Bernie “Doc” Duff


Article in the Grand Rapids Press about “Doc’s” Art Therapy,
his memories of Vietnam and the affects of PTSD


By Pat Shellenbarger
The Grand Rapids Press

For years, Bernie Duff denied there was anything wrong, certainly nothing he couldn’t handle.

He went through three marriages and more jobs. He buried himself in his work. – “I was a workaholic,” he said – anything to keep the memories at bay.

Everything in his life had to be in perfect order. “In Vietnam, if things weren’t in perfect order, people died,” he said.

As a medic, he took those deaths personally. Thirty-four years later, he still does.

Finally in 1998, he consulted a psychiatrist at the Department of Veterans Affairs Clinic in Grand Rapids. Within five minutes, the doctor had diagnosed him as having post-traumatic stress disorder.

Minutes later, while driving down Ann Street and thinking about what the doctor said, he nearly ran a red light and screeched to a halt, narrowly missing a bus. Adrenaline flowed. He was sweating. His limbs felt numb. His stomach churned. He was oblivious to the other drivers speeding past and honking at him. In the street ahead, he thought he saw bodies and blood. In his mind, he was back in Vietnam.

It was his first flashback. He would have many more.

Like many Vietnam veterans, Duff still struggles [with the] emotional trauma of war. An estimated 1.7 million Vietnam veterans – about half those who served in the country – suffer some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Unlike many of those veterans, Duff has found a way to cope with the memories and the flashbacks. He paints the scenes he remembers in Vietnam. In the living room of his Kentwood home one recent afternoon, he was applying gentle brush strokes to a soldier aiming an M-60 machine gun. Behind the soldier, a tree was shattered by artillery fire.

“These kind of things happened to a lot,” Duff said. “Everybody had a job, and the guy who handled that 60 was real important.”

As a medic, he saved many men wounded in such fire fights and lost many others. Painting the scenes allows him to cope with the memories he long has kept buried. “It was avoidance,” he said. “The only way you can face the memories is to face them head on. You can’t bury them. They’ve got to come out somehow in anger, nightmares, [and] flashbacks.”

For Duff, the flashbacks became so frequent and severe, “I couldn’t control me. With the paintbrush, I control what’s in the painting. I’m in control.”

In Vietnam, he wasn’t.

He arrived there on his 19th birthday, January 12, 1969, and left exactly one year later.

“You go from being a child one day to losing your humanity the next,” he said.

As a medic, he felt the responsibility for the men, and they were protective of him, a prime target for the Vietcong and North Vietnamese.

“First they take out the radio man,” Duff said, “then they take out the medic.”

While Duff administered aid to wounded soldiers, others would gather around him, shielding him with their bodies. Some took bullets intended for him.

“A little piece of me died each time they took a hit for me,” he said.

When he came home, protestors called him “baby killer.”

“I was a medic,” he said. “I healed people. I never shot anybody.”

He remained in the service a total of nine and a half years. In Vietnam, the men often talked about going home, “going back to the world they called it.”

“Most of us are still looking for the world,” Duff said. “As time went on, we numbed ourselves. We had no time to mourn the dead.”

After the service, he attended college and went through a series of jobs and marriages, symptoms, he now knows of post-traumatic stress disorder. Some years ago, the nightmares and panic attacks started; triggered by crowds, loud noises, even watching a violent movie.

In the mid-1990’s, the state hired him to find jobs for homeless veterans. He was good at it. From an office on South Division Avenue, he found jobs for 122 veterans in one month, and the American Legion named him its Michigan veteran of the year. Two years in a row, he led the nation in placing veterans.

The job began to consume nearly all his time, even his days off, and was a diversion from the memories always buried just beneath the surface.
“In my mind I could see those homeless vets sleeping in doorways,” Duff said. If I was dealing with their problems, I didn’t have to deal with my problems. I really didn’t put it together that I was being a medic again.

When the flashbacks started, they came on with a vengeance, sometimes four or five a week. He sought treatment in the VA Clinic in Grand Rapids, and as an inpatient at the Department of Veterans Affairs in North Chicago.

He left his state job three years ago, and is on full disability, “but it’s hard for me, I still go out and try to help veterans,” he said. My doctor says, “You’ve got to stay away.”

Three years ago he sketched a medic tending to wounded soldiers. The medic has the face of young Bernie Duff. A year ago, he painted a scene, showing a wounded man and a medic, his arms raised, directing in a helicopter. He called it, “Satan’s Playground.”

It hangs in his living room next to his other paintings showing weary soldiers returning from a patrol. He calls it, “Nefarious Memories.”

He painted other Vietnam scenes and realized the flashbacks were becoming less frequent and less severe.

“Putting it down there,” he said, indicating the canvas “is getting it out of here.” He pointed to his head.

His psychologist at the North Chicago VA encouraged Duff to continue painting.

“One of the remarkable things about what Bernie is doing is that expressive art therapy is not high priority in this medicalized world,” said his psychologist, John Schaut. “So often we focus on clinical treatments and medication that we don’t give enough credence to creativity. Finding a way to begin to express what you haven’t been able to express is extremely valuable. It can be a life-saving event.”

Duff said he hopes to start a support group at the Grand Rapids VA Clinic for veterans to pursue creative outlets through painting, poetry, music, whatever works for them.

Last March, the two paintings hanging on his living room wall and his first sketch took first places in a statewide veterans’ art competition. In July, the two paintings took second places in a national veterans’ art contest.

Recently, he finished a portrait of Sharon Ann Lane, the only American service woman killed by hostile fire in Vietnam. He donated it to the Sharon Ann Lane Foundation, which three years ago opened a medical clinic in Chui Lai, Vietnam, near where Lane died, June 8, 1969.

Tuesday, Veterans Day, Duff plans to attend an unveiling of the portrait in Washington After that, the painting will be sent to Vietnam, where it will hang in the Sharon Ann Lane Medical Clinic. The painting shows Lane holding a Vietnamese child, much as she was seen the night before she died.

“It’s beautiful, and there’s a serenity about it,” said Kathleen Fennell, director of the foundation. “It transcends the War. There are many, many horrendous scenes of war, but there’s also this: someone holding a child.”

Duff refuses to accept money for his paintings.

“As soon as it becomes a business, it’s not therapy. Then I’m back to being a workaholic again,” said Duff, 53, now married to his fourth wife, Susana. “I was a basket case before I started this. I think with each subsequent painting, the therapy is intensified. It gets better every time.”

There’s another scene he would like to paint, a memory he’s never been able to forget. It happened his second day in Vietnam, en route to join his unit in Phu Tai. Passing through a traffic circle he saw three boys, maybe 12 or 15 years old, hanging from a fountain, their abdomens split open and organs hanging out. They were still alive, but Duff’s driver continued on.

“Those are the kind of things I can’t forget,” he said. It was ungodly. As a medic, I’m always punishing myself. I’m supposed to heal. I’m supposed to do something. It’s something I still punish myself for.”