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.

andy nelson – staff
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
Coping with war: Many soldiers who served in Iraq, including Maj. Miko Watkins, an Army nurse, have been aided in their transition to civilian life by Vietnam veterans.

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.

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."

• • •

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."

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."

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.

Most of these initiatives take place at Camp Pendleton in California. Bill Rider, the Vietnam vet who founded Combat Veterans, says he wants to create a new culture in the Marine Corps.

"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."

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