“After war, you’re never the same again; war changes who you are,” said Anthony “Tony” Seahorn, who served in Vietnam in 1968.
A graduate of Platte Valley High School in Saratoga, Seahorn had always wanted a career that involved flying. When he ran out of money during college at University of Wyoming, he decided to join the Air Force. Out of college and on the Air Force’s three-month waiting list, Seahorn became draft-eligible and received his papers from the Army.
Following Basic Training and Advanced Individual Training, he passed a series of tests and interviews which qualified him for Officer Candidate School. After months of rigorous training, he was commissioned as a U.S. Army Second Lieutenant.
“As soon as I finished my certifications, I immediately received orders for Vietnam,” Seahorn remembered.
Welcome to the war
Although he wanted to be assigned to an aviation unit, at that time there wasn’t an immediate need. Instead, he was assigned to the elite Black Lions unit of the First Infantry Division.
“The reality of the war set in very quickly,” he recalled.
Within the first week at the Division base camp, a 122 mm rocket exploded in the trees above the position where he and two other young officers were sleeping. Seahorn was wounded, one man was killed, and another lost an arm and a leg.
“It was like ‘welcome to the war, welcome to the real world,’” he declared.
One day, a mayday call came from an infantry patrol.
“They were under severe ground attack by the Viet Cong; they had walked into a horseshoe ambush,” said Seahorn. “The unit had fatalities and serious injuries. We diverted from our courier route and flew down to try and help. I jumped out of the right door, loaded some of the wounded onto the helicopter. Just as we were getting the last person on, here came the Viet Cong out of the jungle within 50 yards from our position. Immediately, the copilot lifted us off.
“I had one foot on the runner, one foot on the door and we started lifting off. I barely got inside the helicopter, and we took a direct hit from an RPG. Helicopters cannot sustain a direct hit from an RPG. We went down immediately. I was thrown from the helicopter as it hit the ground and landed upside down on my head and neck. The chopper immediately exploded and burst into flames. There were seven of us onboard, and I was the only one who survived.
“The next thing I remember is coming to, dazed, looking at the helicopter in flames.
“I was drenched with jet fuel and blood, and the blood wasn’t mine. Of course those are memories that stay with you the rest of your life ... The remainder of the infantry patrol and I were rescued within minutes by an air patrol of Huey gunships and Cobras, which were responding to the same mayday call. Without their massive firepower, I don’t know what would have happened if they hadn’t shown up.”
Just months after the helicopter crash, the Black Lions were reassigned to an aggressive, offensive mission that involved frequent and intense enemy contact. His unit suffered casualties on virtually every mission.
At Junction City II, on a foggy, rainy night, his unit came under heavy siege.
“About 1,000 to 1,500 (enemy troops) overran our position,” Seahorn recalled. “I was hit with both small arms fire and shrapnel from RPGs.”
He sustained wounds to his chest and arm.
“A medic got to me, put a tourniquet on my arm that wasn’t loosened for 12 hours. They didn’t want me to bleed to death, but I had to continue to maintain radio communication,” he said. “I called in air support and artillery fire power, and I had to make sure the communications with the infantry units was in place. I was just drenched in blood. We held off the enemy for as long as we could. Several got inside our position, and there was a lot of hand-to-hand combat going on. Finally about sunrise the next morning, it cleared enough to get medevac choppers on the ground.”
He was one of the last to be medevac’d, and then he lost consciousness. He woke up in Japan five days later, and a month after that was flown to Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in Denver.
After recuperating and serving stateside for a while longer, Seahorn went back to civilian life, though the Army wanted him to continue a military career.
He received several medals during his service, including two Purple Hearts, two Bronze Stars for Valor, the Vietnamese Gallantry Cross and a Presidential Unit Citation. He returned to University of Wyoming, then moved to Denver where he met his wife, Janet, and began a career in management with AT&T. While working, Seahorn continued his college education and eventually received a BS/BA and MBA. He spent nearly 30 years with the corporation, retiring early at age 52.
“A lot of people thought I was making the wrong decision by leaving at the peak of my career, but I had an issue I had to work with, and the issue was post-traumatic stress. I always thought that healing from the physical wounds of war would be the greatest challenge, but realistically speaking, PTSD has been even more challenging,” Seahorn stated.
“I immersed myself in work, focusing on other people’s problems, not mine. When I would go home … that’s when the dark side of me came out,” he acknowledged.
In the mid-1990s, Seahorn responded to an ad in a medical journal for a PTSD study group conducted by doctors and nurses at the University of Colorado Medical Center, all of whom had served in Vietnam.
The program combined talk therapy, medication and other treatments over the course of two years.
“The study really helped turn my life around,” he said.
Pass it on
Now he and Janet help other veterans turn their lives around. Janet, as an educator, helped her husband author a book, and together they speak at various events and veteran gathering across the country. Their book “Tears of a Warrior” is being used extensively at VA Hospitals and Vet Centers throughout the United States.
“It’s an American family’s story,” Seahorn said. “This is our way of giving back; this is our way of making a difference.”
When they travel, his service dog, a black Labrador named Hunter Bailey, goes with them.
“He is specifically a PTSD service dog,” Seahorn said. “He responds to my emotions – if I get anxious or uptight he will come to me and put his paws upon me. If I’m having a nightmare, he will wake me up. It’s the sensitivity, knowing that something’s not right with his master. He is very well trained – he does almost anything and everything I ask him to.”
Wherever they go, they bring a message of understanding, hope and healing. Janet, who has a doctorate in human development, has done a lot of research on the human brain.
“The thing about combat trauma is that it’s intense, it’s frequent, it can last over many days, and you’re both the victim and a perpetrator,” she explained. “You may heal from your physical wounds, but it’s the war within that the warrior often can’t heal from.”
“The road to healing is a two-way street,” Seahorn said. “I have to understand my behavior and do better before my family can understand what’s happening and help me.”