No Forgetting: Veterans and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
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JIM KIRCHMAR: I’ve been 18 ever since I’ve been in Vietnam. And I’ve been 18 ever since then. I’ve been fighting a war every day.
SUSAN DENTZER: Jim Kirchmar, age 57, served in Vietnam as a Marine 37 years ago.
He’s one of roughly 1 million Vietnam veterans thought to have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. For years, Kirchmar has battled PTSD’s classic symptoms, including flashbacks to the horrors of war.
JIM KIRCHMAR: You can be driving down the road and your wife will say, “Where you at?” You know. “Where’d you go?” You know. “Do you know how fast you’re going?” And I’ll say, “I’m here,” you know. But you don’t tell her, “Hey, I just got ambushed, or they just dropped bombs on me” or something.
SUSAN DENTZER: Now, with troops coming home from Iraq, there are concerns that as many may be similarly affected. Pentagon officials say that at least 21 troops have committed suicide since the war began last March. That’s despite the fact that teams of mental health professionals have been working with troops in Iraq to help them cope with the stress of combat.
Back in the U.S., more than 3,500 veterans of both the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts have already undergone counseling. They’ve been seen at a network of veteran’s administration centers across the country. The VA’s Alfonso Batres, a clinical psychologist and Vietnam army veteran, heads that vet center program.
ALFONSO BATRES: We’re quite concerned about National Guard and Reserve soldiers, the different proportion in this war. We want to be prepared for that population because they’re going to be exposed and put in harm’s way in a higher number than they ever have before.
SUSAN DENTZER: Psychiatrist Robert Ursano is an expert in post-traumatic stress disorder at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. Located in Bethesda, Md., it’s the military’s medical school.
DR. ROBERT URSANO: Throughout time, the responses to war have been called different things. In the Civil War, it was called nostalgia. In World War I, PTSD was called shell-shock. In World War II, it was called combat fatigue. Beginning in the 1980s, we use the term PTSD.
SUSAN DENTZER: Ursano says PTSD is an event-related disorder brought on by traumas ranging from rape to serious motor vehicle accidents. In many people, these stresses somehow alter brain chemistry and produce such PTSD symptoms as nightmares, anxiety, social withdrawal and even depression. Far and away, one of the strongest triggers of PTSD is exposure to combat.
DR. ROBERT URSANO: From World War II, POWs — prisoners of war — have been shown to have as high as 50 percent of them having PTSD that might persist for decades and decades. After the Vietnam era, perhaps 35, 38 percent of individuals experienced PTSD, of those who experienced combat exposure.
There have been no large-scale studies of the first Gulf War, but based on the studies that have been done, the rates of PTSD were somewhere between perhaps 7 and 12 percent.
SUSAN DENTZER: As long as there’s been combat stress, there’s also been a stigma about it in much of the military. Troops who’ve returned from Iraq with psychological problems were reluctant to speak to us on camera.
So to learn more firsthand about combat veterans and PTSD, we came here, to a veterans’ counseling centers in Morgantown, W.Va. It’s one of 206 community walk-in centers across the country. Johnny Bragg, a Vietnam vet and trained counselor, directs the center.
JOHNNY BRAGG: There is no eraser. Nobody goes to war and comes back the same. Ever. It helps when there are people that can relate to them, which are other veterans.
SUSAN DENTZER: Much of the work of the vet centers is simply to get veterans to start talking, often after years when they perceive nobody cared.
VETERAN: I was scared to come down here because of what neighbors would say, et cetera.
SUSAN DENTZER: At Morgantown, Bragg and other counselors lead regular combat rap groups among vets from four wars, including the Korean War and the 1990 operation Desert Storm. Clide Judy, now 82, was an Air Force pilot in World War II. He’s still plagued by memories of what happened when the engines failed on a plane he piloted off the cost of Yugoslavia.
CLIDE JUDY: I glided my plane in to about 6,000 feet, gave the order to bail out. One man’s chute didn’t open up and fell 6,000 feet into the sea to his death. The second person, the helpers heard him hollering for help and thought a shark had gotten him.
SUSAN DENTZER: Judy was eventually rescued by the Navy; some 50 years later and after suffering for all those decades, he was finally diagnosed with PTSD.
What are the pieces that come back to you over and over again?
CLIDE JUDY: Seeing the faces of the oldest men in the crew, Italian waste gunner that his chute didn’t open up. I see that fella. I see the other — the radio operator that got eaten by a shark. It bothers me, and I just try to think, “Well, what could I have done to save the lives of those fellows?”
SUSAN DENTZER: Jim Wolfe is one of many veterans who speak as though the events that traumatized them happened yesterday. Wolfe was a marine in Vietnam when he went on a search and destroy mission to one village.
JIM WOLFE: When I blowed up the village, shrapnel had hit the baby in the chest, and it had a sucking chest wound. It had died, and its mother was screaming and looking at everybody, and I knew I had just did that.
So I felt so bad about it that me and a friend of mine, Larry Slossen, he was my squad team leader, we’d buried the baby and took our boots and cut the shoestrings off and made a cross and everything and buried the baby.
DR. ROBERT URSANO: There is an experience of, when children die, of not only losing a life, but also losing a picture of the future, and I think we all experience that. One way of thinking about PTSD is that it’s actually a disorder of forgetting. It’s not a problem of remembering; it’s that we’re unable to forget.
SUSAN DENTZER: Ursano and other PTSD experts say it isn’t known why some who experience trauma suffer PTSD, while others don’t. It’s also not clear why some people recover from PTSD after a number of months, while still others experience the symptoms for years. Most of the vets with PTSD whom we met at Morgantown were long-term sufferers. Many, like Larry Knisell, diagnosed three decades after he served in Vietnam, are taking antidepressant medication.
LARRY KNISELL: I’ve been on, I’d probably say, 20 different antidepressants and just all of the chlorazipan [ph], the trazodone. I’ve been through the whole gauntlet.
SUSAN DENTZER: Many of the vets have been in and out hospitals, marriages, drug and alcohol treatment centers.
JIM KIRCHMAR: I medicated myself with whiskey, beer, and everything for years. And then I come here and Johnny Bragg said, “Hey, that’s not the way you do it.”
SUSAN DENTZER: Veterans also told us they’d had to quit their jobs when the suffering became too great. As a result, many now collect roughly $25,000 a year in PTSD-related compensation payments from the VA.
VETERAN: I didn’t ask for that check. And if you want to jump in my head and live how I live, I’ll give you the check and I’ll go back to the coal mines and make my $60,000 a year if I could sleep, if I could get along with people and not get wild and crazy.
SUSAN DENTZER: Morgantown vet center Director Bragg says the similarities between the Iraq conflict and the wars the veterans fought have in many cases worsened their symptoms.
JOHNNY BRAGG: You’re starting to hear the phrase “guerrilla war” a whole lot more. The weapons are becoming the same as they were in Vietnam — rocket-propelled grenades, command-detonated mines, the casualties.
SUSAN DENTZER: Some of the vets told us that watching footage from Iraq had made them suicidal. And that was just the most recent time they’ve had such impulses.
Did you all have that feeling? Did you all think about committing suicide at one point or another?
VETERAN: Because we’ve all been there and done that, and that’s what it did to us.
SUSAN DENTZER: The veterans offered this advice for returning troops:
VETERAN: Tell those young guys that are coming back — sailors, airmen, army, air … Marines — help’s out there to get. Don’t live with it for 30 years in here, because by the time you live with it 30 years in here, you’re pretty bad off.
SUSAN DENTZER: And for today’s veterans, unlike those of some earlier wars, at least places like the vet centers will now be there to help.