Veterans find war memories still vivid

Perry Point, Vet Centers offer help in coming home

Cecil County

April 06, 2003|By Anne Lauren Henslee | Anne Lauren Henslee,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PERRYVILLE - Perry Point seems worlds away from Baghdad. But ask Bob Patterson, an engineer technician at the Perry Point VA Medical Center and a Vietnam War veteran, and he will tell you otherwise.

For him and others who fought in wars past, the battle remains. And the nation's latest conflict with Iraq is bringing the memories back.

Patterson was 18 years old when he left his home in Delaware for the jungles of Vietnam. It was 1967. For 12 months, he fought alongside fellow soldiers of the 1st Air Cavalry Division. Seven days before his tour was up, Patterson's squadron was hit. He was one of only three to survive. Severely injured, 19- year-old Patterson returned to the United States, where he spent months in a hospital, recuperating from his wounds.

His return home from the horrors of Vietnam was a rude awakening. "When I got out of the hospital, my mom wanted me to go up and get pictures taken," he recalled. "We went uptown in Wilmington, and I got an egg thrown at me."

The hostility that greeted him, combined with the combat he had endured, left him feeling out of place, fearful and insecure.

"Afterwards, I stayed away from everybody. I didn't want to talk about it or have anything to do with it. I didn't even want people to know I was a Vietnam vet for a long while, just because of the people demonstrating and spitting at you when you walked down the street."

It has been more than three decades since Patterson returned from Vietnam, but on March 19, as U.S. troops invaded Iraq, the memories returned. They are memories he would rather forget.

"They're things that I'd forgotten for years," he said. "But it's starting to make them resurface ... sleepless nights again, going back into being alone, trying to withdraw like I did when I came back from Vietnam."

These days, he is awake at all hours of the night. He functions through daytime, out of necessity, but when he returns home, he says, the new war feels much like the old one.

"You wake up and wonder where you are again. I try not to watch too much TV, because if you watch it, it really starts getting bad on you. I've found myself several times going back to the TV, turning it on to see what's happening, making sure our guys are OK."

He understands too well what today's soldiers are experiencing. "It's not knowing if you're going to make it through the day, not knowing if you're going to make it through the night. The nights are long. If you get into a night firefight, you can't wait till daylight comes, to make sure all of your guys are safe."

Human target

Once a soldier goes to war, said Patterson, "you grow up real quick. You sit here and train and train and train.

"But it's different when you're shooting at a target; now you're shooting at a human being. It's a totally different ballgame. You're actually shooting at someone that's living, breathing, can talk and bleeds just like you do."

Last week's shooting of several Iraqi women and children at a checkpoint brought back the memory of Patterson's "first kill" during Vietnam.

"That threw me for a loop, because I shot a woman. She was carrying a baby - but I thought she was carrying a grenade. ... All the people who are doing these demonstrations, they don't know. It's wartime. This country was built on freedom, and we had to fight for our freedom."

For 22 years, he has worked as an engineer technician with Perry Point, a medical center that provides comprehensive inpatient and outpatient mental health care to Maryland's veterans.

VA health care

Last year, Maryland's VA Health Care System, which includes centers at Perry Point, in Baltimore and in Loch Raven, recorded about 557,826 outpatient visits and had 50,414 new veteran patients sign up for services. Those numbers are expected to increase by year's end.

When Patterson first came back from service, he was unable to hold a job for more than a few months. "I just couldn't get along with people," he explained. "When I first started here, I was always by myself, but now I've gotten to where I can talk to people and get along with everybody. Try to, anyway."

Still, he is unable to go to places such as shopping malls or stadiums. The discomfort of being around large groups of people is too much for him to bear.

He is quick to admit that he is far from alone. "I'm better than some, worse than others," he said. "Most guys who've been through combat are going through the same things that I'm going through."

In Elkton, Veterans Affairs Vet Center team leader Lon Campbell meets with veterans and their loved ones and oversees the center's counseling services.

During the Vietnam War, Campbell was a casualty escort for people who were killed in Vietnam, bringing the bodies back to their families. After Vietnam, he went to work at Perry Point's psychiatric ward. In 1980, he began work in Elkton as a counselor, then in 1985 as team leader.

Reaction to trauma

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