That was his way of preventing the wartime nightmares that plagued him.
Meanwhile, here at home, his wife worried each time the letter carrier rang her doorbell that this time, he would tell her her husband had died, Willis said.
Willis withstood the cold winds Wednesday as the ribbon was cut at the Augusta Vet Center on Walton Way.
He and his wife, Debbie, are using the center to help them deal with psychological damage done more than 40 years ago.
“(The center) means that finally we have an outlet that is for us and our families,” he said.
The Vet Center Program was established by Congress in 1979 after the Vietnam War, as it became evident that veterans were having a difficult time with the transition from a war zone to civilian life.
In 2008, there were more than 200 centers across the U.S., said team leader Daniel McFerran, who runs the Augusta facility, which is not part of the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center but is supported by it. Today there are 300 centers.
“Our mission is to provide readjustment counseling to any veteran who’s served in a combat zone who’s having any challenges (or) difficulties readjusting to life after the military because of that combat zone experience,” he said.
Licensed counselors such as McFerran help veterans deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, irritability and anger – all natural responses to abnormal situations, he said.
Family members can also receive bereavement counseling if their loved one dies while on active duty. Counseling is not limited to combat-related killing, McFerran added. The center also counsels for sexual harassment and assaults sustained in the military.
The services are free. Verification of military service is required.
Willis said the center is finally helping him heal some old wounds inflicted not only by war but by some in his own country. When his tour ended, his plane landed in California. He was heading home to his father’s funeral and was in a subdued mood as he left the plane. Suddenly, he said, a war protester – a grandmother – shot and killed the soldier in front of him.
“I was next on the step. So that was my welcome home,” he said.
Willis said he and his wife have had a strong marriage for 44 years and are active members in their church. Those things help ease the pain, though it isn’t quite enough. Talking about his painful experiences with his counselor at the center is beginning to change that, he said.
“There’s that emptiness in your soul that the vet center helps to fill,” he said.