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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Vietnam Veterans Reach Out to Today's Returning Troops

A few recent reflections on the invaluable role Vietnam veterans play in helping those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan today. The first, from the North County Times:

In combat, the older former warrior told the young Marines, "funny things happen." Weeks, months and even years after combat, he continued, those "funny things" can re-emerge as haunting nightmares, jittery paranoia or the root of any number of abhorrent and self-destructive behaviors.

"You cannot take a normal person and put them in that environment without it affecting them," the speaker, David Pelkey, told about 25 Camp Pendleton Marines who recently returned from Iraq. Pelkey, a Mira Mesa resident and a Vietnam veteran who served in the Army's 1st Cavalry Division, is the national director of American Combat Veterans of War, a nonprofit group founded seven years ago by Carlsbad resident Bill Rider, also a Vietnam veteran.

"We try to use ourselves as an example of what not to do in terms of denying the fact that you have been impacted by the war," Rider said about the program. While theirs is not the only program about post-traumatic stress, Rider said that American Combat Veterans of War is unique in providing firsthand advice from other veterans to the troops.

"We're here because we care about you, damn it, and there's something you don't understand that we do," said retired Marine Col. Al Slater, a Navy Cross recipient who also spoke to the returning troops. "We don't want your generation to go through the hell we did."

In educational interest, article(s) quoted from extensively.


The Marine Corps diagnosed 5,174 cases of post-traumatic stress between the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and April 2007, according to statistics provided by the service to the North County Times.

During Tuesday's gathering, five veterans shared their battle stories, both physical and mental, as part a series of required debriefings that returning troops must attend in their first week back from a combat zone.

The talk, colored with stories about firefights, helicopter crashes and lost buddies, may have been the most riveting of the debriefings. But more than just hearing chilling war stories, the troops received practical advice about how to identify signs of stress.

"When I came back from my first tour, I had similar experiences," said 1st Lt. Jake Cusack, 25, who had just returned from working on a border transition team in Iraq. "You'd hear a loud noise, and think it's an IED (improvised explosive devise)."

Cusack said it was meaningful to him to see former Marines helping today's younger troops. Also impressed was Master Sgt. Ernie Lonza, 43, who had just returned from Tikrit in Iraq's Anbar province where 11,000 locally based troops are serving this year.

"I'm humbled by listening to them," Lonza said.

Lonza, who is stationed at the Marine Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, said it was more meaningful to hear from veterans with firsthand experience. The lectures left him alert to signs that may indicate stress in his own life.

Last month, NPR's All Things Considered showcased warrior debriefings taking place at Camp Pendleton, which now include Vietnam veterans like Rider sharing their own stories.

Another story from the [Redding] Record Searchlight:

"When I got home I thought I was fine," said Jim Tyson of Shingletown, who served in the U.S. Army from 1996 to 2003, doing tours in Kosovo, Bosnia, Macedonia and Iraq. Tyson drove an armored Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer, like those often seen at construction sites around the north state, but in wartime he used the massive tractor for destruction.

With the help of his uncle, Jim Richards of Redding, a veteran of three tours in Vietnam who suffers from PTSD himself, Tyson recognized his problem and sought help. He now regularly meets with a counselor and is on antianxiety medication. Richards said it's difficult for someone who has been hardened by military service to admit he needs help.

"Soldiers learn how to grit their teeth and bear pain," he said.

Both said they think the military should put every returning soldier and Marine through counseling to search for subtle signs of PTSD. While veterans are screened when they leave the service, the two men said that step isn't enough. They said there also should be classes about PTSD for the family and friends of veterans.

Bonded not just by blood, but by their combat experience, Tyson and Richards said veterans dealing with PTSD can get the most help from talking to other veterans. With few lines drawn between who is friend or foe in combat zones like Iraq, Tyson said the nature of fighting today adds to the stress endured by those in the military.

"Nobody plays by the rules anymore except us," he said.

The ever-present dangers of bombs hidden along roadways and suicide bombers who could be anybody cause those serving in Iraq to be tense and ready for action at all times. Once home, it's hard to turn that readiness off, Tyson said. Triggers for PTSD are ever present on the home front: The sound of a jet. Smell of gasoline. A flash of light.

