Stan Bain lives with images in his head from the Vietnam War, unwanted but inescapable reminders of lives lost, both in his arms and by his hand. They haunt him in dreams and appear unannounced in the full light of day.
With the images beginning to overwhelm him, his counselor encouraged him to pursue an idea he had been newly entertaining: writing a book about his experiences.
“She thought it was a good idea to get it on paper and allow me to reflect on what happened and maybe it would help me with the struggles I was having with PTSD,” Bain said earlier this week.
So Bain, a Kalispell native who now lives in Florida, started writing, with no intention beyond simply putting the words on paper, for only him and maybe a handful of fellow veterans to see. When he thought he was done, an editor told him, “That’s a good outline, a good start.”
Four years later, after an arduous and painful process, guided by the editor, Bain published the recently released “You Are Never Alone” by Blue Note Publications of Melbourne, Florida.
“I didn’t realize it was going to be such an involved book,” he said. “My objective with the book wasn’t to publish it. My objective was to finish it based on my counselor’s suggestion.”
“My plan when it was done was to sit down with vets and show it to them, and then burn it after a couple vets read it,” he added. “But after they read it, they said, ‘You better not burn it because it could help other vets with their problems.”
Bain’s book is an honest portrayal of his experience as a soldier in the Vietnam War and his subsequent decades-long battle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) most of the years undiagnosed. Though his battle continues in earnest, the book provided a degree of catharsis as his counselor hoped it would.
“I still have those images every day,” he said. “But because of the book, I’m able to deal with them as part of my life now. I figured if it helped me, it would help a another vet.”
Bain is holding his first, and perhaps only, book signing at The Bookshelf in downtown Kalispell in conjunction with Veterans Day, though a day after the official holiday, on Nov. 12 from 2 to 6 p.m.
Much like he initially had no intention of publishing the book, Bain didn’t plan to hold a signing. But at the urging of his publisher, he decided that if he was going to do it, he would do it in his hometown of Kalispell.
“I’m excited about it,” he said.
Kyle Fort, co-owner of The Bookshelf with his wife, Mary Wolf, said all of the bookstore’s portion of proceeds from the book’s sale on the day of the signing will go to the Northwest Montana Veterans Food Pantry, an organization that Fort and Wolf regularly support. The Bookshelf is also accepting financial donations, clothing and non-perishable food items on behalf of the food pantry, where Wolf is a board member.
Bain was born in Kalispell to Art and Dorothy Bain. Art was a mechanic, while Dorothy ran a monogramming business that helped pay for Bain to attend college at Northern Montana College, now called Montana State University Northern, in Havre.
After two years of studying architecture in Havre with plans to be a teacher, Bain was working a summer job for the U.S. Forest Service and preparing for his third year when he received his draft notice.
“That’s when my life changed,” he said.
After completing basic training for the U.S. Army in Fort Lewis, Washington and advanced training in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, Bain headed to Vietnam. The chapters in his book range from the straightforwardly titled — “First Vietnam Duty Station” and “Guard Tower” — to others that get more to the heart of matters: “Questioning God” and “Losing a Friend.”
One of the most heart-wrenching and difficult chapters details the tragic deaths of two orphans Bain had taken under his wing. Their deaths are among the images that continue haunting him, and are the reason for his lifelong reluctance to father children.
“A couple chapters I really struggled with and took me time write, like the orphanage,” he said. “I had tears running down my cheeks.”
But in the absence of his own kids, Bain found others after the war through his years-long role as Santa Claus at the Kalispell Center Mall.
“I had about 25,000 kids because I had the honor of being Santa Claus,” he said. “Those are my children.”
Bain is working on a second book about his experiences as Santa Claus, and he plans to write a third, for much the same reason that he wrote his first, about suicide, although it will take time to mentally work up to that one. Bain points out that far more Vietnam War veterans died by suicide afterward than died in battle, and he struggles with suicidal thoughts.
But Bain has learned through writing “You Are Never Alone” that confronting his own demons, as painful as it can be, is a way to chip away at them, and he hopes it can do the same for other veterans as well.
“It’s hard to explain to somebody what veterans are struggling with unless you’ve been there: the pain that generates inside, the feelings of you can’t do it anymore, you have to end it, and some do,” he said. “If this book saves one vet from suicide, then it’s worth it.”
For more information about the Nov. 12 book signing, call The Bookshelf at (406) 756-2665.