David Frazier walked his wife to the open door of an old brick building on the East side of Los Angeles. Two nuns greeted them and were waiting to take Mrs. Frazier inside.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” David asked, peering into the doorway. A bright light beamed from somewhere just inside the doors that made him shield his eyes.
“This is something I have to do,” Mrs. Frazier said. Dave lowered his hand. Her eyes were piercing as they stared at him. She turned and went with the nuns who ushered her through the open doors. David watched her go and then began to walk down the street.
Buildings surrounded him, shrouded in shadows on either side of the street. It was getting dark, and David began to walk faster. He saw a few other people hurrying by on the sidewalk and a single car whisked lazily by. The air was cool, and a light breeze brushed his cheek as he walked. He turned to look back at the building with the bright light. He couldn’t see it.
David stopped walking and focused his vision down the street. He could see the skyscrapers in the heart of downtown, looming in the waning sunlight.
Suddenly, he couldn’t remember if that was even the way he had come from. He was running now – desperate to find the building with the bright light. But it was nowhere in sight. He turned at the next intersection, but nothing looked familiar. He could feel his breath becoming more sporadic as his mind began to panic. He looked left. There was a street with more unfamiliar buildings. He looked right. Nothing. His head was spinning. His vision started to blur – his heart pounding. He couldn’t walk in a straight line. He stumbled and caught himself from falling on the wall of a nearby building. He heard the clink of glass and saw a large green bottle on its side on the sidewalk in front of him. He looked up, but his sight was darkening. All went black.
* * *
David opened his eyes and lunged forward, gasping for breath. He surveyed his surroundings and quickly calmed down.
He was in his house, in his own bed. Toni, his wife, was lying next to him still asleep.
He tried to stifle a soft chuckle, and grinned as his panic subsided. He felt relief wash over him and settled his head back against his pillow.
The past was where it belonged once again.
David Frazier grew up just over an hour from downtown Los Angeles in Woodland Hills in the 50s and 60s with his mother, his aunt and his grandmother. His father had passed away just weeks after Dave’s birth in 1949.
At age 12, David became enamored with surfing. He spent as many hours as he could in the Pacific Ocean and embraced the life of a “California surfer boy.”
When the time came for the United States Army to draft soldiers into the Vietnam War, many of the surfers and other young men that David knew refused to go. Many of them became known as “draft dodgers,” known to have fled to Mexico or Canada, or even faked an illness or injury to avoid service. But Dave, despite being inexperienced and full of uncertainty, stepped forward willingly.
“I had never shot anything bigger than a Red Rider Daisy BB gun,” Dave said. “I mean, I wasn’t going to volunteer to go over to Vietnam. But, if I got drafted I wasn’t going to run away from it.”
So in 1969, at 20 years old, Dave was drafted into the United States Army. After completing basic training and advanced infantry training in Augusta, Georgia, Dave received orders from his captain: he was headed to Vietnam.
Dave landed in Duc Pho, Vietnam in 1970 where his primary duty was driving a supply truck from the landing zone to various bases, a nearby radio outpost, and the U.S. headquarters. If he couldn’t make it by truck, Dave and the other men in his crew would load the supplies into a helicopter and deliver them through the air. Every day, Dave would drive through the villages on his way to deliver supplies and came to know many of the locals.
“The Vietnamese people in the villages were just sweet, beautiful people,” Dave says looking back. “Even though they lived in villages and they were rice farmers and stuff, they were intelligent. They were smart people. They would always tease me, and I’d tease them. But, I saw a lot of the Americans treat the village people like dirt. I’m sitting there thinking: We’re over here to give these people freedom and take care of them. You can’t treat human beings like that.”
But seeing the way the villagers were wrongly treated wasn’t the only thing that left its mark on him.
“That was a whole different world,” Dave says. “That was war.”
Dave has countless stories about the things he saw and experienced in Vietnam. He could talk about the places he got to see on the other side of the globe (surfing in Australia on a short-term leave from the war), or the people he got to meet, or the camaraderie he had with his fellow soldiers. But many stories contain the things he’d rather forget: gruesome injuries, unspeakable acts of violence, gore, death.
It didn’t take long for it all to begin to take its toll on Dave’s mind. Dealing with the harsh realities of war became a struggle, one in which Dave was not alone.
Alcohol was readily available and even more readily used. Drugs were commonplace.
But quickly Dave found that, as it was with most of the other soldiers, no substance could completely numb him to the horrors of war.