From the Christian Science Monitor:

Marine Sgt. Jeremiah Workman wasn't born yet when his friend Neil Kenny received the Navy Commendation Medal for dragging dead and wounded soldiers out of combat in Vietnam. But he has a good idea what it must have been like.

In 2004, during the second battle of Fallujah in Iraq, Sergeant Workman pushed through exploding grenades and machine-gun fire to rescue 10 trapped marines. His bravery earned him the Navy Cross, the military's second-highest honor. Yet today Mr. Kenny and Workman share more than medals. They came home from war with severe psychological wounds – anxiety, anger, and depression. More than their Marine brotherhood and shared valor, it is the painful legacy of combat that has now forged a singular bond between them. "I can tell him everything," Workman says. "I don't trust anybody. He's one of the few people I can talk to."

Their relationship is symbolic of a grass-roots movement by Vietnam veterans to help soldiers returning from Iraq cope with the mental rigors of war and ease the transition to civilian life. Across the country, both groups of Vietnam veterans and individual former soldiers are pitching in to help console, counsel, or just be a voice on the other end of the phone to those who have served in the Middle East.

Throughout history, veterans of one war have always helped those of another. But rarely has the homecoming experience of two sets of veterans been so different, and the bonds between them so deep, as those from Vietnam and Iraq.

One reason is that many Vietnam-era soldiers understand the trauma that some of today's returning fighters are going through and want to help them in ways they feel they never were. Kenny is currently mentoring five Iraq war veterans. When he looks at today's young soldiers, he sees a mirror image of himself returning from Southeast Asia at 19. "That's where I was," he says. "I don't want to turn my back on them." ...

Workman has received intensive therapy and medication for PTSD since returning from Iraq. He says these remedies help, but he feels frustrated with the care he gets through the US Department of Veterans Affairs. "All these doctors that went to school for however many years – they've never been to war," he says. "They're reading about PTSD out of a book."

Though Kenny isn't a trained therapist, he gives Workman practical advice on how to deal with problems based on his own experiences. "I tell him what he shouldn't worry about – what he can let go," Kenny says. "But I don't try to run his life."

Their relationship now goes beyond counselor-confidant: They have become fast friends. The men talk several times a week on the phone. They get together whenever possible, for a family Christmas or a Broadway show. "He's like a father figure to me," Workman says, then jokes: "But it's not like we go out golfing together."

Others see the importance of old and new veterans forging bonds, too. Dennis Fetko, a behavioral psychologist and Vietnam veteran, still struggles with psychological problems from his service in Southeast Asia. As both a therapist and patient, Dr. Fetko believes that doctors who empathize with their patients can provide greater support. ...

Even soldiers who aren't struggling with clinical problems often find unusual support in their veteran predecessors. Miko Watkins, an Army nurse, talks about how lonely and disconnected she felt after returning from Iraq in 2003. On a windswept day, she stands beside the Vietnam Veterans Women's Memorial in Washington, D.C. "My commanding officer thought coming here would be cathartic," Ms. Watkins says.

Earlier, Watkins had listened to nurses from the Vietnam era share their stories and she recounted some of her own experiences in Iraq. "I don't speak about it very often, because it just brings me to tears," Watkins says, glancing at the bronze memorial – a tableau of three nurses caring for a wounded soldier. "The Vietnam veterans here understand me, even if I can't explain it fully."

She pauses. "I should have done this a long time ago."

Army Capt. Laureen Otto, who also attended the storytelling event, served as a trauma nurse coordinator in Iraq and sits on the memorial's board of directors. While Ms. Otto has always gotten along with older veterans, her connection with the Vietnam generation changed markedly after she came back from war. "It was immediate," Otto says. "And I no longer ask them what it's like in Vietnam. We both just know."

Obviously such bonds do a great deal of good for our returning troops; but, they likely do wonders for our Vietnam veterans, too. Helping each other in this way may bring them closer to making some small semblance of sense of their collective experience and the load they uniquely carry with them throughout their lives.

This two-way lifeline, a hard-wrought silver lining, might return a sense of purpose and hope in humanity to our veterans.

Thank you, Vietnam veterans, for all you do.

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