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The Bunker offers veterans help, refuge

WENATCHEE – Duane Broaddus knows what it’s like to be a combat veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress. It’s the gorilla he’s been wrestling for 44 years.

“Right now my heart is pumping. I can feel the blood surging through me just talking about it,” said Broaddus, a barrel-chested man who sat at a desk in a dark back corner of a storefront in the Harle Center in Wenatchee. “There’s a reason my desk is back here in a corner. I don’t want anybody behind me.”

Often a much younger, nervous man will sit across the desk from him needing help but not sure why.

“They don’t know why they can’t sit still in a room, why they can’t go out of the house, why they can’t hold a job. They sometimes deny that they have PTSD, but I can spot it from across the room. It’s something you can’t hide. It’s with you for a lifetime,” he said. PTSD stands for post-traumatic stress disorder, an anxiety disorder that can result from exposure to traumatic events. It’s common among combat veterans.

After years of his own anger and confusion, Broaddus has turned his anguish into ways to help other veterans. He didn’t do it alone. He and three Wenatchee Valley friends – Ron Bruno, Mark Harle and Bob Ashford – started the nonprofit group Vets Serving Vets less than a year ago. All are Vietnam War-era veterans. All know firsthand the difficult adjustment of coming home from war.

The group’s goals are to help veterans young and old deal with the lasting distress of war, establish a normal life after military service and cut through the maze of getting benefits.

They call their office space in a busy strip mall The Bunker, a term known to all soldiers as a place of safety. One they dig for themselves to avoid danger.

That’s what the guys at The Bunker do. They provide a safe place where former soldiers can learn to help themselves.

“You don’t help a vet unless he wants to help himself,” Broaddus said.

The Bunker offers clothing, a food bank and plenty of coffee and camaraderie. When needed, the group has come up with money for rent, utilities, travel expenses and car repairs. They provide referrals and contacts that often provide quick results. They’ve helped hundreds of veterans simply by being there. Some suffer from PTSD; many do not. They’ve also helped wives, widows and other family members of veterans. Funding comes mainly from donations of money, food and clothing from other veterans and the local community.

“People come in here all day long, men and women ages 20 to 95,” said Bruno, a retired postal worker. “We had no idea how this would grow, but it’s been phenomenal.”

The four men knew each other through counseling groups, veterans meetings and medical appointments. All were frustrated with the tangle of bureaucracy involved in getting help. All were interested in helping others.

“A few of us had already been trying to help others on our own. We decided we should be working together,” Bruno said.

World War II veterans created the mold. They returned from war wounded and scarred – physically and emotionally – just like soldiers active in any war, Broaddus said. But they were thanked and offered love and appreciation when they came home.

“It’s an honor when a WWII vet comes in here. It feels great when they tell us our service was meaningful, just like theirs,” he said.

Vietnam veterans didn’t receive the love, nor did they get the understanding and help that soldiers get today, Broaddus said.

“When we came back we had a lot of trouble, but no one knew what to do. They hadn’t even coined the term PTSD back then,” Bruno added.

“This is my therapy: associating with other vets,” said Kenneth “Gunny” Cornwell, 85, a career U.S. Marine who fought in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

“We all understand each other. We know what we’ve been through. These are my brothers. Once in awhile we get a sister. These are the greatest people on earth to associate with.”