“At headquarters we had guys that had been in-country for three to seven years that I worked with,” Dave recounts. “One of the guys names was Brian. He came up to me one day and said, ‘I got orders to go home. They’re making me go home. They said I’ve been here too long.’ And I said, ‘Well Brian, I think they’re right.’ And he says, ‘No, David. This is my home now.’ Brian disappeared in Danang.
“There were a lot of guys that never came home.”
After serving in Vietnam for a year, Dave was given orders to return home in 1971. He stepped off of the plane in the state of Washington thinking his war was over. But his welcome-home greeting made him realize the fight was far from finished.
“The protestors and the hippies were there throwing rocks and bottles at us, calling us, ‘baby killers,’ and spitting on us,” Dave remembers. “That devastated me.”
Dave returned to California where he tried to acclimate once again to civilian life. He began dating a girl he had known before the war. They soon married, and Dave landed a job through his in-laws, working in construction.
But despite the fact that the world was moving forward, Dave could not. Traumatized, Dave struggled to recapture the spirit of that 12-year-old surfer he once knew so well. Everything wouldn’t just go back to way things were before the war. His friends stopped hanging around saying that Dave was “different.”
He continued to drink.
Dave stopped coming home every night. His wife worried. He would be at a bar or at someone’s house, looking for his next drink. He started coming to work hung over. Dave began to realize that he was losing control.
“There were times that I would reach out and say, ‘I think I’ve got a problem.’ But [my wife’s] dad, who I worked for, would always say, ‘Dave, you don’t have a problem. Just don’t drink as much.”
Dave continued to have nightmares of Vietnam and the war. He would drink to try to forget. But then, unable to sleep, he would drink until he could do nothing but dream.
It didn’t take long for his wife to come to resent him. She asked him to leave her and their daughter Shannon.
“Things just kept getting worse and worse, and my wife divorced me,” Dave says. “I hung around for a while and things didn’t get any better and then I just disappeared. I don’t know where I was, or where I went. I can’t remember… nobody wanted anything to do with me.”
The downward spiral persisted, and Dave took to the streets of L.A.
Ten years had passed since Dave had returned from Vietnam. Since that time he had been in and out of VA hospitals all around L.A. with medical issues related to his drinking problem. But whenever he was allowed to leave, he would go right back into his usual methods.
“I intensely tried to kill myself,” Dave said. “I did not like guns, so I wasn’t going to blow my brains out, but I knew that alcohol would do it… I never liked alcohol. I just drank it for the effects.”
While he was in one of the VA hospitals, Dave met another veteran who became one of his few friends. The veteran knew he was going to be in the hospital for a long time and so he asked Dave to housesit for him.
One day, during Dave’s stay at the house, he opened up a closet door and found several cases of alcohol.
“The neighbors found me. And the ambulance came. I don’t know. Somehow I just woke up in the hospital,” Dave says. “So I remember it kind of like I was dreaming. The nurse was freaking out. I remember this alarm going off. I woke up on that gurney, and I remember the doctor saying, ‘This is a miracle, because you’re dead.’”
Dave doesn’t remember how long he stayed in the hospital that time. It could’ve been a few days or a few weeks, but when he was allowed to leave, something propelled him in a new direction.
“I just walked out, and kept walking,” Dave says. “I ended up in East L.A. in a mission.”
Dave lived there in order to receive meals and a place to live, but was required to attend daily sermons in order to receive the services of the shelter.
During one of the sermons, the preacher asked, “Do any of you want to be forgiven of your sins?”
Dave sat among the other homeless people with no place to go and no one out looking for him. The world had struck him down. But the question pierced his heart.
“I’m sitting there thinking, You know David, you have nothing to lose. And so I got up, and some other guy got up, and we walked up there to the front. And I got on my knees and I said, ‘God, I can’t do this anymore. I just can’t do this anymore.’ I accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior.”
Dave arose a changed man. He still had a drinking problem. He still carried around anger and guilt. He was still homeless. But now he had hope. He was forgiven.
Dave left the mission and quickly found his way to Simi Valley where he had a place to stay with another veteran. Across the street from the house, there was a man who happened to be going through the Alcoholics Anonymous program. The man became David’s AA sponsor and David began to feel some progress towards being free of his addiction to alcohol. But Alcoholics Anonymous wasn’t the only thing that Dave found in Simi Valley.
“I walked into a Great Western Savings [bank] with a bunch of change. I had to pay an electric bill or something,” Dave recalls. “I had found all of this change in the house, so I took it over to the bank to get cash for it and I said, ‘Can I cash this? I’m, sorry I didn’t count it.’ And I looked up and there she was and I just went, ‘Wow.’ I fell in love right there.”
A young woman named Antoinette was behind the counter that day.
