Still Shuddering at 'Distant Thunder' : Vietnam 'Bush Vets' Helped Shape Film About Soldiers' Trauma

Times Staff Writer

Late one Friday afternoon, director Rick Rosenthal pops a cassette tape into his VCR and five men appear on the screen, arms folded, leaning casually against the back of a car. They wear blue jeans and flannel shirts and Windbreakers and camouflage jackets under a threatening Pacific Northwest sky.

One by one, the men begin to talk about what it means to be a Vietnam veteran still haunted by the past. A voice behind the camera asks about the phenomenon of the "bush vet," and each man takes a turn trying to explain his own intense need to escape society, to seek isolation--often for months at a time--in Washington's rain forests. Even a small town, says one, "is too much to handle."

The stories of these five men--along with those of other troubled vets in Washington state--helped shape the characters and plot line of a fictional account of veterans in Rosenthal's new film, "Distant Thunder," which opens today, Veterans Day (see review by Michael Wilmington on Page 4). And Rosenthal, by putting actor John Lithgow on the screen in a vivid portrayal of a "bush vet" trying to re-enter society, has in turn deeply affected the lives of these men.

"The movie has sure been an aid to my therapy," says Bruce Webster, who counsels these and other troubled vets from his office in Port Angeles, Wash. "Maybe (my patients) weren't as extreme as the characters in the film, but (the film makers) were certainly in the ballpark."

But Veterans Administration officials who attended screenings of the film in Washington, D.C., last week weren't quite as pleased.

The VA immediately raised objections to a fact sheet passed out at the screening claiming that between 54,000 and 108,000 Vietnam veterans have committed suicide since the war, possibly more than the 58,156 Americans who died in combat. The agency also complained to Paramount Pictures about the film makers' claim that 35,000 to 45,000 veterans have left their homes and families, retreating to the wilderness and living in isolation as "bush vets."

At other screenings, those figures were displayed as an epilogue at the end of the film. After VA officials contacted Paramount, the studio stopped distributing the fact sheet and dropped plans to show the epilogue.

"The information was inaccurate," said VA spokeswoman Pam Siciliano. "It had no basis in fact at all." She called the estimates on bush vets "ludicrous."

John P. Wilson, a Cleveland State University psychologist who has written extensively about veterans' problems, agreed that the suicide figure claimed by the film makers for Vietnam vets was high. However, he said, high suicide rates among Vietnam vets "is a real phenomenon." He noted that he and other veteran counselors regularly deal with such cases but added that no accurate numbers exist on the problem.

A 1986 study in the New England Journal of Medicine, Wilson noted, concluded that Vietnam veterans have up to a 25% higher chance of committing suicide than their same-age peers. The rate among those men who were actually in combat, Wilson added, could be much higher.

But Wilson disputed the VA's claim that the number of bush vets listed in the Paramount fact sheet was ludicrous. The 35,000 to 45,000 figure, Wilson said, "is a conservative estimate."

In "Distant Thunder," Lithgow ("Terms of Endearment," "The World According to Garp") plays a bush vet who has left his family behind and retreated to the Washington wilderness. Early in the film, he watches a fellow veteran commit suicide by "kissing a train." Shaken, Lithgow reevaluates his life, determining to seek a reconciliation with his 18-year-old son, played by Ralph Macchio of "The Karate Kid" fame.

Like other aspects of the film, the suicide episode is based on actual incidents: News reports surfaced several years ago that Vietnam vets in Florida had walked along railroad tracks until they were killed by oncoming trains--tragedies that came to be known as "kissing a train."

The lives of bush vets has also been a subject of news accounts, convincing producer Robert Schaffel, a Vietnam War veteran himself, that their story should be told.

"It was devastating to me that guys were living under these conditions," Schaffel said. "It haunted me; I couldn't shake it."

"Distant Thunder's" depiction of a man afflicted with a syndrome called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder also is likely to strike close to home for thousands of Vietnam veterans. This week, North Carolina's Research Triangle Institute submitted a congressionally mandated study to the Veterans Administration concluding that 480,000 veterans suffer from PTSD, equalling 15.2% of the 3.1 million men and women who served overseas in Vietnam and 38% of those who were "exposed to high levels of war-zone stress" in combat.

Those rates are higher than previously believed, according to William Schlenger, senior research psychologist at the Research Triangle Institute.

PTSD is characterized by such symptoms as intense flashbacks and nightmares, fear of coming into contact with anything that will remind them about the war, and a "hypervigilance" to their environment. These vets might appear anxious and full of anger, unable to concentrate or complete a task, and distrustful of others, including family members, Schlenger said.

"One of the more important findings is that people who have PTSD have problems in all phases of their lives," he added. The intensity of each PTSD case, he said, corresponds to the "degree of their exposure to war zone stress, their exposure to dying and death, and abusive violence."

Many of these men retreat to the wilderness, clustering in places like the Pacific Northwest and the Rocky Mountains. While Schlenger said "Distant Thunder" estimates on the numbers of bush vets may be high, there is no doubt that many men are living under these conditions.

He pointed to one man his researchers interviewed who had camped out in the Colorado Rockies.

"We were unable to make contact with him," Schlenger said. "But every five to six weeks he would go down to the post office to get his mail. Our interviewer was finally able to establish good enough rapport with the postmaster, and he was willing to act as a go-between."

The man's story, as told to the researcher, was typical of bush vets: After a history of inability to cope with people, he had retreated to the Rockies to live in isolation. Director Rosenthal said that most of the vets he talked to in Washington were bush vets "in the sense that they would disappear for months at a time. But they all had bases, which were often nothing more than the trailer that we depicted in the film."

Its depiction of bush vets isn't the only way that "Distant Thunder" starkly mirrors reality for many of these men. A couple of vets under Webster's care have been separated from their children for the better part of a decade. Others had combat experiences in Vietnam similar to a traumatic event portrayed in the film.

"God, this is close," veteran George Groul wrote in a letter to the makers of "Distant Thunder." "I could put names on the characters of real people, what really happened, and how and why today."

"I was sort of stunned at first," veterans counselor Webster said of his experience seeing the film last summer. "It was almost too real for me." Webster's voice began to crack when he was pressed to compare the fiction of the film to the reality faced by the men he counsels.

Inside Rosenthal's office at Universal Studios, the director puts another videocassette into his VCR. This time the image on the screen is actor Denis Arndt, who plays a bush vet who lives his life eerily near the edge of sanity.

Arndt is a well-known stage actor in the Pacific Northwest. But he also served as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam for eight years. He made this video because he wanted to make a statement to Rosenthal and the other film makers.

Arndt looks into the camera, puffing a cigarette with nervous energy. As a helicopter pilot, he says, he dropped off a lot of men into the heart of combat--men like the character portrayed by Lithgow. And he never quite got over it.

"This whole year has been an extremely emotional experience," Arndt says. "I feel like in a way I came back to pick those guys up.

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