May this be the season for insight/That’s guided by our inner light/Some of us are near/Some of us are apart/May we all be together with peace in our hearts.”