Healthy Living

Vietnam Vet Discusses His Mental and Physical Struggles, Including Sleep Apnea

This veteran reached out to talk about his experience with PTSD and sleep apnea. This is his story.

Vietnam Vet Discusses His Mental and Physical Struggles, Including Sleep Apnea

Photo: Jay Hare/Dothan Eagle

It’s hard to imagine being 17 years old and joining the Navy Reserves in the middle of a war. However, that’s exactly what Everett Cook did. Cook had been delivering telegrams for Western Union after school to pay off his first car when he signed-up for the reserves. This decision has led Cook from being a working high school student to being in active duty in the middle of a warzone in a matter of months.

Choosing to Fight

Now 68 years old, Cook, often reminisces about his time fighting in the Vietnam War and the many effects it has had on his life. Cook joined the reserves with a group of friends. Together, they did drills on Thursday nights after school and after graduating from high school, they all went into active duty at the same time.

While serving on the USS O’Brien, Cook worked in the barbershop, the ship’s store as well as the gun mounts where he had to lift 58 pound shells. For over two years, Cook worked hard to serve. Some days he was up from sunrise to sundown. The work was physically and emotionally exhausting.  At that time, Cook had no idea of the toll his two years overseas would eventually take on his body and mind.

No Welcome Home

Cook was no stranger to stress, especially after serving in Vietnam.  He was also no stranger to anti-American treatment that he witnessed and dealt with overseas. Despite knowing what the general sentiment about the war was at home, he was still shocked at how he was treated at his homecoming. Instead of being welcomed with opened arms, he was egged while wearing his uniform and felt shunned by members of his church. He couldn’t wear his uniform with pride, instead he had to hide the fact that he had just spent two years at war.

Cook was feeling pretty low and struggling to find his place post war, but then something changed.  In October 1971, he met the woman who would eventually become his wife.  He was immediately smitten and convinced that he wanted to be with her for the rest of his life, so much so that he proposed just after two dates. The two courted and married in June 1972.

Life after War

With a young bride by his side and a few years left on Navy Reserves, Cook juggled married life, drills and classes at Troy University where he completed his business degree. He maintained a full time banking job and raised cattle on the side.  Life was busy and it gets even busier as he and his wife welcomed four sons to the mix. 

He loved his life, especially how busy it was, because that busyness is what helped him push aside the demons from Vietnam. Cook, like many soldiers at the time, came home with bags full of horrible sights, sounds and even smells from the war.  Part of the challenge when dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the not having the right support in place. Cook’s wife says that how Cook and other soldiers were treated played a big role in not being able to heal from the war. She says, “I think the hardest part for him was when he came home because of the way they are greeted.”

When the past catches up

Everett Cook was able to keep up the pace of his life up until the 90s, when suddenly he found himself coughing and couldn’t stop. A doctor’s visit followed by a hospitalization was only the beginning of his decline in health. As his health began to deteriorate, doctors began to link his symptoms to Agent Orange.

Eventually, Cook was forced to stop working. He now relies on a wheelchair or walker to get around.  He is dealing with damage to both his heart and lungs, was treated for vocal cord cancer and struggles with neuropathy in his legs. All of these are exacerbated by the fact that he is also dealing with sleep apnea and a number of other sleep issues. 

Sleep apnea is a disorder that causes the soft palate to collapse during sleep, effectively blocking a person’s airway and causing them to stop breathing during sleep. A telltale sign of sleep apnea is jerky movements and snoring. Depending on the severity of the condition, a person could experience upwards of 30-plus episodes during a single hour of sleep. When that happens, deep restorative sleep (REM) is never achieved.

Sleep apnea also puts additional stress on the hearts and lung.  In fact, someone with untreated sleep apnea has a much higher chance of suffering from a heart attack than someone who doesn't have it. At the moment, there is no cure for sleep apnea and there is only one truly effective treatment option. 

The CPAP machine is a specially designed mask that is put over the nose and mouth at bedtime.  When the machine is running (during sleep) it forces air into back of the throat and prevents the soft palate to collapse and block the airways.

For someone like Cook, sleep apnea is the last thing that he needs, especially that his health is so precarious.  Aside from the use of a CPAP machine and other mobility devices, he also relies on countless medications, including antidepressants to try and manage his struggles with depression. It’s expensive and can put a lot of stress on the couple who should be enjoying their retirement in comfort.

Finding strength where he can

Over the years, Cook has accessed a number of supports including benefits from the Veterans Administration, but those are not always enough. Living with a number of disorders that basically affects every aspect of life is challenging.  It’s not only hard on Cook but also his family. Thankfully, though, the love of his family, in particular his wife, helps him get through the worst of it. Through their struggles, they support each other in their own way.

As Cook’s wife says “A lot of it is how strong your faith is” when asked about Everett and his battles. Everett Cook will continue to share his story. The realities of war and how it doesn’t end when the fighters go home.