He speaks of decades lost in a drunken delirium -- until the psychologist cuts in.

How would you label yourself during those years, the doctor asks.

Robert Eadie looks up from under his black baseball cap that reads "Vietnam Veteran" and into Dr. Jamie McDonagh's eyes.

"Murderer."

"That's what I was supposed to do," he says. "To kill people."

McDonagh nods as Eadie describes to his peer support group how he left that life. He quit drinking and smoking. He went back to church and got baptized. He started coming to the Ralph H. Johnson Veterans Affairs Medical Center more often.

And is there a label that fits you now?, McDonagh wants to know.

Eadie pauses for a moment. In the book bag beside his chair he totes oil paintings of German shepherds and decorated war veterans, pencil sketches of his brother's family at church and the county fair ribbons he won for them.

He looks to McDonagh again.

"An artist."

Nationally, a new hope

In 2002, the federal government established the New Freedom Commission on Mental Health which beginning in 2005 put a "recovery coordinator" in every Veterans Affairs hospital across the country. Despite the clinical title, that person brings to the job a faith in new research that suggests that 80 percent of mentally ill patients can heal enough to improve their lives.

In Charleston that person is McDonagh, a family man from the Midwest who speaks with a calming cadence but gets visibly excited, "jazzed" as he puts it, when patients talk about their futures.

"The glue that holds the recovery plan together is that hopefulness," he says.

Previously, the hospital on Bee Street treated its patients with regular visits and psychotropic drugs in between. It worked off a maintenance approach, trying to keep veterans from cracking, but now it expects them to get better.

A doctor never would send home a broken bone or a blocked artery without due attention. Now hospital staff treats the brain as it would any other organ. It rolled out a curriculum on June 7 and plans to expand its classes to everything from finances to sobriety to healthy relationships and sexuality.

The hospital even put one of its patients through training to become its first peer support counselor. Frank Wainwright wears loafers and a tight ponytail and speaks with the measured voice of someone who once taught college classes.

A Vietnam veteran himself, he learned in his training about the old treatment methods. Family members took mentally ill servicemen to an institution in Columbia, often to spend the remaining years of their lives.

"It was like warehousing, so to speak, and there was very little hope," he said. "You stayed there until your final days. But now things are different."

Doctors and staff expect relapses, but they hope for gradual progress. Wainwright shared with colleagues during a planning meeting that one veteran, suffering from schizophrenia, puts on headphones and dark sunglasses and pulls a hood over his head to get through the bus ride over to the hospital.

But he gets there.

Ready to sing again

David Breaker chooses a spot under the crepe myrtles in front of the hospital as the setting for his counseling session.

The only veteran of 45 so far to complete a workbook outlining his recovery goals, he sits down with McDonagh and Wainwright, who ask what he wants to do next.

Drama and singing on stage, he tells them.

He's a veteran of the Army's prestigious 82nd Airborne Division. He's also a bass-baritone.

Wearing a New Orleans Jazz Festival T-shirt, the thin man tells his doctor and his peer counselor about his days singing in operettas in high school in St. George and then at Claflin University.

He knows he needs lessons to get his voice back to performance quality, and he knows he faces obstacles of getting to classes and paying for them. McDonagh and Wainwright scribble on notebooks.

McDonagh nudges Breaker about people he knows who could give vocal lessons, and Breaker mentions a friend from church.

"Cost might not be as big a deal because we're using resources in the community," the doctor says. "I'm getting jazzed about this -- not to mix metaphors."

His notebook is covered with squares around certain words, arrows pointing to others. In less than an hour, the men craft a plan to get the veteran working his voice again.

McDonagh suggests the three of them look at a Spoleto calendar together next time they meet and maybe attend an operetta together.

Breaker nods and says, "That'd be beautiful."

A safe place

Plenty of veterans remember a different approach.

Kerry Pate served in the Navy from 1982 to 1985 where he saw a fellow serviceman put his training knife in his stomach and bleed to death while Pate applied pressure. He still tears up remembering it.

"That wasn't the worst thing," he says.

He describes a physical assault and then orders that he received -- even intimidation -- not to talk about it. He asked that the details of the attack not be published.

