Woody Williams graduated from the Island’s regional high school in 1969 and went off to fight a war. In some ways, he’s still fighting it.
Jeff Baker knows the feeling. Sometimes when he’s sitting in his Vineyard Haven home he hears rapid gunfire and jumps up. It’s his wife popping corn.
Several years have passed since the two young men left the jungles of Southeast Asia. Yet still they wonder when they will leave behind the ugly  visions and enjoy Island life with others of their generation.
Woody and Jeff realize now that they’ll never be just like their high school classmates who didn’t fight. They know at least, that they have some thoughts and memories that require some working through.
They know, too, that many of their fellow combat veterans on the Vineyard need to do open battle with their private demons.
Woody and Jeff have helped organize formal meetings of the Island’s Vietnam era veterans. Sunday at 2:30 p.m. in the Project building at the head of Main street in Vineyard Haven, Vietnam vets are invited to attend a meeting where they can talk with representatives of the Vet Center of Southern Mass. and with each other.
The Vet Center is a federally funded program designed to provide information, counseling and referral services to Vietnam vets. These services include information about post-traumatic stress disorder, readjustment counseling, Agent Orange, and the Agent Orange screening process.
A primary purpose of the Vent Center is to establish steady conversation among Vietnam veterans. On July 16, when the center’s representatives made their first visit to Vineyard Haven, 15 Vietnam vets attended. Woody says he knows of at least 30 Vietnam combat vets on the Island, and believes there may be as many as 70.
“Lots of guys say ‘Nothing’s wrong with me,’ “ Jeff has found. “Well, I thought nothing was bothering me. Then I realized that didn’t really trust people. I was jumpy... Most of us know something’s wrong.
“We talk about the walking wounded. Most of us are wounded in different ways.”
Jeff believes Vietnam veterans have hidden themselves for too long. He’s heard that more than 100,000 Vietnam vets have died since returning home, more than died in battle. He says there seems no way of knowing how many thousands of Vietnam vets are in prison.
Jeff knows of a couple of Vietnam vets who died here on the Island after having trouble readjusting to life back home.
“Some people want to forget about that war,” Jeff says. “And they can’t understand why we can’t forget it.”
Like the alcoholic who finds salvation in Alcoholics Anonymous, Jeff thinks Vietnam vets need to get together and talk.
In Woody’s case that need has taken on dramatic proportions.
Growing up on the Island, where his family roots go back generations, Woody had few problems. His troubles were no different than those of any other boy.
Then at age 19 he found himself in Vietnam. For nine months, as a member of the Marine Corps, he lived a nightmare.
Then, just as quickly, he was back on Martha’s Vineyard.
In just a matter of days, out on South Beach one night, Woody freaked out. He hurt some people, and found himself in trouble with the law.
As soon as he could, Woody left the Island. He knew he couldn’t make it here, and that he needed help. But he knew, too, that not just anybody could offer that help.
Woody traveled clear across the country to Oregon before he found what he sought. There, 150 Vietnam vets had joined together to meet regularly. He got himself on the track again. Seven years later he was leading a construction crew of 25 men.
Woody returned too Martha’s Vineyard in October to attend his younger sister’s wedding. Thinking that it might be important to stay near his family, he decided to make a go of it here.
Things went well until one night in January. Woody and his wife were driving along in Edgartown when they came upon three persons walking in the middle of the road. Woody’s car nearly hit one of them. As he pulled alongside, he yelled out that the trio should get themselves the hell off the road. They answered him with obscenities. He jumped out and gave them a beating.
Woody is on probation now and wondering if he can stay on the Island. It’s not just these black moments when he loses control, there’s the weather to consider, too. Woody suffers from the effects of agent orange. When the air is cold, Woody loses the feeling in his fingers and toes. That’s only part of it. Whenever he loses weight, any time of year, large, ugly cysts grow from his ears.
Woody recalls one of the first nights after he had returned to the Island and was sitting in a bar talking with a guy who had also fought in that war. The guy started talking about his problems, and Woody recognized the symptoms of agent orange.
For two hours the guy cried - not because he feared what might happen to him, but because at last he knew what was happening to him.
The Island hasn’t had anyone with the knowledge to help the Vietnam vet, Woody says. If the Vet Center is able to set up a center here, if Island Vietnam vets stay involved and he is able to help, then Woody says he will stay here forever. He needs to use his energies this way. He says in many ways he doesn’t really have a choice.
Jeff says he knows it will be difficult to get the Island’s Vietnam veterans to come out to a meeting. The vets have become accustomed to miles of red tape, lip service and negative reinforcement.
When vets meet here, he sats, everything is confidential and no one is forced to say or do anything. A guy can simply come and listen.
“With everyone it’s different,” Jeff says. “But we all have one thing in common. We have the name and the labeling.”
He says it has taken him years to talk openly about being a Vietnam vet. He knows many people automatically think he’s a drug addict or a coward.
“When we joined the Marine Corps we thought we were joining the elite. Then when we got back they told us not to even wear our uniforms.”
Jeff and Woody hope the group of vets will start meeting on a regular basis. They hope, too, that they will find ways to instruct the Island community at large. Plans are in the works to show a Vietnam war film. Jeff and Woody say the film will give a much more realistic picture of what went on in that jungle war.
But more importantly they’ll talk among themselves. They know what went on. That’s the trouble.