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Decades later, Vietnam veterans trying to cope with PTSD

By Staff | Sep 24, 2015

WEST MAUI – The Mayo Clinic defines post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a mental health condition that is triggered by experiencing or witnessing a terrifying occurrence or a length of events that lead to symptoms that include nightmares, anxiety, flashbacks and uncontrollable thoughts about the experience.

Over the last 60 years or so, as thousands of military personnel returned to civilian life from tours of duty in Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East, the concern of U.S. health officials in regard to the burgeoning number of veterans diagnosed with PTSD has intensified in an attempt to treat and understand their condition.

Some of these veterans have found some relief in private and group therapy; many have not. Many wander about staring blankly into the space of that terrifying experience and what is now their anxious reality – never awakening from the nightmare.

They’re right next to you – to all of us. You’d be surprised to know just how many there are and how many you are acquainted with. I’ve just recently come to realize that I am acquainted with five Vietnam veterans here on our island home we call Maui. We’ll call them Rice Head, Chicken Neck, Snake, Guchi, and Dego.

They all served multiple tours in Vietnam, returned to civilian life and adjusted in varying degrees to the “peace” of their Maui life.

On the surface, the expression is subdued. Internally, the nightmare never went away.

Now that I stop and think about it, their eyes show a steady, blank sort of gaze that held a dark curtain across the turmoil within. They are engaged and attentive, courteous and respectful, yet they all have a nervous uneasiness in their personalities – perhaps like the anxiousness of an impending alarm or appointment, or the fear of certain disaster.

Mental health physicians and researchers began to put it together in the 1980s, and PTSD moved into the window of treatment and analysis for the Vietnam – and other campaign – vets.

Problems arose in the growing numbers and bureaucracy at the Veterans Administration, however, and its medical treatment system buckled. The cracks turned into valleys, and the boys turned into men with a fluorescent flash going on in their heads as they fell into the depths of this strange, new malady.

Those that found their way through the system experienced some relief, but many continued to suffer with the analysis. Many others never knew they could find help. It is a common refrain to hear that these veterans didn’t realize they could get help, or worse, felt that they didn’t deserve it.

All of this was complicated with the organizational missteps of the VA that occurred all across the country to thousands of servicemen and women, from Wailuku to Washington, D.C., as they came home to sometimes very negative receptions.

Imagine the sinking feeling in your stomach as you stepped off of the military transport to a reception of ridicule, degradation and humiliation. Objects thrown at you; threats made in your face – all coming from your “countrymen.”

It all served to twist the intestines even more – to heighten the tension within them. There needed to be a release, a comfort zone for the boiling pots that were heating up to dangerous levels. They began to seek counsel, and they found some comfort in group sessions and professional medical treatment under VA guidance.

The Lahaina boys took it a serendipitous step further – into the cool comfort of the deep blue sea, where they have all found solace in the boundless energy of the waters that surround their island home.

Some of them grew up along the shorelines of Maui, while the others found the serenity of this crystal blue persuasion upon their return to civilian life after the terror of Vietnam. In canoes, on surfboards and stand up paddling, all of them have found a release from the high-wire tension that has short-circuited their comprehension of their lives.

They have also taken to VA-backed group sessions led by clinical psychologists and psychiatrists. They have learned that exposing their inner trauma is an effective pathway to squelching the terror that continues to flame within them. They must tell their story to make it go away.

Next week, the journey for one of the five mentioned above to a peaceful reality is told in deeper detail.