StoryCorps’ Military Voices Initiative records stories from members of the U.S. military and their families.
With tattooed arms and a well-worn leather jacket, Duane Topping looks like the kind of guy you’d meet at your neighborhood dive bar. In fact, after serving three tours as an Army specialist in Iraq, that’s where he spent many nights to try to ease his anxiety.
But while he was deployed, Duane found comfort in a more unlikely place.
When the soldiers were distributed care packages, split up between male and female, he gravitated toward the “girl ones,” Duane, 42, says in a StoryCorps interview recorded with his wife, Jamie Topping, 39, in May.
“I liked the scents better, I liked the soap better, I liked the lotion,” he says. He started reading fashion magazines and giving manicures to other soldiers in the Army. “Instead of the Sports Illustrated and Men’s Health, I’d find the Vogues and Marie Claire‘s,” he says.
“I would tease you,” Jamie says.
Duane says that at first, it was a way to stay connected with his wife, but his burgeoning interests in fashion would also help him cope with his transition from military to civilian life.
In 2012, when Duane medically retired from the Army due to post-traumatic stress disorder and a back injury, he had trouble reacclimating to daily life. “I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself,” he says.
Duane struggled with anxiety, anger and a lack of direction.
“You lost yourself,” Jamie says.
“I mean, I tried being a motorcycle mechanic. That lasted about three weeks,” he says. He turned to drinking and staying out late to deal with his PTSD.
Jamie says she would sometimes find her husband in the yard at night, when he would experience flashbacks, she says.
“Digging foxholes, I guess,” Duane says.
When Duane decided to pick up sewing as a hobby, he put the sewing machine to use as soon as he bought it. “It just blossomed from there,” he says.
The couple remembers Duane’s first creation — a purse — in amusement. “It was upside down,” he says.
“And inside out,” Jamie adds.
“Those first designs — I didn’t know how to do zippers, I couldn’t do sleeves,” Duane says.
“But it didn’t frustrate you,” Jamie says. “You just kept working.”
For Duane, it was never about mastering the craft. “At that time, it was so much about finding my peace,” he says. “So much of the world is just noise. And for me, it’s that noise that brings the anxiety.”
Sewing helped Duane tune out the stressful stimuli that intensified his anxiety.
“When I sew, that world of noise and chaos is a world that I have control over,” he says. “That’s my six inches and no one else can get in there. And I think, for me, that’s where the peace is.”
Those early days of sewing led Duane to break into the fashion business with Jamie. The couple now runs a successful Denver-based design house, Topping Designs, and recently returned home from their first official runway show at New York Fashion Week.
Audio produced for Weekend Edition by Kelly Moffitt.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.