His younger sister calls him one of the smartest people she knows and remembers when, as a child, he wanted to be an astronaut and even wrote to NASA. With a master's degree in environmental resource management and a job entering data on marine mammal tissue, he hardly seemed the typical veteran with mental illness.

But he stopped getting out of bed for days at a time and his 6-foot frame dropped to 123 pounds. His father brought him to the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Gainesville, Fla., in 2003, and Pate came to Charleston, where his mother and sister live, in 2004.

He sometimes stayed at shelters but, neither a drunk nor an addict, preferred not to mingle with the crowd there. He would hang out inside college campus buildings and, if cleaning staff found him sleeping there, he would pretend to be a student pulling an all-nighter.

His father, a Navy man himself, called the local Veterans Affairs hospital and said, "I'm afraid my son is going to kill himself."

Pate became McDonagh's patient and, when he needs help calming down, pulls over in his car and calls his doctor. Regardless of the rest of his day, Pate now knows that when he steps inside the medical center, he can relax.

"Sometimes the moment I walk out I think, 'Oh crap. I've got to deal with the real world,' " he said. "But it's becoming less so."

Pate's days go something like this: He heads over to the Employment Security Commission on Lockwood Drive looking for job leads. He sits down with a veterans' representative he knows from over the years, who prints out an application for a job that meets Pate's credentials.

He lunches on half of a turkey sandwich at Five Loaves on Cannon Street, where he introduces the wait staff by name to his sister and young nephews.

He positions himself in social situations that test his comfort: attending Charleston Film Festival screenings, Charleston Fashion Week shows, an exhibit opening at Redux Contemporary Art Center.

"I'm almost back to when I finished my master's degree. I'm not sure what I've been doing the past 15 years," Pate says. "What's scary to me is I never know what will spiral me."

Wearing a dark blue polo shirt and khaki pants as he walks to his Volkswagen Jetta outside the employment office, he says, "People think, 'Oh you're fine. Look at you.' I've had this shirt for 12 years. I haven't bought new clothes in a decade."

He wants to get well enough to counsel others one day, to know he helped someone like himself.

"There has been a culture shift to where they're not just saying, 'That guy has schizophrenia, and that guy has depression. Here's some medication for that, and see us in a month.' That does not work," Pate says. "There is no happy pill."

'Expecting a miracle'

Frank Wainwright, wakes up at 5 a.m. every day, ready to meet his men. With a master's degree in education administration, thanks to the GI Bill, he started this job in September 2009.

"I am truly anticipating, expecting beautiful things to happen," he says after class. "I am expecting a miracle that each veteran will have his thoughts or his ability to think restored."

He chooses to say little about his own wartime experiences and he leaves it at this: "There are things that we have witnessed that we did not want to see. There are things that we have heard that we did not want to hear."

He holds a "Fundamentals of Recovery" class daily, keeping all participants in the same room, even if that means reeling in those veterans with a looser grasp on reality.

They're older men, mostly wearing T-shirts and baseball caps, and some interject irrelevant comments into Wainwright's lesson. One man brings up eye surgery, then mailing a gift to his mother and then purchasing Forever Stamps -- all with no transition and no idea how little sense he makes.

Wainwright doesn't blink. He simply leads the class to his next point: the personal toolbox.

He encourages each of the men to keep a collection of precious items that will cheer them on bad days. In his own box he stashes poems and photographs of his wife and of himself with his brother when they were little boys.

He urges the men, not knowing how long the process could take, to pursue a better life with urgency. He stresses to them to "accept our mental illness."

Key word: Our.

One of the students, Teddy Simmons, pipes up: "That war we've been in, in our heads we can't seem to get rid of it."

Wainwright asks one man to squeeze a rubber ball that immediately regenerates its round shape and another ball that, with a ring of tape around it, looks deformed.

"This is what happens to us when we don't take advantage of all that goes on in this classroom," Wainwright tells the group. "We don't know when or how long it will take for a cure for our mental illness."

"Or if there will be one," Simmons adds.

Wainwright pauses as a slight smile crosses his face, the kind of smile that comes when a teacher knows a student has grasped the toughest concept. That taking control, that hoping for miracles, also means accepting the feebleness of suffering from an illness.

Reach Allyson Bird at abird@postandcourier.com or 937-5594.