Vietnam veterans learning to cope Disorder can create 'time bombs' CARROLL COUNTY HEALTH

November 10, 1992|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Staff Writer

None of the pain and anger showed as the Vietnam veterans helped themselves to coffee in the Westminster VFW Post meeting hall and talked while they waited for the meeting to begin.

It didn't show, psychologist Anthony Swetz would explain during the meeting to members of the Carroll County chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America, because it was stuffed inside.

"And then 15 or 20 years later," he said, "it kicks you in the gut and your life becomes unmanageable."

Post-traumatic stress disorder is the term for what happens when an apparently innocent feature of an individual's environment triggers a reaction to a buried trauma. Which is how one of Dr. Swetz's clients came to wreck his house. Dr. Swetz is in private practice at Re-Entry Mental Health Services Inc. in Westminster.

The man was hanging wallpaper and couldn't get the sheets along the bottom of the walls to line up properly with the sheets on the top section. Finally, he started smashing against the walls whatever he could pick up.

In Vietnam, his assignment had been to help transport the wounded back to field hospitals or, if the helicopters arrived too late, to gather and sort the pieces of blown-apart bodies. "And he couldn't get them to fit," the psychologist said.

Dr. Swetz quarrels with the term "disorder." It's not a disorder, it's an understandable reaction, he said, so it should be called a syndrome.

Those who experience the disorder may suffer flashbacks, nightmares, sleeplessness, hyper-vigilance or emotional shutdowns. They may fight with their spouses or burst out crying for no apparent reason.

The syndrome can affect anyone who has been through a traumatic experience -- rape victims, people who witness murders -- but it was the men and women who served in Vietnam who really taught mental health professionals about post-traumatic stress, Dr. Swetz said.

An estimated 15 percent of Vietnam veterans across the nation suffer from the syndrome, and psychiatrists say they suffer in different degrees and at different times.

The Vietnam veterans in Carroll County are middle-aged now, parents, employees and community members. But some are still hurt and angry.

Steve is, by his own description, a walking time bomb. He still gets angry about being ordered to wait while enemy forces moved in and dug in, then being ordered to go and take that position. He never got a chance to clear some of those feelings before being discharged from military service.

"Forty-eight hours after [leaving] Vietnam, I was a civilian," he said. "When I got back, I had an SKS rifle, and I sat there on my mother's front steps and held it and cried, because there was no place I could turn."

Steve copes now, and he resents the image of the "crazy Vietnam veteran." When he was fired from one job, the company hired security guards to sit in the office.

Part of the problem was the way forces in Vietnam were rotated, Dr. Swetz said. In World War II and Korea, men shipped out as a unit and came home as a unit. In Vietnam, a tour was 12 months, so men were always rotating in and out as individuals.

One of the local veterans, who had been an Army MP, remembered that on his first day in Vietnam, he marked on the calendar that he had only 364 days to go. "But then when I got home, I was depressed because I got home safe. I didn't get shot. I felt that way until the war ended."

Roy was in the Navy. He remembers being called out on alert, waiting for incoming fire "and our weapons were locked up." He has guns at home, and if someone comes at him, "If I shoot you, I'm not going to wound you, I'm going to kill you," he said.

Gary was a Marine. When he came back from Vietnam, he was stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C. One night, his wife woke to find him trying to choke her. She managed to free herself, he rolled over and went back to sleep, and remembered nothing of the incident in the morning.

When he thought over the experience, Gary finally realized it was a Marine colonel he was trying to choke.

Several of the men acknowledged having arsenals at home, but one veteran asked them to stop and think about whether they aren't projecting the very "crazy Vietnam veteran" image that offends them.

"If you could survive the jungle, man, you can handle Carroll County," he said. "What are you afraid of?"

No one answered.

It is possible to get beyond a traumatic experience, usually through therapy, Dr. Swetz said.

He described a professional woman, happily married, who came to him because she had gotten depressed and was unable to enjoy a sexual relationship with her husband. Years earlier, she had been raped by her father.

"When you're a little girl, 5 years old, and your father rapes you, what you do is not tell Mommy, you stuff it down in [your stomach]," Dr. Swetz said.

Eventually, it takes more energy than an individual can muster to keep the trauma suppressed, he said. It wasn't as simple as remembering and recognizing the impact of the rape; the woman did succeed in dealing with her feelings, he said.

Although he is not a Vietnam veteran, he has worked for about 10 years with men and women who are.

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