BOARDMAN, Ohio (WKBN) – On a Wednesday evening in a small room at Boardman’s Creekside Fitness and Health Center, Rayen High School graduate and Vietnam veteran Joe Sepesy is having a dance lesson with instructor Linda McPhail.
McPhail says dancing comes naturally to Sepesy.
“We went to the ball at Kent State two weeks ago, and he had to start writing down names of who he was supposed to do each dance with, because the women were seeking him out,” she said.
It was a long, wild ride that brought Sepesy to McPhail’s lessons.
Sepesy spent three years as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam during the Cambodian incursion of the early 1970s, calling the experience “two months of hellacious flying.” This military career ended in April of 1970, when his plane was shot down in April of 1970, compressing his spine and causing physical problems as a result.
After Vietnam, Sepesy got work as a Youngstown school teacher, where he worked for 30 years, even serving as president of the teachers’ union.
By all accounts, he appeared to be living a normal life. But inside, Vietnam was still there.
Thirty-one years after the war — in 2004 — Sepesy was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He said the symptoms were always there after the war.
“I became more intense. There were more problems, socially,” he said. “It all added up, so I went to the VA clinic.”
At the VA clinic, a counselor challenged Sepesy to come up with something to improve his quality of life. So in 2009, he chose — of all things — ballroom dancing.
“When he came in, he was sort of a gruff and scary man and very loud and very direct, and he kind of put me off,” McPhail said of her first time meeting her dance partner.
But after just two lessons, McPhail could see Sepesy’s determination to succeed. So she sought out additional training to help him.
“Now he’s the class greeter. He’s the person who makes the new people feel welcome,” she said. “He’s a totally different Joe than the man that I met.”
Sepesy has published two books on the therapeutic benefits of dancing and has also written his memoir titled, “Once We Flew.”
Forty-two years after his last tour in Vietnam, 11 years after being diagnosed with PTSD and six years after taking up ballroom dancing, for Joe Sepesy, life is good.
“I became more active, I lost weight, I no longer had to wear a leg brace, my limp diminished,” he said. “I was socializing with people having a great time… It was all this wonderful healing process… and that turned my life around.”
Sepesy says he has talked with other veterans who have PTSD and has told them about ballroom dancing. He says they listen, but it is tough to take the first step out onto a dance floor.