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.
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Though Kenny isn't a trained therapist, he gives Workman practical advice on how to deal with problems based on his own experiences. "I tell him what he shouldn't worry about – what he can let go," Kenny says. "But I don't try to run his life."Skip to next paragraph
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Their relationship now goes beyond counselor-confidant: They have become fast friends. The men talk several times a week on the phone. They get together whenever possible, for a family Christmas or a Broadway show. "He's like a father figure to me," Workman says, then jokes: "But it's not like we go out golfing together."
Others see the importance of old and new veterans forging bonds, too. Dennis Fetko, a behavioral psychologist and Vietnam veteran, still struggles with psychological problems from his service in Southeast Asia. As both a therapist and patient, Dr. Fetko believes that doctors who empathize with their patients can provide greater support.
He counsels soldiers returning from Iraq through the American Combat Veterans of War, which helps vets transition to civilian life. Working with Veterans Affairs in San Diego, the group runs "warrior debriefings," in which Vietnam veterans address returning marines, as well as a counseling program for PTSD.
"A stigma runs rampant through the military if you've suffered trauma," Mr. Rider says. "If you can't suck it up, then you're a weak person." This often prevents soldiers from seeking help.
Workman agrees. For a long time, he didn't reach out. He saw other soldiers coming back from war and thought, "We're marines. We kill people, step over dead bodies. This is what we do."
Meanwhile, he was drinking heavily and bottling up his anger. It wasn't until he became a drill sergeant at Parris Island, S.C., and threatened to kill another soldier that the military sent him for a mental evaluation. He says it was only his medal that prevented him from being a total outcast.
Workman and Kenny agree the Marine Corps is more responsive to the psychological state of soldiers today than it was even three years ago. This is due in part to the older generation of vets helping young soldiers. Workman attended a recent conference where a sergeant major stood up and announced that he had PTSD. "This was a respected, muscular, jar-head marine," Workman says. "Everybody in the room was floored."
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Even soldiers who aren't struggling with clinical problems often find unusual support in their veteran predecessors. Miko Watkins, an Army nurse, talks about how lonely and disconnected she felt after returning from Iraq in 2003. On a windswept day, she stands beside the Vietnam Veterans Women's Memorial in Washington, D.C. "My commanding officer thought coming here would be cathartic," Ms. Watkins says.
Earlier, Watkins had listened to nurses from the Vietnam era share their stories and she recounted some of her own experiences in Iraq. "I don't speak about it very often, because it just brings me to tears," Watkins says, glancing at the bronze memorial – a tableau of three nurses caring for a wounded soldier. "The Vietnam veterans here understand me, even if I can't explain it fully."
She pauses. "I should have done this a long time ago."
Army Capt. Laureen Otto, who also attended the storytelling event, served as a trauma nurse coordinator in Iraq and sits on the memorial's board of directors. While Ms. Otto has always gotten along with older veterans, her connection with the Vietnam generation changed markedly after she came back from war. "It was immediate," Otto says. "And I no longer ask them what it's like in Vietnam. We both just know."