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LI psychotherapist helps other Vietnam veterans deal with war

Lawrence Keating, a Smithtown psychotherapist, sought escape from

Lawrence Keating, a Smithtown psychotherapist, sought escape from his memories of the Vietnam War. "I remained so numb all the time, day after day," he said. Credit: Newsday/Martin C. Evans

In his first days on the ground in Vietnam, now a half-century ago, Lawrence Keating watched a fellow American cut down by a Viet Cong sniper.

For the next year, the Long Islander was fighting to survive. He was an 18-year-old Army sergeant responsible for floating 180 tons of explosives up the Mekong, as unseen enemies lurked by the muddy river's edge. He passed the months worrying that one wrong move on his part would end up getting one of his men killed.

When he came home, things didn't get much better. He couldn't seem to get away from the war. Scenes of the battlefield played on a loop in his memory. Anti-war backlash shook him to the core. His days became a blur of booze and bar fights, a life lived in flophouses in his hometown of New Hyde Park.

“I was angry, aggressive, drank all the time, and smoked pot all the time,” said Keating, 69, who years later was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. “I once was living in a rooming house above a bar, with guys who seemed to be trying to drink themselves to death.”

Today, Keating is a psychotherapist in private practice in Smithtown, helping others who fought on the front lines get clean and heal emotionally — like he did so many years ago. 

“Larry helped me in many ways, not only to deal with my own veteran experiences, but to relate to other veterans in need of drug and alcohol therapy,” said Nelsena A. Day, a retired social worker, who once worked with Keating.

Dark times

Keating's first face-to-face with combat came on a World War II-era landing craft utility boat ferrying ammunition up the Perfume River to Huế. The Tet Offensive raged. A U.S. sailor fell dead on a boat next to his, claimed by a sniper's bullet as Keating's vessel was docking. He watched with dread as the bodies of Americans his age floated toward him aboard low, wooden sampan boats, then piled into Army trucks.

War's surreal images dogged him. There, here. He was all of 19 in 1969 when he stepped off the plane that flew him home. Only 72 hours earlier, he had still been fighting the enemy. Back on Long Island, there were new enemies: rage, nightmares and the drinking.

“I had lots of car crashes, lots of DWIs, lots of bar fights,” Keating said. “I lost most of them.”

Not even nearly killing himself could get him to stop drinking. Only weeks out of the service, Keating was driving drunk in Garden City Park when a jolt brought the street back into focus. 

His 1965 Buick Skylark had clipped a telephone pole stabilizing cable. The thumb-thick wire sliced into the 3,500-pound sedan so violently that it cut the passenger seat in two.

The police who responded to the crash didn't arrest him — and he kept up the drinking. Nothing, it seemed, could keep him from the bottle: not a job at Kennedy Airport, not getting married, not buying a home. 

“None of it really scared me,” he said. “I remained so numb all the time, day after day.”

There were more crashes. In 10 years, Keating was arrested three times for drunken driving. 

His last crash was in 1978, on a swamp-flanked stretch of Route 25A that cuts past the Oyster Bay Fish Hatchery near the county line.

His wife, Diana, confronted him the next day, driving him to the spot where police had arrested him. She demanded answers. He didn't have any. He couldn't even remember the night before.

“The first seven years of our marriage were rough,” she said in an interview at the couple's home in Eastport. “A lot of anger, a lot of hostility, a lot of arrests.”  

Keating's life finally turned with the pound of a gavel, which set in motion a series of events that led to his psychotherapy career.

This time, a judge sentenced him to mandatory rehab. He enrolled in an inpatient program at Stony Brook University Hospital in February 1979. From there, he joined a 12-step program. He realized then that he didn't have the strength himself to stop drinking. 

“I had to accept that I could not stay clean on my own," Keating said, "and that my sobriety depended on accepting a power greater than myself.”  

He stopped drinking for good. And he made a commitment to take control of his life again.  

Keating started out slow, finding time for a course in substance abuse counseling at Amityville's South Oaks Hospital when he wasn't handling fuel at the airport. Then, he enrolled at Adelphi University with his mind set on a career tied to helping others. He earned a bachelor's degree in social science in 1988 and a master's in social work two years later.

Shining light

In 1990, with his master's degree newly in hand and roughly a dozen years of sobriety under his belt, Keating landed a job with the Department of Veterans Affairs as a team leader at a Vietnam Veterans Outreach Center in Brooklyn. 

He has been seeing patients ever since, including some who seek him out because of his military background.

One is a 71-year-old veteran, who has been Keating's patient now for nearly two decades. The man trusts Keating because of his record of service. Their shared experience lets him open up about things that have been eating away at him since the war — like reconciling why the Army would award him a Bronze Star for a mission that took the life of one of his men, a young sergeant from Texas.

“I never talked to my wife about it, and I certainly never talked to my kids about it," said the patient, who asked not to be identified because he is in counseling. "I see him weekly because he is a Nam vet and understands.”    

For Keating, his work with veterans reminds him that others still grapple with war-related anxieties — just like he does. He still has nightmares so vivid that he thrashes and kicks off the covers.

“It keeps me on the straight and narrow,” Keating said. “It helps me because I see people who don’t get clean and sober and I see people who have gotten clean and sober. I see these life-changing events.”

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