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Vietnam veterans help returning Iraq soldiers deal with shocks of war

Neil Kenny, decorated for his service in Vietnam, plays big brother to Jeremiah Workman, a medal winner in Iraq struggling with the psychological effects of combat.

By Jennifer MillerCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 30, 2008

Coping with war: Army Capt. Laureen Otto (l.), who served as a trauma nurse coordinator in Iraq, has forged strong ties with Vietnam veterans like Diane Carlson Evans.

andy nelson – staff

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Marine Sgt. Jeremiah Workman wasn't born yet when his friend Neil Kenny received the Navy Commendation Medal for dragging dead and wounded soldiers out of combat in Vietnam. But he has a good idea what it must have been like.

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In 2004, during the second battle of Fallujah in Iraq, Sergeant Workman pushed through exploding grenades and machine-gun fire to rescue 10 trapped marines. His bravery earned him the Navy Cross, the military's second-highest honor. Yet today Mr. Kenny and Workman share more than medals. They came home from war with severe psychological wounds – anxiety, anger, and depression. More than their Marine brotherhood and shared valor, it is the painful legacy of combat that has now forged a singular bond between them. "I can tell him everything," Workman says. "I don't trust anybody. He's one of the few people I can talk to."

Their relationship is symbolic of a grass-roots movement by Vietnam veterans to help soldiers returning from Iraq cope with the mental rigors of war and ease the transition to civilian life. Across the country, both groups of Vietnam veterans and individual former soldiers are pitching in to help console, counsel, or just be a voice on the other end of the phone to those who have served in the Middle East.

Throughout history, veterans of one war have always helped those of another. But rarely has the homecoming experience of two sets of veterans been so different, and the bonds between them so deep, as those from Vietnam and Iraq.

One reason is that many Vietnam-era soldiers understand the trauma that some of today's returning fighters are going through and want to help them in ways they feel they never were. Kenny is currently mentoring five Iraq war veterans. When he looks at today's young soldiers, he sees a mirror image of himself returning from Southeast Asia at 19. "That's where I was," he says. "I don't want to turn my back on them."

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On the surface, Kenny and Workman seem like strange barracks fellows. Thirty-four years separate them in age, and their personalities have significant differences. Workman is from a small Ohio town and carries himself with a quiet strength. Kenny grew up in the projects on New York's Lower East Side. He wears overalls and sandals, and booms everything in a New York accent. He used to have a ponytail, a hair style that offended Workman's Marine sensibilities.

Not surprisingly, Workman doubted Kenny's intentions when the two men met last year in a bookstore in Quantico, Va., where Workman now lives. Soldiers tend to flock to Workman because of his medal. But a few minutes into the conversation, he and Kenny discovered a friend in common: a young marine, Jason Dunham, who was killed in Iraq in 2004.

They ended up going to dinner and the moment they sat down, Workman says, he knew Kenny was different. "I'd known this guy for 20 minutes and we're talking [about] really serious, deep stuff," he says. "It was just strange."

One topic they discussed was post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Kenny has battled PTSD for 40 years and receives full disability pay from the military for his condition. He says this admission "sealed" their friendship.

Workman has received intensive therapy and medication for PTSD since returning from Iraq. He says these remedies help, but he feels frustrated with the care he gets through the US Department of Veterans Affairs. "All these doctors that went to school for however many years – they've never been to war," he says. "They're reading about PTSD out of a book."