Gary Ferguson, Founder & CEO of Pathways for Veterans, Inc.
Gary Ferguson is a highly decorated Vietnam combat veteran
(Tet 1967 – 1968)
“Pathways for Veterans was created as a non-profit 501(c)(3) to help other veterans understand the VA resources and offerings. The Pathways program will enroll you in transformational activities that help guide you along the way.”
It was a cold and foggy day, almost ready to rain. As I started down the gangplank I couldn’t help but notice the crowd of people yelling and waving their signs about 300 yards away down on the tarmac. Wow, a welcome home celebration. A few minutes later as I came closer to the crowd I realized I was mistaken. This was no celebration, this was a crowd of very angry young people protesting the war.
As I struggled to work my way through the crowd, the anger and rage started welling up inside of me. How can this be? When I left for war 13 months ago it was the right thing to do. Now it was the wrong thing to do? All I could see were the faces of men who I had put in body bags a short while ago. I knew my dead buddies would never understand what was now happening. I am in shock when this long-haired kid holding a sign saying ‘baby killers’ steps right in front of me. I have never forgotten the look in his eyes.
He first looked at me, then my uniform, and then he spit on me. In that moment, God’s grace must have appeared, because I did not kill him. You see, in addition to his spit now on my uniform, I also wore a Silver Star for heroism, a Bronze Star for Valor, a Bronze Star for meritorious service, a Purple Heart for wounds received in combat, an Air Medal for aerial flight in over 65 combat ground missions, and a half a dozen other medals that I can’t even remember.
In that moment, I made a decision that I would never tell anyone, including my own family, where I had been and what I had done. I was ashamed to be an American soldier. I had just spent the last year of my life fighting for that kid’s right to protest; and the men I left behind, including myself, somehow no longer mattered. As Paul Harvey would say, ‘And now for the rest of the story.’
In 2009, at the urging of my family and friends, I contacted the Veteran’s Administration at Mather Field in Sacramento. I was extremely reluctant to go at first, as a result of my past experiences with the VA in 1981, nevertheless I went.
As a result of my willingness to ask for help from the Veteran’s Administration, my life has completely changed. When I went to the Veteran’s Administration my primary purpose was to get medical help. I lost my health insurance when I shut down my construction company. During my first interview at Mather field I merely asked if they could provide the medications for my Type 2 Diabetes. They said yes, and also suggested that I re-apply for my VA benefits. They assured me that the Veteran’s Administration and their treatment of Vietnam veterans was completely different now, nothing like it was back in the 1980’s. They told me to contact the Sacramento County Veteran’s Service Office. I did just that and my life has been transformed as a result.
Does one’s past really matter? Well you tell me! In September of 1981, I checked myself into an inpatient treatment program at the veteran’s hospital in Palo Alto, California. At the time, all I knew was there was something terribly wrong. All I wanted was ‘peace of mind.’ After I had completed the 30-day program nothing really had changed. I still felt betrayed with the same sense of abandonment and impending doom.
Despite their best efforts, the doctors at the veteran’s hospital could do nothing. They had very little experience with Vietnam combat veterans and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder at that time. It was not until the late 1980’s and early 1990’s that the V.A. doctors had the experience to make this diagnosis. Still having the unresolved issues from the war within me, I then sought relief through self-medication.
More was not enough. For the next 19 years I struggled with depression, nightmares, and anxiety from survivor’s guilt. My use of alcohol and drugs provided a temporary relief from the insanity of the voices and visions inside my head. During the evening of December 2, 1986, I died.
Freedom from the bondage of self. That following morning I opened my eyes, my life had been spared. Once again, I woke up from a blackout, this time in Carson City Nevada. Something was horribly different though. Unable to move my arms, legs or head, I could only lay there motionless, staring into the black abyss. I clearly remember looking around to see where I was and all I could see was white. Suddenly, I felt a drop of water hit my left eye and I realized I wasn’t dead. It seemed like an eternity as I struggled to the surface. Then unexpectedly, came that single breath of fresh air. Can you imagine? I had passed out during a blackout in my girlfriend’s backyard. It snowed overnight so I had been buried alive under two feet of snow, I had literally frozen. Doctors later said that the amount of alcohol in my blood had saved my life. I think not.