“I worked with my best friend and she said, ‘Oh I know that guy. Stay away from him. He’s on drugs,’” Antoinette, who goes by Toni, says with a laugh about the first time she met Dave. “[My friend] had just gotten sober and so she was at her AA meetings and [Dave] was at the same ones. He was sober and he wasn’t on drugs. But Dave’s a fun-loving guy, and I think she interpreted that as him being on drugs. So it kind of turned out to be a joke later on.”
After their initial meeting, Dave didn’t see Toni for several months, but fate intervened. Toni’s sister happened to live a few houses down from where Dave was staying. Toni was having car trouble one day, and Dave happened to be out in his yard. He said he would look at the car for her.
Upon inspection, Dave informed Toni that there was little hope for the car, but offered her consolation in the form of a date.
“We went on a date, and then the second time he asked if my kids could go with us,” Toni says. “That was the first time that anybody had asked me that. That impacted me more than anything, because I was divorced.”
The two began regularly seeing each other and quickly realized that their future was together.
“We just knew that we belonged together,” Toni said. “He brought me home one night shortly after we started seeing each other, and we sat out in the car in the rain and he said, ‘We ought to just get married.’ And that’s what we did. We’d known each other for three months and we got married. My mother thought I was crazy, and she was right! But we’ve been married ever since.”
The couple married in 1982, and Dave found work as a welder. But Dave discovered his true gifts as a craftsman when he tried his hand at carpentry when he did some contract work for a business owner who wanted to save money buying display cases. Several years later, Dave would be hired to work for Schlitterbahn Waterparks as a Master Carpenter.
In 2005, Toni and Dave moved to League City, Texas to be closer to their grandchildren. But while Toni was ecstatic to be closer to family, Dave struggled with flashbacks.
“The heat and humidity took me back to Southeast Asia,” Dave said. “I mean it’s the same exact humidity.”
Though Dave had come through many of the trials he had faced when he first came back from Vietnam, the experiences he’d had during the war hadn’t left him. After discussing it with Toni, Dave moved back to California for a time just to be away from an all-too-familiar climate.
“He was jittery and jumpy,” Toni says about Dave’s continual battle with his past. “He thought he heard helicopters. It was just sights and sounds for him. It felt like he was back over there… Because being around a lot of people has been so difficult for him over the years, it kind of limits where you go and what plans you make. So we had to kind of alter our lives to be sensitive to that.”
After a stint back in California, Dave realized that despite the climate and his struggle with the past, he needed to be near his wife and the rest of his family. So he packed up the few possessions he had taken with him in his truck and drove back to Texas.
The Fraziers started attending Clear Creek Community Church in 2012 after being invited by Toni’s daughter, Paula. Both Dave and Toni had grown up attending church, but after going through difficult patches in their respective young adult lives, neither had ever recommitted to attending church regularly.
“I had wanted to go to church again for a long time. I actually drove past Clear Creek many times,” Toni recounts. “So we started attending with [Paula] regularly, and just felt like we belonged there from the very beginning.”
Dave and Toni quickly got involved by joining the small group that Paula was already in. But while Toni began to engage with the group, Dave still struggled to reconcile his past.
“[Dave’s] not a shy guy,” Dave and Toni’s small group leader, Chuck Fulcher said. “At that time it was a fairly large group, you know, and he was very content to just kind of sit on sort of the periphery and just listen to what was going on. Every once in a while he might make a comment, but in general… he didn’t open up a whole bunch.”
Around this time, Dave started seeing a counselor named Jerry Clark who specialized in family counseling but had an especially soft spot in his heart for veterans.
“He came in one day and he said, ‘David, I’ve got your whole scenario right here.” and he sat down and he said, “What happened over there wasn’t your fault.’” Dave says with tears in his eyes. “It was like all these bricks fell off my shoulders. I’d carried all that guilt around for all of those years. And then he invited me to his group and that was when I found out he had been a Marine in Vietnam.”
Jerry had also gone through the horrors of war and a similarly difficult transition back into civilian life.
“I was anxious and angry, and I didn’t know it,” Jerry said about returning from Vietnam. “It cost me a marriage. An old man I knew, who was a deep believer in Christ, just asked me one day… if I was in Vietnam. And I said, ‘Yeah. How come you ask?’ And he said, ‘I don’t think you’ve come home yet.’ And that was the beginning. It was probably 10 or 12 years after I came back that it dawned on me that I was still fighting the battle.”
It was Jerry’s own experience that had given him the desire and the necessary experience to help other veterans truly come home from war. Eventually he started the group Transition Plus to give organization and community to veterans in analogous situations to those that he, Dave, and many others have faced.
