Vietnam veteran no longer suffers in silence

After getting back home from two tours in Vietnam as a Marine, Joel Courreges spent the better part of 18 years barely saying a word to anyone.
Criss-crossing the country as a long-haul truck driver, Courreges carried a small ring-bound notebook and a pencil in his breast pocket.
“Whenever someday wanted to talk me, I handed them the book with the pencil,” he said. “On that page it said, ‘I’m a deaf mute,’ because I didn’t want to deal with anybody. It’s hard to explain.”
Courreges said he simply couldn’t deal with the general public.
“They scared me,” he said. “I figured I was gonna hurt somebody and I was gonna end up in an 8-by-8 cell somewhere in the United States. I had to raise a family and feed a family the best way I knew how, and that happened to be driving a truck.”
After all those years, though, Courreges was finally able to get some help. Today, as a chapter service officer at Disabled American Veterans in Bremerton, he’s helping other veterans facing the struggles and uncertainties that he fought in near silence for 18 years.
“My outlook is a lot brighter and I can understand what they’re going through because I’ve gone through it. At the same time, I was blessed with the ability to think and I thought my way out of a situation. I was prepared to go the rest of my life with nobody knowing I could talk expect my mom, my wife and my children. I was perfectly happy. It took a psychologist to bail me out of it.”
Courreges talks about the contract that veterans made when entering the service and the blank check that is written to the government that includes the possibility of giving up one’s own life for the country.
“The reason I do what I do is I’m grateful for every vet that walks through my doors because they did what they did out of the kindness of their heart and the actual belief that they were saving the world,” Courreges said. “I would never, ever, in the work I’m in today, I would never take their trust and ruin it in any way. I used to have a sign out there that says through these doors walk my heroes. And I was serious. My job is to take care of them. that’s what the DAV is.”
Courreges was born in France and moved to the United States at the age of 10. When he arrived in New York and began a road trip to San Francisco in a 1958 Buick, he and his sister, who was two years younger, were terrified.
“We sat in the backseat of that Buick absolutely scared to death that the Indians were going to come out and attack us any minute. Any minute because that’s all we had ever seen in the movies,” he said. “When we saw more cars than horses we wondered if something was wrong.”
Courreges signed up for the Marine Corps fresh out of high school in 1966 and got out in March of 1970 after two tours in Vietnam.
“I did that because in the short amount of time I was here, this country showed me what actual freedom was and what it meant to go from one place to another, one state to another, or one county to another without having to go through some border crossing or some sort of check,” he said of his decision to enlist.
Courreges also bought in wholly to the idea of fighting communism and protecting the United States. Those idealistic notions were only heightened while in Vietnam where a pro-war newspaper or two every few months reinforced that belief.
“They were playing the propaganda game as well anybody else,” he said. “‘What you’re dong is great, utmost, saving the world from communism’ and so forth. Then you come back to the US and find that nobody really gives a shit. A lot of people come in here with the same memories. One minute you’re a hero and as soon as you land here, you’re a bum. You should get back on the airplane and go back to Vietnam.”
These days, Courreges works with other veterans from all branches, including other Vietnam veterans to help turn their lives around.
“Some are old Vietnam veterans who just can’t let go of what their problems are, have realized the booze bottle isn’t the answer and want to turn their lives around and we start from scratch,” he said.
Others, though, are younger vets.
“Some of them are downtrodden or homeless,” Courreges said. “Most of them have severe PTSD and by the time they get to me, they’ve already been into the drugs, the alcohol and everything else. They’re in a place in their life where they just can’t handle it anymore.”
In some of those cases, Courreges helps veterans get into Domiciliary Care Program at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Seattle or American Lake as part of a 28-day in-patient program. Veterans in the program have access to all kinds of medical specialists and 24-hour-a-day psychiatric care.
Courreges says he works with about 25 veterans a day on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays when the Bremerton branch, located at 2315 Burwell Street, is open. Often times, those interactions are fairly routine queries about ongoing VA claims or other routine issues.
“Our main goal is basically to take care of the veteran for whatever their needs are,” Courreges said. “We help people as much, and in as many ways, as we possibly can. They can come in here for anything. Our job is to take one case at a time and figure out what is needed for that person.”
That includes, of course, PTSD.
“A lot of the guys have it,” Courreges said. “But, you don’t just get it from watching your buddy blow up or the guy next to you take a hole in the head and drop in the fox hole. There’s a lot of other ways to get it.”
Disabled American Veterans was founded in 1920 and is the oldest veterans assistance group in the country. The Bremerton branch was formed in 1920. Veterans can reach Courreges by calling 373-2397 or sending him an email at