A moment of clarity. While struggling for freedom from my wintery grave, I experienced the most incomprehensible demoralization of my life. It was in that moment that I hit my bottom and humbly asked God for help. The obsession to use alcohol and drugs was instantly removed. I’ve been clean and sober ever since, now for over two decades. From that moment on, I have experienced freedom from the bondage of self as a result of being in service to others.
There is no change, if nothing changes. Since then, I have been living an extraordinary life. There was only one problem; there was no one else in it. Let me explain…. From the moment I got sober I was determined to give back to those who still suffered from this thinking disorder and seemingly hopeless state of mind and body. The following years were great. Everything that was lost during those reckless years was regained. More importantly, I was able to marry again and was blessed with two incredible children. Slowly, over the next several years, in spite of all I was doing, I started becoming increasingly distant from my family and friends.
Having re-established myself in the business community through hard work and imagination, success was at my fingertips. Then, out of the blue, those old familiar feelings of irritability and discontent re-surfaced. Remember, drugs and alcohol were no longer an option. Go figure. No other solution in sight I chose to became a workaholic. I figured if I could just work hard enough, smart enough and long enough, then someday I would experience peace of mind again. Well guess what?
My someday never came. You guessed it! Despite my best efforts everything that I had worked so hard for over the past 20 plus years was now lost again. In 2008, I chose to close my construction company. There were many extenuating circumstances that I considered in my decision to close the company. Most of the issues could have been overcome by more hard work, however, my passion was gone.
Sick and tired of being sick and tired. That was my state of mind when I came back to the VA a few years ago. Not only had I lost my passion in life, I was now physically unable to continue to work in construction. The DNA of my past (depression, nightmares and anxiety) was returning despite all I had done with my life. Following my first visit to the VA and over the next several months I followed the advice of the Sacramento County Veterans Service Office and the case manager assigned to me. That was possibly the best thing that could have happened to me. The most important reason, my case manager listened to my story without his opinion of what happened. As a result, I started experiencing being heard for the first time. My case manager walked me through the entire process. His knowledge of the facts, my benefits, the processes and more importantly his passion to help me was unmistakable. I now realized that what had happened so many years ago with the VA was not what the VA was about today. Today, as a result of my having been represented by the Sacramento County Veterans Service Office through my case manager I am rated by the VA for my service-connected disabilities.
Disability does not equal inability. As a direct result of the Veteran’s Administration and what they have provided me with over the past few years, I now have a bright new future with endless possibilities. Part of my benefits included being enrolled under the chapter 31 Vocational Rehabilitation Program. I do not have the words to express my gratitude to my vocational rehabilitation counselor. He not only listened to me for what was important to me in my life, he has also provided me with the mentor-ship I needed to stay the course to achieve my new career goals. He has learned the gift of listening. I have been given the freedom to recreate myself.
Become your passion in life. For over twenty years, I have dreamed of one day retiring and helping others who still suffer. My time has come to be of service to those who are still living with their war wounds; veterans and their families are who we serve.
Re-entry plus resources equals Transformation. Over the last few years, I have observed what’s happening with our returning solders. Unlike the Vietnam War where over 50,000 soldiers sacrificed their lives, this war is even worse. Not only has it now become the longest war in our country’s history, it has become the costliest.
Although the number of dead is far from those killed in Vietnam, the number of returning veterans with missing limbs and traumatic brain injuries is staggering. One only has to stop by their local veteran’s hospital and look at the despair in the eyes of these young men and women seeking treatment for their injuries to experience the seriousness of the situation. As an American citizen and veteran I can no longer sit on the sidelines and be silent.
