By CRAIG FREILICH
They might not have scars they can show, or a place where a limb used to be, but decades after they came home, some veterans of the Vietnam War can be just as disabled by memories that affect their lives today.
As much as 35 years after their military service, some St. Lawrence County vets are still plagued by paralyzing memories and worried about others that aren’t getting help, including the new veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Significant strides were made in understanding the lingering stress of war following the Vietnam conflict, but the idea is nothing new to veterans of previous wars. And it appears that veterans of America’s more recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering equally as hard.
“All the guys here are getting treatment,” said one Vietnam-era veteran recently at a support group that meets periodically in Canton. “There are a lot of veterans out there who are not getting treatment.”
Each of the 10 men at the meeting is receiving treatment for PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder and asked that their names not be included in this story. The group is led by counselor and former Army nurse Nelly Coakley of Canton, who served in Vietnam.
Most of the men in the group are Vietnam vets, while a couple have seen service in Iraq. They are skeptical that a new policy from the Department of Veterans Affairs easing requirements for PTSD treatment will really make a difference.
“You have to fight for everything you get from the VA. Unless you have verification, you can’t get help,” one man said.
Until now, vets had to prove that their condition is the result of combat, being injured or witnessing death or injury. The VA now says that having served in a combat zone might be enough.
Aside from even getting into treatment, many said that if they ask for help or are diagnosed with PTSD, the continuing stigma could be enough to end their military careers while leaving them few resources to cope in civilian life.
PTSD can arise out of potentially traumatic events, such as military combat or terrorist attacks, gang violence or any violence, accidents or natural disasters such as tornadoes or floods, and from physical or sexual abuse, for example. It is an extension of the natural fear one would have had at the time of the event or situation.
Many veterans will see their stress diminish over time, not developing into full-blown PTSD. But for others, it’s not that easy. The stress can grow and lead to other problems, such as substance abuse including alcoholism; difficulty dealing with family, friends, work and otherwise ordinary situations; depression; and violence.
Examples of PTSD symptoms are apparent in the stories these vets tell. Many said annual Fourth of July celebrations at home can be challenging.
An Iraq veteran said, “My father is a Vietnam vet, and he was always jumpy around fireworks. Now I realize what was going on. I have a young son and I have a big problem. He had one of those snappers, and he set it off, and I wanted to kill him.”
“I got sober in 1984, then got drunk 18 years later. I was out of control,” said another. “It’s still a struggle, every day.”
Another, recalling nights in Vietnam, said “They expect you to come home and be able to sleep at night. I used to get to sleep, with a quart of whiskey.”
Recalling the brutality of war, one man said “I can’t eat barbecued chicken anymore.”
“You don’t know what little things will bother you, and not knowing promotes this hypervigilance,” said Coakley.
“A guy gets in line at the checkout in a store, and more people line up behind him. He gets anxious. He has to put the things back and leave,” she says.
“People in society don’t know. Nobody recognizes these things.”
Aside from medical help, a job is one of the things that can be most helpful in getting readjusted to life at home. But the men say potential employers frequently see them as damaged goods and won’t even give them a chance when they find out they are having trouble coping.
Many feel that the government seems to have forgotten a pledge, one that was at least implied when they signed up, that they would be taken care of if anything happened to them while they were in the service.
“I’ve tried to get a job. I have veteran’s preference points,” one man said, referring to the “extra credit” veterans are supposed to get when applying for certain types of jobs, such as government positions.
But they say that, despite kind and encouraging words from one federal government agency that has dozens of employees in the area, they have not hired any vets recently, while they have hired other people.
“We’re combat vets. We’re not to be trusted,” one said, and shook his head.
“That’s a problem, employers looking the other way,” Coakley says.
“What happens to these veterans who are struggling to begin with when they keep getting the door slammed in their faces? It’s creating new obstacles.
“The vets come home after having had a genuine sense of purpose. So where is that sense of purpose now? If you come home and can’t get a job with a sense of fulfillment, being part of something bigger than yourself, you can lose a sense of identity.”
“It isn’t just war. It’s coming back from war. It’s not just the event, it’s what you tell yourself about the event,” she said.
“They want to move back into the society they left. Some vets have a good support system, some adjust more easily. There are lots of variables.
“Many come back and don’t feel any level of comfort from society, government, even the military.”
“People tend to think of PTSD and all of a sudden these veterans are a threat to society. But PTSD is not and indicator of a threat to society.”
Coakley says that these perceptions in society, the lack of welcoming employers, and family tension all can deepen the difficulty that a vet might have in fitting back into civilian life.
Coakley challenges some of the assumptions people make.
“Vets are aware of these problems, and they work much harder on control, because they are aware of the consequences of a lack of control. They need to be given credit for that. The rest of the population doesn’t have that kind of control. Yes, this condition will stay with them for the rest of their lives, but it doesn’t mean it has control.”
Coakley says some of the best support these vets have is from other vets, other people who understand just what is going on, who have “been there and done that.”
“But we need more help from society.”
“We need more employers to help vets move back into society. Not having a job just adds to the problem of readjustment.”
Coakley also says vets need some help from the legal system when they get into trouble with the law, such as the veterans’ courts that have been set up in Buffalo and Rochester, where they are more likely to get fair treatment.
A new problem that Coakley believes she has identified is with memory beyond what might normally be associated with the distractedness of PTSD, but only with veterans from the recent Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.
“Every Iraq and Afghanistan vet I have worked with has problems with concentration and memory, to a person,” Coakley says, to a degree she hasn’t seen with vets from earlier conflicts.
She has wondered what is causing it. “What’s what? Is it the PTSD, or some chemical exposure? I can’t explain it.”
But she has learned that she has to “call every vet before an appointment to remind them.” The men in the room confirm what she is saying: forgetting where they dropped the keys to the house, forgetting appointments, beyond what they knew as normal.
“It’s not a lack of motivation, not a lack of commitment. The vast majority of these vets are highly motivated,” she says.
In the end the best advice might b as simple as one vet put it:
“You’re not going to forget it. It’s definitely not going away. But it’ll get better.”
Many experts say that the earlier these feelings can be addressed, the better the outcome is likely to be.
The National Institute of Mental Health says symptoms of PTSD generally fall into three categories:
• re-experiencing the trauma: flashbacks, frequently triggered by events that bring to mind the original events or feelings, or bad dreams recalling the events, or the memories all by themselves
• avoidance: staying away from people or situations that can bring the incident to mind, or completely avoiding people, maintaining a numbed frame of mind; having difficulty remembering the events; withdrawing out of a sense of guilt, or symptoms related to depression, such as not enjoying things that used to provide pleasure.
• hyperarousal: “hypervigilance,” or remaining on guard and being startled easily, feeling tense and on-edge, and having angry outbursts. Hyperarousal is usually constant, as opposed to being triggered, and can make concentration or sleeping difficult.