Vietnam veterans react to gulf crisis WAR IN THE GULF


February 11, 1991|By Holly Selby

Somehow, a solution to the gulf crisis had come to rest squarely on Jim Rhoda Sr.'s shoulders -- at least in his dreams.

"I met Hussein himself and he more or less charged me -- put the pressure on me -- that [peace] is my responsibility," says Mr. Rhoda, a Towson resident who served as a Marine in Vietnam. "They had a bomb strapped to my family until I was able to get to Washington to negotiate."

When Mr. Rhoda came home from Vietnam in 1969, he often suffered from flashbacks and recurring nightmares in which his family was endangered. In recent years, however, the dreams came less frequently.

But he, as well as many other Vietnam veterans, has found that news from the gulf often comes hand-in-hand with visions of Vietnam. And across the nation, counseling centers report increased phone calls and inquiries from Vietnam veterans who want to talk about their reactions to war. Both wars.

For Mr. Rhoda, the ferocity of the battle of Khafji brought back memories of another battle -- this one in Khe San, South Vietnam. There, Mr. Rhoda's Marine unit was pounded with 2,000 rounds of artillery a day.

"It's deja vu," he says.

That kind of response is to be expected, says Aphrodite Matsakis, clinical coordinator of the Vet Center in Silver Spring, Va. "Everything that happens to us is recorded in our brains. It's stored there especially in a trauma situation, a matter of life and death," she says. "When you have a stimulant, such as television, it would be the most natural thing in the world for that to trigger a memory."

After all, "combat vets are the people . . . the most fit to understand what it is we're involved with," says Tom Mertaugh, director of trauma recovery services for the Veterans Medical Center at Perry Point, Va. "To them, this has a reality that other people cannot share."

Those who have contacted the Elkton Vet Center have "run the whole spectrum," says Lon Campbell, team leader at the center. Some had been diagnosed and treated for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) years ago. Others were seeking counseling for the first time.

Since January, support groups at the Baltimore Vet Center on Washington Avenue have designated time during each regular session to deal with emotions as they rise and fall with new developments in the Gulf, says Jim Workman, the center's team leader.

When the war began, "memories came tumbling out . . . You have to give people time to express themselves about the war because some may have had a bad night," he says.

Despite thousands of memories held in common, emotions expressed by veterans can't be generalized, says Ms. Matsakis. "Remember the only things these people have in common are they all served their country at that particular time."

Certainly at a recent meeting of the Vietnam Veterans Association Baltimore chapter, the air was thick with cigarette smoke and talk of war as shaggy-haired men in jeans sat elbow to elbow with clean-cut businessmen.

As their conversations progressed, it was clear that opinions varied: Some men made disparaging remarks about anti-war protesters. A few whispered rejoinders in their defense. Nonetheless, the motion to plan a parade to welcome home the Gulf veterans passed unanimously.

But even the flood of American support for the soldiers in the Gulf is bittersweet, says Mr. Workman. "What has struck me is the twin pull some veterans feel about the outpouring of concern for the Desert Storm people: On one hand, [Vietnam vets] feel happy these vets will have support. At the same time, some think: 'I went without that.' "

And other responses to the war differ, as well. Jack Day, who served as a chaplain in Vietnam in 1968-'69 and is now vice president for program development at JSA Healthcare Corp. in Columbia, did not support the Vietnam War, but feels this war is necessary. Nonetheless, Mr. Day has found himself trying to "solve" the war -- as though assigned the conflict as part of his job -- over and over again in a dream.

"I find myself in a position to try and solve the war as a problem. That's what I do -- I deal with a lot of data and I talk to people and I develop solutions," he says. "In my dream, that was part of my job."

A deep and disappointing sense of personal guilt has been Vietnam veteran John Ketwig's reaction. "I took [the start of the war] personally. I had written a book. I began to think maybe I could have chosen a little bit better words, maybe I could have persuaded people a little bit better," says Mr. Ketwig, a peace activist and author of ". . . and a hard rain fell," about his experiences in Vietnam.

On the first day of the war, Mr. Ketwig's emotions erupted into physical action: "I went downstairs and pounded on the drums and just unloaded. Usually, I try to make it musical, this was like thunder."

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