Vietnam Veterans Get Care for Lingering Inner Wounds

Times Staff Writer

The most remarkable Vietnam War experience Paul Davis had was sitting next to the same soldier on a military flight to Vietnam and, a year later, on the way back to the United States.

The coincidence, which Davis said "just never happens because there were so many men involved and the rotations and assignments were all different," led to an intense kinship between the two.

Thus Davis, who had been a rifleman with the 9th Infantry Division in the Mekong Delta, immediately knew he was in trouble six years ago when his friend, ending a decade of post-war stress, shot himself to death.

Within a month, the emotional ache that Davis, a Woodland Hills printer, had felt inside since his Vietnam tour had turned into a raging fire. He said he swung between uncontrolled anger and suicidal depression. He was unable to work or socialize.

Davis' breakdown coincided with the establishment in September, 1979, of the Valley Vet Center in Northridge, the nation's first storefront center for counseling veterans experiencing post-war trauma.

After six years of treatment, much of it at the center on Roscoe Boulevard, Davis, now 35, balding and gray-bearded, said there has been a "dramatic turnaround" in his life to the point where "I'm now sure I'm going to make it."

While the trigger for Davis' breakdown was uncommon, his symptoms were typical of those displayed by the thousands of Vietnam combat veterans who have sought treatment at the 136 storefront centers now operated by the Veterans Administration, counselors say.

Typically, veterans find themselves flooded with unwanted war memories after watching television news coverage or reading newspaper articles related to the war.

Most recently, coverage of the construction and dedication last November of the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial in Washington has resulted in an increased flow of veterans into the centers seeking help for post-traumatic stress disorder.

To handle the increase, the Veterans Administration is planning to open 52 new centers this year.

And with the 10th anniversary next month of the U.S. military airlift of the last Americans from Vietnam, centers are bracing for another surge of veterans who need help in coming to terms with the war.

"Most of the networks are working on some kind of observance and I expect a lot of papers are too," said Ed Lord, assistant national director of the Vietnam veterans counseling program. "So we're telling our people to be ready for vets who see these programs and suddenly need help."

At the Valley center, one of the nation's busiest, the flow of veterans seeking help has nearly doubled--to 25 each weekday--from two years ago, said counselor William Rigole.

The Valley center's director, Fred Hoskins, said there is no pattern to the treatment sought, with some veterans visiting only once and others coming back episodically or regularly for years.

"And there are some who seem to need help for several months," he said, "then get along on their own for maybe four months, then need help again for several months."

David Lechuga, who specializes in counseling Vietnam veterans at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, said "Vietnam's peculiar horrors" explain both the high numbers of veterans experiencing stress and the time lag before symptoms become serious.

The consensus among counselors is that the chief horror was the fact that civilians, including old men, women and even children, were often the enemy, forcing soldiers to fear them and sometimes to kill them in the course of combat.

In addition, Vietnam military personnel were rotated in and out of the war zone as individuals, a departure from the practice in previous wars of sending soldiers over and back as a unit.

As a result, counselors say, Vietnam veterans were denied the built-in support group that soldiers in previous wars had for talking out their war traumas.

Finally, many returning veterans were subjected to abuse from opponents of the war. Other critics said the ultimate loss of the war--even though it came several years after U.S. combat units withdrew--suggested that Vietnam soldiers did not have the stuff their fathers had in earlier wars.

15% or More Suffer Disorder

Lechuga estimates that one-third of the million men who saw combat in Vietnam are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Using a more restrictive definition of the disorder, the Veterans Administration's Advisory Committee on the Readjustment Problems of Vietnam Veterans says the proportion is about 15%.

While experts continue to disagree on the extent of the disorder and some of its causes, there is now widespread agreement on its symptoms.

In 1980, after years of professional debate, both the Veterans Administration and the American Psychiatric Assn. approved criteria for diagnosing the disorder. The accepted symptoms include rage, flashbacks, nightmares, sleeplessness, emotional numbing, memory loss, panic, depression, isolation and survival guilt.