My grandfather once said that ‘bad things happen when good men stand by and do nothing while others are suffering.’
What’s missing–that if it were present would make the difference? First and foremost–Stop and just listen! What veterans want most of all is to be heard and acknowledged for their service. They are not interested in our opinions.
The other person’s point of view is their reality. When we can truly listen to others from their point of view without our opinions, they experience the gift of being heard. What’s next for you? Contact Pathways for Veterans for your personal possibility interview TODAY.
Interview Gary Ferguson, Founder/CEO Pathways for Veterans
Q: What would you say to those who are considering participating in Pathways for Veterans 30-day extended evaluation?
A: For those of you considering working with Pathways for Veterans, I can only offer the following recommendations based upon my personal experience. For nearly 8 years I have been on a mission to find and partner with the best experiential leadership development company in our country. I have had the benefit of working with some of the very best along the way,this includes completing their curriculum. As a result of all my extensive professional training, I have been able to create one of the most profound re-purpose training programs in the country. The 30-day extended evaluation gives veterans access to their core character strengths and who they really are. The 16-week Curriculum for Living builds on their character strengths and coaches the veteran in creating a road map for the re-purposing of their life now that they have left the military.
Q: What have you personally gotten out of creating the Pathways Curriculum for Living program?
A: Re-wind forty years ago! I was getting off the plane in San Francisco on a very cold and foggy day. I had been sitting on a plane for the past 18 hours. I just returned home from the Vietnam War where I’d been in combat for the past 12 months. I’m 21-years-old, at 185 lbs with 1% body fat, and I am excited and grateful to be home. As I am getting off the plane and going down the gangway I hear this loud commotion several hundred yards away down on the tarmac. There were hundreds of people with signs yelling and jumping up and down. I thought, wow a welcome home celebration. As I walked closer my intuitive instincts kicked in, and the hair on the back of my neck stood up, alerting me to danger. Suddenly, I realized that the angry crowd I was walking into was protesting the war shouting, “Stop the War”, “Baby Killers”, and “Murderers”!
Holding back my rage, I pushed to work my way through this crowd of angry protesters until I was approached by a kid with long hair. He was holding a sign saying, murderers and baby killers. For a brief moment he looked me right in the eyes, and then he looked at my uniform, and spit on me. Now get this, in addition to his spit on my uniform, I was proudly wearing the Silver Star for Valor, the Bronze Star for Heroism, the Bronze Star for Meritorious Service, the Air Medal (with three clusters for over 60 combat missions), two Purple Hearts, a Combat Infantry Badge and other medals I can’t even remember.
What I can remember is, in that moment, I became ashamed to be an American. I realized I had just spent the last year risking my life every day defending this boy’s right to protest. I started weeping for all my men who had given their lives, somehow knowing they wouldn’t understand. I made a decision right then, I was never going to tell anyone the truth about what happened during the war. When I left for war, it was the right thing to do and I was proud to be an American. When I returned, the war was no longer the right thing to do. Now I was wrong and I felt guilty and ashamed. It shouldn’t be this way! I knew that I couldn’t trust anyone, including my country ever again. From then on, I decided that I couldn’t tell people the truth because they couldn’t handle it. If they ever knew what I had done during the war they would never accept me. I became extremely good at telling people what they wanted to hear. This allowed me to fit in and be liked, never really sharing myself again.
During the creation of Pathways to Purpose I realized what really happened that day. There was a crowd of people who were protesting the war at the airport and one of them spit on me. It shouldn’t be this way! The feeling of being guilty and ashamed and never trusting anyone ever again,”was just a story” I made up about the event at the airport.
Since being involved with Pathways for Veterans and the Curriculum for Living, I have found the freedom to be myself and to be straight with people, even if it means they won’t accept me. Today I have honest and open communication with everyone in my family, my employees, my clients, and yes, even complete strangers. I’m no longer afraid of what other people might think of me. I now have the freedom to “just be myself.” Thank you God.
