SHERIDAN — The notebook he flips through is worn, with a bending navy cover. Each page that’s skimmed through is indented with ink and phrases collected or created, but he eventually finds the one he wants, reciting, “The damndest thing about war is the metamorphosis one goes through and one never completely heals because of that metamorphosis.”
One of his own quotes — a “darrellism” as he calls them.
Growing up in Iowa, Darrell Estes — like his father and cousin — joined the Army as a young man. While some are drafted and others are convinced by a sense of tradition, Estes made the decision himself.
On the heels of World War II and the Korean War, his sense of patriotism was strong. He would do it again, regardless of the toll it’s had on him.
Starting first in South Korea, Estes was part of the 25th Infantry Division. During Vietnam, they were given various nicknames: Tropic Lightning, Electric Strawberry, and the Củ Chi National Guard.
He volunteered to go to Vietnam, completing three tours and extending his service multiple times. Overall, three years were spent in the Army.
Upon entering the service, Estes acted as a radio teletype operator. Using electromechanical teleprinters in various locations, operators could communicate via radio systems to transfer information. The job painted Estes as a target.
Serving as an advisor for Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, he and four others went to the Green Beret’s A-Team site and trained with the men there, learning everything they did.
He was taught about explosives, C4, clearing landing zones for aircrafts, mortars and various tactics the Green Beret’s used. It was also during this time that Estes won his most prized award.
Bestowed to infantrymen and Special Forces soldiers, only those who have fought in active ground combat can receive the Combat Infantryman Badge. Due to the high risk they face of being wounded or killed in action, the award serves to recognize acts in perilous situations.
For Estes, this occurred when Vietnamese soldiers would fire back mortars — duds originally shot by U.S. forces. During one of these occasions, Estes engaged in combat, shooting back.
“I’ve not heard of anyone else with [my] particular job skill to have [been awarded a CIB],” he said.
Currently the badge is displayed on the center of a worn cowboy hat, surrounded by smaller tokens of war and service.
Although there are moments Estes jokes about, Estes’ time in Vietnam hasn’t left him.
Exiting the army as a buck sergeant, the veteran returned to Iowa and a factory job.
His first wife convinced him to get a college education, so Estes enrolled in school at Iowa Lake Community College, graduating in 1975.
By the time the ‘90s rolled around, Estes began to struggle with his time in service.
“I was starting to have problems then with Vietnam,” he said. “It reared its ugly head. I had a hard time coping.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder wasn’t much of a conversation during the years of the Vietnam War. Post Civil War it was referred to as “soldier’s heart” then later, following WWII, “shell shock.”
The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs estimated that 31 percent of Vietnam veterans are affected by PTSD. In comparison, 11 percent of Afghanistan veterans deal with PTSD.
At first he was unaware of what was going on. Then, by chance, he happened across a veteran’s assistance program.
Here Estes spoke with a psychiatrist on a few occasions.
“I always thought that PTSD was a cop-out, that it couldn’t happen to me,” Estes said, “but it did.”
He came to Sheridan in 2003 due to one of three PTSD programs he took part in. The last session was in Boise, Idaho, and while it isn’t something he’d want to do again, Estes is glad he did.
Even with the years spent in these programs, it’ll never fully go away. Triggers — the end of January, certain smells, startling noises — will likely always set it off, but through treatment he’s learned how to cope.
“You never completely lose it,” he said.
Quiet helps though. He appreciates solitude.
“It’s just better,” Estes said.
Though he does enjoy time with friends, he sites his only source of daily contact as veteran Lou Currier.
Currier passed away over the weekend. He served as a Green Beret medic in Vietnam.
During his daily walk that morning, Estes’ thought about Currier, but remained composed.
This is another reminder from Vietnam — it never really leaves.
Recovering from Vietnam will be a life-long process. But Estes is particularly adept at coping.
The last piece of writing he pulls from his notebook is a photocopy of a poem he wrote. He doesn’t remember when.
But it’s personal — both telling and reserved. Much like its author.