The United States military offers the unique ability to define brotherhood not in words but in actions. That brotherhood doesn’t end have to end when one’s service time does.  

Bubba Viator, president of the SWLA Veterans Association, said regaining a sense of purpose can be one of the biggest hurdles veterans face.

“This group is about helping veterans,” he said. “It’s teaching young veterans to get out and be seen in their communities and lean on each other. This group is full of heart, it’s full of laughter and it’s full of fun.”

That’s something Gable Darbonne, an Army veteran, said he needed as he transitioned back to civilian life.

“I graduated from Barbe in 2001, had a partial theater scholarship to McNeese and then 9/11 happened,” he said. “I dropped out and signed on Sept. 22.”

Darbonne said the reason he waited 11 days before joining the Army was because McNeese was in the middle of a theater production.

“I finished that up first,” he said. “I told them I wouldn’t leave them hanging, I’ll finish.”

Darbonne said he never planned on being in the military before 9/11.

“But you can’t plan life,” he said. “I wanted to serve, I wanted to do my due diligence.”

Darbonne started airborne school on Halloween in Fort Benning, Ga., and remained there for six months before being deployed to Afghanistan in 2002.

“I served in Afghanistan for six months, June to December of 2002,” he said. “When we got back, we started training again and went to Iraq in March 2003 for six months.”

Darbonne said when his unit returned from Iraq, it remained on standby and was called back up for rapid deployment in August. They ended up serving another eight-month tour in Iraq.

“It just became too much with back-to-back deployments,” Darbonne said of leaving the Army honorably in August of 2004. “I just wanted to serve. Did I get more than what I bargained for? Emotionally, yes.”

Darbonne said when he returned to Southwest Louisiana after three deployments, he initially was against joining any type of veterans support group.

“It was just too much,” he said. “I don’t like sitting around comparing war stories. Life is life, having fear is having fear, being away from home is being away from home, being lonely is being lonely, missing is missing, crying is crying. It’s all the same and you can’t compare it. I wanted a clean slate.”

Viator said sentiments like that are why he formed the group.

“I started this group for guys like Gable and myself,” he said. “I got off of active duty in 2015 after six years of service and I needed this.”

Viator said the group was initially created primarily for post-9/11 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.

“The reason the group started is for guys like Gable who came back with nothing. We had support here, but that support is built around Vietnam and Korean veterans with American Legion and Veterans of Foreign War posts. There was nothing built around our generation and we needed that camaraderie.”

Viator said serving in the military was something he knew he always wanted to be part of, but he chose to finish his culinary degree first.

“I was 26 and it wasn’t like I had to join the military but I didn’t want to turn 40 and have regrets because I never joined,” he said. “I joined the Navy because I thought it would be more technical and I loved it.”

Viator did three deployments during those six years, conducting drug operations in South America and a combat engage tour in the Middle East.

Viator, who is a graduate of Westlake High School, said at one time 13 of his childhood friends were all serving military deployments oversees.

He said the reason he eventually left the Navy was because of the time he spent away from his family.

“I didn’t meet my second son until he was six and a half months old,” he said. “At one point, I had been gone for a year, came back and then left for another eight months.”

Viator said 26 people attended the SWLA Veterans group’s first social, a barbecue. Now, the group boasts more than 450 Facebook followers, hosts once-a-month get-togethers at local restaurants and tailgates before each McNeese home football game.

“This is not a patriotic group that has no substance,” Viator said. “It’s full of heart, it’s full of laughter. We also poke fun at each other — there’s several branches and I’m the only sailor.”

Darbonne said that’s something he appreciates.

“I have a hard time opening up,” he said. “There’s no such thing as time healing all wounds. It’s a farce; there’s always a scar. Time grants us the tools to manage what we have lost, to better maintain ourselves. I initially didn’t want to come, but Bubba talked me into it and I’m glad I did.”

Cade Eastman is thankful he joined, too.

“I met Bubba through this group and he started getting me to come around,” he said. “This group is important because of the camaraderie. I like the give-and-take that we give each other about the different branches. We all kind of still hang on to our pride, but then also honor our fellow members for what they’ve done. We all do pretty much the same thing in each branch, just in different ways.”

Eastman, a Marine veteran, said he joined with two of his high school classmates and was one of nine who enlisted from Southwest Louisiana around the same time.

“There were three of us who had been knowing each other since we were playing soccer as kids,” he said. “The three of us went in about the same and one of my buddies got killed the first month we were in Iraq. We had always talked about what we were going to do when we got home. We were going to get a house and live together, go to college. It didn’t work out that way.”

Eastman signed a four-year contract with the Marines but was medically discharged after three and half after taking shrapnel to his knees, left leg and left thigh during an explosion, requiring multiple surgeries.

“When I got home, I went to college and was the oldest one sitting in class,” he said. “I was 22 and I couldn’t hold a conversation with an 18-year-old. I struggled. I drank a lot, trying to fit in, and I asked my mom, ‘Why is this happening? It’s not supposed to be this way. We were all supposed to still be together.’ ”

Eastman said his mother told him that as all of his buddies started coming back home after their service, maybe his new role was to be the one looking after each of them and helping them transition back to civilian life.

“As they all started coming home, I was waiting there for them, knowing what they were going to be going through,” he said. “There’s a transition involved. Someone is telling them what to do every single day and now they are getting up each morning saying, ‘What do I do next?’ In three months the military breaks you down then builds you back up into what they want you to be but then when you’re done you have two weeks to transition back into civilian life.”

Eastman said no one in the SWLA Veterans group served together in the same unit “but now that I’ve met these guys I feel they are my new unit.”

Eastman ultimately earned a teaching degree in physical education, married and has two children and one on the way.

Michael McAnulty, who served 10 years in the Marines, said there’s a “definite difference” he feels when he’s around fellow members of SWLA Veterans.

“When we get together, we all relate to what each other have been through,” he said. “You deal with this every day, day in and day out, whether it’s in the back of your mind or not, but when you get around this group of guys it’s like relief and relaxation. You know you can be yourself around them and you know you’re not going to be judged.”

McAnulty, who actually enlisted on 9/11 without knowing the attacks had happened yet, said three members in his unit committed suicide because they struggled with civilian life after their service ended.

“You have to have an out,” he said. “This is a group you can turn to. We’re all dealing with this same thing. The group is very supportive of each other, whether it be a once-a-month dinner or a phone call or text message. Some of the messages have made me laugh and have been just what I needed to hear that day. I’m grateful for this group.”

J. Sonnier agrees.

“We’ve lived a different life than most people and it’s good to have a place like this where we can be ourselves,” the former Marine said. “I’ve enjoyed every social I’ve ever been to because I can relax because everyone here can relate to one another.”

Sonnier said Viator has a heart for helping people and is the most selfless person he’s ever met.

“He has given so much of his time and energy for this organization,” he said. “Everybody who has been around him and knows what he has done for the local veteran community is very thankful to have him. I’ve got nothing but good things to say about him.”


Online: www.facebook.com/bubba.viator

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