Q: What would you say to veterans who are considering going through the Curriculum for Living?
A: That’s an easy one. Just yesterday I was having a conversation with my daughter about whether to stop after two years of college and get a job, or continue her education in order to obtain her degree. Your question is very similar in that the “curriculum for living” at Pathways for Veterans has three parts. First is the extended evaluation program, then the Pathways to Purpose workshop, followed by the 16 week Curriculum for Living. The “curriculum for living” at Pathways for Veterans is a journey of self-examination with the intention of uncovering and discovering one’s authentic self. When completed, the participants gets present to who they really are and are given access to a way of being that will produce extraordinary results in their life while providing a new sense of purpose.
Life is all about choices and their consequences. Some of the most difficult and profound choices I have made in my life came from my military combat service. They were truly life and death choices. I will share one particular choice that has stayed with me all these years. It was in the summer of 1967 while I was serving as a combat soldier in Vietnam. My job in the military was that of a forward observer in a search and destroy unit. Every night we would leave our secured position and go out into the bush on ambush patrol. Our mission was to lay in wait for Charlie to show up and then kill him. During a normal patrol my squad of nine would go out just before dark and come back at dawn or until we engage the enemy. This one particular patrol was different. That night a rookie officer gave the order he would be joining us. I knew in that moment this was not a good idea. He did not have the combat experience it takes to be on ambush patrol and could most likely get us killed. Instead of listening to my gut instincts I let the chattering in my head choose for me.
So off we go nine seasoned combat veterans and a rookie officer with no experience, who is now in charge. Clearly this was a recipe for disaster. Just before dark we came upon a burned out church and our officer decided we would set up the ambush around the church. I told him this was a very bad idea. In the event we make contact with Charlie we would have no clear line of sight. Nevertheless he ordered me to take up my position along with my other man, making it very clear, once again, that he was in charge. Several hours later in the middle of my watch all hell broke loose. All of a sudden Charlie was everywhere! They were inside our perimeter with no line of sight we were now being overrun. Like ants coming out of their disturbed anthill they just keep pouring out of the church. The entrance to their underground bunker complex was inside the church. My GOD, we are about to die. My training and past combat experience had prepared me for my next choice. I had two choices, one was to continue doing what we were doing with small arms fire and hand to hand combat with the certainty of death as the outcome. My other choice was to pray, God please help me, I will do anything. I have never forgotten my next few words “fire for effect 3 batteries on my mark”. I had just directed artillery on our own position in order for my men and I to have a chance at survival. When it was over I sat up in my foxhole and witnessed the consequences of my choice. Tears began rolling down my cheeks as I made my way through all the body parts and dead bodies. When help finally arrived we just “sucked it up” and moved on forward. Ten young men went out that night, only four returned. I was one of them. For over 44 years I was unable to forgive myself for the choice I made that night. Prior to Pathways for Veterans I believed that there were only good or bad choices, along with right or wrong choices. Come to find out, there are only choices. My attachment to the outcome of my choices in the realm of good or bad, right or wrong, was robbing me of my life. Add moral judgment about the outcome, and you now have the definition of “survivor’s guilt”. Today, my choices are not made from the endless stream of chatter in my head, they are made from my heart. To those of you considering going through the Pathways Curriculum for Living you will stop looking in your head and start looking into your heart, then choose. I was delighted with my choice.
Q: Having completed the Pathways for Veterans Curriculum for Living is there one thing that stands out above all the rest?