The long delay in establishing criteria contributed throughout the 1970s to the growing rift between the Veterans Administration and Vietnam veterans.

It was partly to heal this rift that the storefront centers were set up.

Centers Cater to Drop-ins

Unlike VA hospitals, the centers are informal drop-in places, often with casually dressed staff members, many of whom are Vietnam veterans themselves.

In addition to individual and group counseling for veterans and their families, the centers offer job counseling and help in filing claims for medical and other disabilities.

Hoskins said counseling consists of showing veterans the source of their stress, demonstrating that coping mechanisms like drinking and drug use are harmful and showing them that the "effective therapy consists of things like good exercise and finding and holding on to good friends."

He said much of the therapy is "just common-sense advice, but the complexity lies in getting them to see it and forgo their established, destructive patterns."

Davis, who because of business trips has sought counseling at centers in Houston, Detroit and Austin, Tex., in addition to the Northridge center, said he has found all centers to be "basically the same--wonderful places to go to."

'VA's Uncaring Bureaucracy'

"If you look deep enough, you will see the VA's uncaring bureaucracy and its incredible red tape. But the staffs at these places are great people who do everything they can to isolate us vets from the VA."

Hoskins said, "A lot of vets still feel paranoia and mistrust of authoritarian figures. As they see it, it was the government that caused their problems, so they are skeptical that the same government is now going to help them."

Davis' accolade to the veteran centers was echoed by other men in the weekly group therapy session he attends at the facility.

"Beautiful, just beautiful," was the assessment of Angel Perez Jr., a heavily tattooed, burly former Marine Corps sergeant who said he never adjusted after two combat tours in Vietnam, including fighting in the bloody siege of Hue during the Tet Offensive in 1968.

Perez, a 38-year-old Arleta machinist, said he was an all-city gymnast at San Fernando High School and an "easygoing guy, an athlete, a lover" before being shipped to Vietnam.

17 Years of Problems

But he said the 17 years since his return have been marked by tumultuous relationships with women, family and friends; heavy drinking; frequent fistfights, often with strangers, and both homicidal and suicidal urges.

"Too macho" to acknowledge that he needed help, Perez said he slowly slid downhill until June, 1984, when he had himself admitted to the Sepulveda Veterans Administration Hospital "because I was close to killing myself or somebody else."

After seven weeks he was discharged and referred to the Northridge center, where he now goes regularly for counseling.

Although Perez had often heard about delayed stress in Vietnam veterans, he said, "It never seemed to apply to me. I can't say why. I was so alienated that it didn't occur to me there were others suffering just like me."

Confidence Exuded

Like Davis, he said the therapy he received at the center has turned his life around. Both men exuded confidence that they had a grip on post-war stress, although they expected to continue coming to the center indefinitely.

Not so confident about his future is another member of the therapy group, Jack, a 36-year-old Canoga Park bricklayer.

A Marine Corps machine gunner in Vietnam, Jack, who asked that his last name not be used, said he was out driving several months ago "thinking about suicide or something awful, when I looked up and saw the sign on this place."

Fidgeting constantly while talking, Jack said that in the 15 years since returning to civilian life he has "felt tremendous violence inside me at times. I get into a lot of fights." He said he served seven months in jail for aggravated assault.

Emotional Numbness

The chief cause of his depression was an emotional numbness toward family and friends, "like I'm dead inside."

He said that he is "dying to love my two sons, who live with me, but there's no feeling there."

In 1978, when his younger brother, "who I used to love," died of leukemia, "everyone in my family was crying their eyes out," Jack said. "But I felt nothing. Nothing. Still don't."

Despite four hours a week of counseling, Jack said, "I'm still not sure I'm going to pull out of this. It's hard for me to imagine me as a normal person. I still feel I died in the war."

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