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Father-Son War Trauma, New Generation's Battle Rekindles Earlier Horrors

Discussion in 'News, Politics & Debates' started by goingonhope, Jul 2, 2007.

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  1. goingonhope

    goingonhope Member Premium Member

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    New generation's battle rekindles earlier horrors

    June 18, 2007 | By Charles M. Sennott, Globe Staff


    CLINTON -- George Burke lifts the picture frame off the fireplace mantel and shakes his head.

    Everyone tells him that the two Marines in the facing photographs -- George in 1967 heading off for Vietnam, and his only son, Michael, in 2002 before deploying to Iraq-- look remarkably alike in their dress blues, and they do.

    "But I just don't see it," George says, sinking back into his recliner in the living room of his home in this old mill town 45 miles west of Boston.

    Truth is, there has been a lot that George has been slow to recognize in his son and himself -- much more than the thick eyebrows, strong jaw, military bearing, and sad eyes they so obviously share. For years after returning from Vietnam, he kept his distance and held his silence, a remote and angry presence for his family and, especially, his boy.
    But suddenly, now, survival depends on confronting what they share.

    Father and son have both been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and both are struggling down the road to healing the mental wounds of war.

    Michael's story is sadly familiar -- he has not been the same since seeing a friend killed in a roadside bomb blast in western Iraq.

    But what George, 63, is living through is part of something new -- or rather something old that has returned with new force. Forty years after his tour of duty in the battles around Khe Sanh in the fall of 1967, he is overcome again by debilitating memories and nightmares from that war, symptoms triggered by televised images of the Iraq bloodshed, and by his fears for -- and firsthand knowledge of -- what his son was to encounter in Iraq.

    He is one of the tens of thousands of Vietnam vets whose PTSD has been triggered anew by the televised imagery and hard realities of the war on terror and Iraq conflict. Compensation claims by Vietnam veterans in such cases have nearly doubled since September 2001, according to the Veterans Affairs Administration. Those who work with veterans see these kind of patients almost every day.

    "The Burke family is not alone," said Dr. Alfonso Batres, head of readjustment counseling services for the VA. "We are seeing a lot of similar cases across the country of fathers who served in Vietnam finding their symptoms of PTSD are triggered by the images of war in Iraq and the worry they feel for their sons or other soldiers serving over there."

    It is a worrisome trend, but one with a hopeful side: For many veterans of George Burke's generation, the resurgent pain has also prompted them to get mental health counseling for the first time, and to reap the benefits of advances since the Vietnam years in how to treat PTSD, and how to defeat the sense of stigma that has stopped many former service members from getting help.

    And, for the Burke family, something else has come of it. Two Marines, men who shared so much but could not see it, are in this fight together.

    Haunting flashbacks
    The memories sneaked up on him.
    Sitting in his armchair watching television footage from the war -- helicopters ferrying troops and the flag-draped coffins arriving home in small towns -- George Burke one evening found himself transported back to a place he thought he had left behind.
    Images of the brutal combat at Khe Sanh kept flashing through his head, especially the memory of a good friend who was killed in a trench beside him. The paralyzing nightmares came back, too. And the sleeplessness.

    They were feelings he had tried to suppress after his service tour by hard drinking in Clinton's string of Irish pubs. And then, when he became sober in 1975, he buried them even deeper into what he calls "a numbness." It was a state of mind that helped him, he believes, to survive, but also put a blank emotional space between himself and the world, and above all, his son.

    Even when George took a job as a custodian in Clinton High School, and the father and son were in the same building every day, they rarely spoke.

    Michael, meanwhile, was courted by a Marine recruitment officer throughout his high school years -- right up until his graduation in 2000. Michael's father was never thrilled about that. After the attacks of Sept. 11th, 2001, Michael finally signed up. He wanted to serve his country and also earn a measure of respect from his father.

    "I guess I was hoping it might close the gap between us," said Michael.

    And so Michael headed off to Parris Island, S.C., and then Camp Lejeune, N.C., to participate in the same harsh rite of passage into the Marine Corps that his father once endured.

    After boot camp, he was sent for a while to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba as the detention facility was taking shape and the first prisoners were arriving. In May 2004 he was dispatched to Afghanistan where his Third Battalion of the Sixth Marine Regiment was involved in search operations for Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the rugged hills along the Pakistan border. Five months after being stationed there, Michael signed up for an extension of his service so that he could remain with his unit, which was scheduled to be deployed next in Iraq.

