For so much of his life, Vietnam War veteran Gino Navarro had been angry, nomadic and isolated. For years, he didn’t understand why he was like this.
After several life lessons that included a jail stint and time in a veteran’s hospital, Navarro now has the tools to manage the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression that consumed his life.
“Now, I realize what was going on, but back then, I didn’t have a clue,” he said. “To me, I thought I was fine and everything was wrong with everybody else.”
Born in Seattle in 1947, Navarro grew up as the son of a prominent union leader. His father, Gene Navarro, was an important part of the Filipino community.
Gene Navarro worked his way up to become the president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Local 37. As president of a union primarily comprised of Filipinos, he took great care to create a community where Filipinos could come together in Seattle.
“There hasn’t been another one like him for the community that has done what he’s done,” Navarro said. “There probably never will be.”
Growing up in Seattle as a Filipino-American, Gino Navarro faced discrimination nearly everywhere he went. This contributed to the tough exterior that Navarro maintained.
After high school, Navarro joined the Marine Corps and in 1967, he was deployed to Vietnam.
The scenes that he saw in Vietnam have stayed with him through the years in the form of vivid nightmares. For example, Navarro remembers seeing his fellow Marines cutting ears off dead bodies and creating necklaces as war souvenirs.
“You harden yourself to where you don’t want to think about what’s right, what’s wrong,” Navarro said. “It’s about surviving.”
The worst part of his experience was seeing his friends die.
“I hated the part of being with the guys that I would be with, and then you get done with the firefight and there would be two or three dead,” he said. “You get tight with these guys, then all of the sudden he’s gone. So, it’s like an abandonment type thing. You take it real hard.”
When he returned home in 1968, Navarro still struggled with what he had seen.
“Everything you don’t want to remember still lingers there,” he said.
For the next 20 years, Navarro went through life in a fog. He went from job to job, never staying at one place for more than a few months. He struggled with anger-management issues and battled alcoholism.
“I always wanted to relocate, I couldn’t stay still,” Navarro said. “I had trust issues, I had authority issues. I just used alcohol to suppress everything, not realizing that I was digging myself a hole.”
After accumulating several misdemeanors, his past caught up with him in the early ‘90s.
“I had to go to court for a DUI, anger, all kinds of things,” he said. “I kept paying attorneys to keep me out and postpone all of these things. Finally, the entire world came crashing down.”
After spending 18 months in a minimum security jail, Navarro spent some time at a VA hospital in 1995. It was there that he finally recognized his struggles with PTSD and learned how to control and be aware of triggers.
Navarro did well for a while, but there was still an emptiness that followed him.
“I felt useless, I felt angry, impulsive,” he said. “I just felt like, why am I here? This was depression.”
Several years later, Navarro agreed to assistance through a program at the International Drop-In Center (IDIC) on Beacon Hill. The City of Seattle Human Services Department’s Program to Encourage Active, Rewarding Lives for Seniors (PEARLS) is a no-cost counseling service that assists seniors dealing with depression.
PEARLS is funded by the city through the King County Veterans and Human Services Levy. The Human Services Department’s Aging & Disability Services division allocates $87,000 in annual funding for the program, according to David Takami, who works with the department.
Sluggo Rigor, executive director of the International Drop-In Center, said that the program has been valuable for the community.
“PEARLS is one of the most significant programs to combat depression that has ever come to pass,” Rigor said. “It really is wonderful for the needy and low-income people we serve.”
For Navarro, PEARLS has taught him to look at life in a different light.
“I’m better,” he said. “I try not to look at things as a negative. As long as I keep striving to want to do that, then I think I’ll be okay.”
These days, Navarro spends time with his grandchildren, participates in activities at the International Drop-In Center and attends weekly PEARLS meetings.
He now understands that while the PTSD and depression will never go away, he can learn to keep it under control and live a fuller life.
To learn more about the IDIC’s PEARLS program, contact IDIC’s Executive Director Sluggo Rigor at [email protected] or Terra McCaffree, Seattle Human Services Dept., Aging and Disability Services, at: [email protected].