“[Armstrong's] exemplary service has continued as he works to help his fellow veterans, and his model of caring and character should lead us all to aim higher and do better..." — Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn).
n November 11, people around our nation paid their respects to the men and women who have served our country in the military. But in Moe Armstrong’s world, every day is Veterans Day. For one thing, he is a full-time staff member of VA Connecticut Healthcare System’s Errera Community Care Center in West Haven. He’s a decorated combat veteran of the Marine Corps 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion. And, like untold numbers of American ex-servicemen, he daily navigates the dark corridors of his own post-war issues, which include schizophrenia and clinical depression.
“[The war] left me with high levels of stress, and I wasn’t prepared for its residual after effects,” Moe Armstrong told us recently.
“Even today, I don’t sleep. I have to make the bed twice a night … every night.”
Then there’s the Moe Armstrong who has been at the vanguard of advocacy for veterans with mental health issues for the last 30 years, including founding Vet-to-Vet, a rapidly growing program in which veterans counsel and support other veterans suffering from the traumas of war.
However inextricably linked the word veteran is to his identity, Armstrong is inarguably much more than his few eventful years in the military — certainly more than the innumerable “clicks” he and his twelve-man recon patrol humped for days on end up the hills and through the dense foliage of Vietnam.
“When you are around Moe you feel the energy,” said Laurie Harkness, PhD, founder and director of VA Connecticut Healthcare System’s Errera Community Care Center (ECCC) in New Haven.
“He makes you think that hope is possible; people can live rich full lives, in spite of living with mental illness or whatever other obstacles and barriers.”
James “Moe” Armstrong was the seemingly all-American kid who grew up in Bushnell, Illinois. As a high school football player, Armstrong held the conference record on tackles as a pulling right guard and tackle. Playing offense and defence he remained on the field the entire game.
“Everyone thought of me as a dumb, fun-loving kid, but I wrote poems and read more books than anybody else,” said Armstrong.
“I was the first guy to listen to rock and roll music in my town in ‘57. In 1962, I won the Twist contest for the state of Illinois in Galesburg, Illinois. They all said I was too weird for downstate Illinois, so I took them up on it and left.”
His mother drove him to the Navy recruiting station in Iowa City, and after induction did his boot camp in San Diego.
“Everyone told me that if I went into the military, I would become a great football player,” recalled Armstrong. “So I enlisted in the Navy to do underwater demolition, but in those days there was a waiting period of four years before a SEAL Team would take me. Then I was told that if I became a medical corpsman, I could serve with the Marine Corps and I might get Recon — which is what I wanted, because I thought that someday I could play football with any school of my choosing.”
However physically adept to handle the rigors of recon work, Armstrong still wasn’t your typical recruit. Whether in Camp Pendleton or Okinawa, the corpsman everybody called “Doc” was never without books by Thomas Wolfe and Terry Southern, his own poems, drawings, journals, and the records of Lazy Lester, Bob Dylan, Big Bill Broonzy, Guy Carawan, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, and Carter Family which he kept close-by in his footlocker. On leave in Los Angeles he made friends with like-minded folks who listened to old-time music and sat around playing songs.
“I like to be with other people and share ideas,” said Armstrong. “I also liked the spirit of being among artists.”
Armstrong arrived in Vietnam in 1965 with the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion after scuba training at the Navy diving school in the Philippines. The fighting was already fierce; the Viet Cong had nearly taken the airbase at Da Nang, and the country had almost fallen to the communists.
“We were out in six to twelve-man patrols into areas nobody knew about. We did get hit a lot, but we were good fighters. We fought the way Americans are supposed to fight – close contact, small arms … almost face to face … not depending on air assaults. The vast majority of times we had to overpower them with screaming and hand to hand … We didn’t have a lot of bullets and had to make every bullet count.
Unlike most Medical Corpsman, who only served six months before being rotated out of the unit for light duty, Armstrong was sent out on mission after mission without rest and relaxation. He earned a Navy Commendation with a Combat V for saving a Marine under enemy fire.
“For me, Vietnam was hard work, and it was my job to go out and fight in combat, and that’s what I did. I got enthusiastic about it, but my last month or so I felt that we were really wrong and misleading people … I had psychological dilemmas and all this anxiety. I had the PTSD to the point where I actually had auditory hallucinations where I thought I could see into other people’s minds and was completely ‘freaked out.’ I had never been taught what mental illness was. I could do leg wounds and shrapnel wounds, but did not know mental illness. I had become mentally ill.”
Within 48 hours, Armstrong was evacuated and sent to the Oakland Navy Hospital, heavily sedated, unable to talk, and “hearing strange sounds of whispering, shuffling, people who didn’t exist.”
The ‘60s that awaited Armstrong was both an antidote for his psychosis and a curse. The nascent hippie culture, evolving just over the bridge in San Francisco, had yet to be co-opted, and the warm and inclusive vibe of "flower-power" suited the ex-corpsman. On weekend passes from the mental hospital he danced to bands at the Avalon Ballroom, became a street performer, and experimented with psychedelics. The drug culture, however, did not suit him.
“I was already totally out of my mind without getting drunk and high.”