Jerry helped Dave come to grips with his guilt and Dave’s life dramatically changed. Soon he was speaking up during the group discussions at his church small group and he began to open up about the things he had been through.
“He was realizing that there is now no condemnation for those that are in Christ Jesus and the whole guilt thing,” Chuck said. “I felt like the light bulb was going on in his brain. And he was being released from a lifetime of guilty feelings… you just started seeing him being less burdened.”
But his church small group wasn’t the only place that Dave was starting to speak up about what God was doing in his life. Jerry had invited Dave to commit to start regularly attending Transition Plus where Dave would have the opportunity to share his experiences and influence a new generation of veterans.
“[Jerry] calls me his ‘right-hand man,’” Dave says. “He says I see things in people that other people don’t see. He says that we’ll be in group and I’ll see pain in someone’s eyes – one of the vets – and I’ll call him out. I’ll say, ‘What’s going on?’ And they’ll start talking, and I’ll say, ‘Come on let it out.’ And the tears start flowing, and the horror stories start coming out.”
It was shortly after Dave started attending Transition Plus that Clear Creek Community Church had a large outdoor baptism. On the evening of October 5, 2014 several hundred people came out to support the dozens who were getting baptized – one of which was Toni Frazier.
After returning to church, getting involved in small group and recommitting her life to Jesus, Toni wanted to take the next step by professing her faith through baptism.
Among those in the crowd were many familiar faces of people from her small group, her kids, Paula and Rick who had both been baptized, and her two granddaughters Cameron and Lily. But none seemed to be more impacted by her declaration than her husband.
Dave and Chuck started talking about Dave getting baptized at the outdoor baptism. But Dave had one stipulation: it had to be in the ocean.
“I’ve been surfing since I was 12 years old. I would go out and catch waves and talk to God out there. I’ve always done that,” Dave says. “I’d paddle out and I’d be sitting there waiting for a nice wave and I would just talk to God. I feel like I belong there.”
So on a sunny Saturday, in mid-October 2014 Chuck and Dave marched out into the Gulf of Mexico from the beach of Galveston with their small group and the Frazier family watching.
“When he got baptized is when I really realized that he got it,” Toni says. “I just witnessed what it means, that God loves us no matter what, and that since Jesus died for our sins we can continue to live our lives glorifying him. You can just do so much more in your life knowing that you are loved that much… It’s the story of redemption. I almost want to say survival. But it’s obviously more than just survival. This is the story of Dave gaining his freedom.”
* * *
Today, if you met Dave, now 67, you might not know all that he has been through. He’s a fun-loving, hard-working, humble man who loves to laugh and make others smile. Dave still attends Transition Plus with Jerry Clark who says that Dave hasn’t missed a meeting in over two years for any other reason than a prior commitment to his family. Dave serves as a part of the First Impressions team at Clear Creek Community Church and still attends the same small group. He and Toni own their own house now. He goes by “Grampi Dave” there, courtesy of his 5-year-old granddaughter, Lily.
His days of wandering around drunk in the streets of L.A. are far behind him.
But don’t think that everything is easy now that Dave goes to church and has a relationship with Jesus. He’ll be the first to tell you that it’s anything but easy. Though he is far removed from the destruction of his past, he still has to face the ramifications of it. Aside from health issues resulting from years of alcohol abuse, and the effects of PTSD, Dave is also trying to rectify his relationship with Shannon, his daughter from his first marriage. After finding a letter from Shannon written decades ago, Dave wrote back. But the damage of having an absent father and separated parents has seemingly left its mark. Dave hopes, and continues to pray, for healing in Shannon who is now 43 and has a family of her own.
The Dave she used to know isn’t the same man anymore.
“There are things he can do that I could never approach,” Chuck Fulcher said. “Dave can pray with conviction about someone who has PTSD or someone who’s on the verge of suicide or something, because he’s been there. He knows exactly what it is and he can relate to that person with compassion. He can talk to these people and they’ll listen to him. They might be polite and listen to me, but I’ve never blown anything up or shot anything. I don’t even own a gun! You can’t change the past. But God’s allowed him to go through things, and God is using those experiences.”
Yes, life has left David Frazier battle-scarred and close to death on multiple occasions. But he continues to fight, it just looks a little different than it used to. Instead of fighting for his own survival, he fights to help lead his fellow veterans into the freedom in Christ he has come to know. Instead of fighting against his guilt and his past, he fights to be the best husband, father, grandfather, church member, friend, mentor, and Christ-follower he can be. He fights because he’s a soldier. He just follows the orders of a different leader now.