A: Yes, I was finally able to get complete with my combat experience in Vietnam over 44 years ago. I realized that through the body of work I had completed while creating the Curriculum for Living at Pathways for Veterans I was also being prepared to speak “the unspeakable truth”. Had it not been for creating the Pathways programs the following story may have never been told in public:
We had just finished humping 5 clicks through a triple canape near the Cambodian border along the Ho Chi Min trail. Doc and I had just sat down in the mud, taking advantage of the break in the rain. It was now monsoon season and all it did was rain, then rain, and then rain again. The smell of napalm and burnt flesh was choking. The smoke from all the fires hung low to the ground like our famous delta fog. Death and destruction was everywhere. We had been working over this area for the past four days and there was now nothing left standing.
I had just torched off a chunk of C-4 to heat up my ham and lima beans for lunch when it happened. Over to my left about 10 yards away there was something moving. I asked Doc, “What the heck is that?” Neither of us could quite make out what it was, so we got up and walked over to see what was moving. It was a pile of maggots next to a big boulder. Partially hidden by all the mud and boulder we almost missed seeing those two small brown eyes.
Surrounded by white, those two little brown eyes were staring right through me. We laid down our weapons and started frantically removing the mud and debris. Careful not to remove the maggots we pulled this little boy out from under the boulder where he had been trapped.
Unbelievable, he was still alive! Missing his left arm just below the shoulder and some of his left leg, this little boy never uttered a word. He only stared at me as though he was in a dream. The only signs of life were the maggots, continuing to do their job eating his dead flesh. Doc and I wept in silence. There was nothing more we could do but wait for the chopper to pick him up and take him back to base camp for medical help.
Four days earlier we were air lifted into that area to take on a suspected Viet Cong encampment. Boy did we get a surprise. As it turned out we ran into a NVA regiment instead. The North Vietnam Army was there to greet us. My MOS was directing artillery and air strikes for my company.
For four days. I pounded the heck out of the area with everything I could lay in. The rain I directed did not come from the clouds. Now we were back mopping up the mess in the area we were in on the first day of the ugly firefight. Can you imagine finding this little boy alive after four days with those injuries?
Ten days later we returned to base camp to get re-outfitted and get new replacement after being hit hard. I took our interrupter over to the base hospital to find out what had happened to the little boy. He was still alive and doing fine. They told me where he was so we went to see him. I was terrified. My God what have I done?
The moment I saw him I started to tremble. With the help of the interpreter, this is what we found out. His name was Van. He was 11 years old. When he was nine years old he was kidnapped by the NVA from his home in Hanoi in the middle of the night at gun point. He had been forced under the threat of death to run up and down the Ho Chi Min Trail carrying guns and supplies for the NVA. If he refused his family back home would be killed.
By now I was becoming weak in the knees. I asked the interrupter to tell him how sorry I was for causing his injuries. He just looked at me with those little brown eyes. I asked him if he knew who I was, he smiled and said yes. You are one of the Americans who saved my life. I started to well up inside as I mumbled to the interrupter, “Ask him when he saw us sitting in the mud getting ready to eat, why he did not call out for help?” The little boy told us that their captures told all the boys that if they were captured by the Americans they would be eaten alive.
I recalled this moment during one of the exercises at Heart as though it were yesterday. I cannot to this very day imagine the pain the little boy must have experienced during those four days and nights. Now, you stop for a moment and consider this: you’re kidnapped from the safety of your home, forced into slavery under the threat of death for you and your family and then you’re blown up. Knowing you are hurt, but not how bad, you’re covered in maggots, your only source of food, you’re convinced if you call out for help you will be eaten alive, and you’re all alone, left to die.
Now that’s what happened one day a long time ago when a young American solider met a young North Vietnamese boy. Both boys meet in a mud hole, one day at war, and a long way from home.
I have painfully recalled this story for you to consider something. We all experience our reality from our own point of view. From my point of view, I was responsible for the injuries to the little boy. From Van’s point of view I was one of the American soldiers who saved his life. Remember it is in the sharing of our story and understanding the narrative of our life, that we are released from the pain of our past. From the pain of our past we create our tears for today. Our tears for today are what cleanses our soul. Our soul is the source of who we are.
Who are we? We are Love.