Next he traded the Bay Area’s tumultuous urbanity for the mountains of New Mexico. Its peace and quiet helped to diminish some of the auditory hallucinations that had plagued him since leaving a combat zone. And though sobriety lay a decade away, Armstrong, for the first time, began enjoying veterans’ benefits. Thanks to the efforts of New Mexico Veteran’s Service Commission Office, who found him a room in town, Armstrong began re-integrating (once again) into civilization.
He even flirted with potential rock stardom when he joined Daddy Longlegs, a blues, country, and folk rock outfit comprised of other Height-Ashbury refugees who initially moved to New Mexico before signing a record deal with Warner Bros. Their guitarist Steve Hayton sent for Moe who joined the band already in the UK.
“They’d made a big noise when they came to London in 1969,” Clash co-founder Joe Strummer told journalist Gavin Martin. “Moe had become very left wing [and] gave us info that was quite hard to find out. A bunch of teenage Marxists oust your favorite dictator? The establishment don’t want to know.”
But numerous psychiatric breakdowns led him back to New Mexico, where he eventually got sober. In 1984, he was accepted, at 40-years-old, to the College of Santa Fe, and graduated first in his class.
Armstrong’s foray into the Mental Health field came in 1989 after receiving two Masters Degrees in Business and Human Resource Development. He soon took a job in social education in Albuquerque, helping people with serious and persistent psychiatric conditions to develop self-esteem, enabling them to do day-to-day activities. The experience was seminal, because it was the beginning of many productive years in peer-to-peer counseling.
“I think that the best trigger for igniting hope when you are homeless is to have somebody else who has been there say, ‘I was there,’” said Dr. Harkness, PhD, who met Armstrong when he worked for Vinfen Corporation, a non-profit provider of mental health services in nearby Boston.
“Moe was one of the first veterans that started saying, ‘I was homeless, I worked hard, I got support, I learned how to make healthy decisions … I took care of myself and you can do it too.’ He wasn’t embarrassed or shamed about it . So many veterans who have been homeless or who have significant mental illnesses are ashamed and don’t give voice to the hard work they could do for their recovery. Moe cares so much that he would do everything for anybody. He’ll walk people in through the front door, he’ll walk them to the clinic, he’ll take their anxiety and help them feel safe.”
It was in West Haven at the Errera Center where Armstrong conceptualized “Vet to Vet.”
“Moe started this off of a model of peer-to-peer (peer support) that was developed in non-veteran/mental health settings … but he’s specified it to veterans. They teach each other how to live and survive with mental illness, teach each other how to have healthy relationships, how to feel safe, how to take advantage of treatment,” Harkness said.
Most remarkable is Armstrong’s breathtakingly frequent cross-country travel (paid for out of his own pocket) and his foresight in enlisting unlikely vets to assume leadership roles in Vet to Vet.
“Moe believes in others before they even can believe in themselves, and that’s such an important gift that a human being can give to another person, Harkness said. “He did that with Roy Brown, a Vietnam-era Army veteran diagnosed with bi-polar schizophrenia.
“Moe saw something that nobody had seen in me, and I wanted to follow Moe’s example, and it’s taught me that I exist,” said Roy Brown, now head of Vet to Vet on the West Coast.
“Right after I’d been diagnosed with bi-polar schizophrenia here in LA, one of the nurses sent me to the NAMI conference (National Alliance on Mental Illness) in Minnesota. I was just staying away from people and Moe (president of veterans council there at the time) caught me isolating. He started telling me that he’s starting a program and wanted me to come out and train. And of course, I’m looking at him and laughing to myself, ‘ok, sure I’ll go along with it . Yeah, fine he’ll send for me.’ We talked for quite a while, and I when I came back to LA and I got a call from a guy saying, ‘there’s a ticket waiting for you at the airport.’
“Moe and I had come up with a game plan where he’d go into a VA one week and introduce the concept of Vet to Vet, and the next week I would go there to train the veterans at the hospital . And it caught on faster than anyone ever dreamed it would. After two years (from 2003-2005) they said that peer support within the VA had gone 300-500% nationally (there are currently over 800 peer support technicians nationally throughout the country). That’s when I told them, ‘You should give that credit to Moe Armstrong,’ because without him you wouldn’t have a peer support program in the VA.”
But despite the herculean effort to expand Vet to Vet and numerous awards, including the 2010 Lifetime Achievement Award from the
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Agency and the Psychiatric Rehabilitation Practitioner of the Year Award from the Psychological Association, Armstrong is ever mindful of resistance among mental health professionals.
“They think I’m advocating a replacement of services, and once people understand it, they accept that I’m trying to be part of the overall mental health system. I’m not some wild guy outside the system …
"The concept of Vet 2 Vet is ‘each one, reach one, teach one.’ Especially the ‘teach’ part has incredible implications to rebuild our entire society, not just veterans … We could go into places where people have been disadvantaged or forgotten or abandoned … and we could get them to new levels that they never dreamed possible in their personal lives, through education and sharing.”
Of his original recon team, Armstrong is one of four still alive, and like them, he is saddled with health problems, including type 2 diabetes and neuropathy (which he claims is all over his body). But the same spirit, fortitude, and intellectual curiosity that propelled the one-time Illinois State Twist Champion out into the world — to Vietnam and back — remains unyielding. He honors our veterans in the most profound way, by helping them reclaim their lives as he reclaimed his own.