    That news, which came home in a letter from Michael, filled George with dread. It was mid-November 2004, during a US offensive in Fallujah, the worst month of American casualties in Iraq to date.

    As he sat up at night watching news of the war in Iraq on television, the combined force of his war and his son's struck home. He was afraid. He could not think clearly. He began cutting himself off again from his wife, Barbara.

    Michael came home briefly between tours but was soon deployed to western Iraq in August 2005. Patrolling Iraqi highways that snake through the desert near the Syrian border was "like rolling the dice" every day, he said. A roadside bomb killed a friend from his unit. Michael was among those who had to load the remains into a plastic body bag.

    As Michael was in the thick of the fighting in Iraq, the VA officially diagnosed George with service-connected PTSD and gave him a 50 percent disability rating. He began a round of counseling sessions -- the kind of help he could have used four decades ago.

    A rocky return home
    Michael finally made it home in May 2006. And right away Geoge could see that his son was in trouble.

    He heard him shout out during nightmares, and noted the dark bags under his eyes when he came into the kitchen for a cup of coffee after another night of sweats and sleeplessness.

    Michael said he kept returning to the moment when his friend died. And he could not get the civilian casualties that had happened all around him out of his mind.

    To numb the pain, Michael drank heavily. He concealed it from his father because he did not want to disrupt his father's hard-won sobriety.

    But George could not miss the signs. He could see himself in his son. And this time he was going to be there to help.

    At George's urging, Michael sought treatment at the Worcester VA outpatient clinic and, late last year, was diagnosed with acute, chronic PTSD. But he struggled to get the treatment he needed from an understaffed and obdurate VA bureaucracy, and he recoiled at the group therapy he was ultimately prescribed. "A completely ridiculous exercise," he said.

    Eventually, he learned, through a network of Vietnam veterans, of an in patient PTSD counseling program at the Northampton VA hospital. "They don't come out and tell you what is available. No one is there to help you figure this out, you just have to find your own way," said Michael.

    This spring he admitted himself into a three-week, in patient counseling program for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans in the PTSD clinic in Northampton known as Ward 8. He is feeling better, but knows "this is going to be a long struggle," he said.

    Through the program, Michael says he learned valuable skills to control his anger. He worked on ways to understand the depression that had consumed him. He took medication that relieved much of the anxiety. He was able to sleep better. He cut way down on drinking.

    He thought the Northampton approach might work for his father, too, and he strongly encouraged him to enter the longer, six week in patient program. George agreed. In the days ahead, Michael will accompany his father as he enters Ward 8.

    VA adapts to new workload
    Dr. Gonzalo Vera, chief of mental health programs at the Northampton VA, said that of his caseload of 120 psychiatric patients who have fought predominantly in Vietnam but also in the Gulf War and elsewhere "virtually every single patient has been affected by the Iraq war, and has experienced a re triggering of trauma."

    He estimates, based on interviews with clinicians in his department, that about 30 percent of patients have experienced a dramatic increase in symptoms that require medication.

    Straining under the rising demand, Vera said the Northampton VA was reorganizing its treatment program to handle the caseload. The in patient program, one of only five of its kind in the country, will increase its capacity from 432 to 600 patients a year and boost its professional staff from 45 to 58.

    Similar demands are being felt at Boston Veterans' Center, says its director, Tom Hannon.

    Hannon said that the number of mental health visits to the Boston Vet Center has risen a steady 10 percent every year since Sept. 11th, reaching 6,000 visits a year. Among them, he said, are at least a dozen Vietnam veterans who have sons in Iraq and have re experienced trauma through their sons' service and through televised images of war.
    "We have to be sure we are prepared to handle what's coming. I think there are a lot of challenges ahead to be sure we do that," said Hannon.

    Some specialists worry that the VA continues to play down the depth of the mental health crisis among veterans, as the number of cases continues to climb. A Department of Defense task force on mental health concluded last week that 40 percent of returning Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans suffer from mental health troubles.

    "I think the problem is bigger than the VA is letting on and I don't think they're prepared to handle it," said John P. Wilson , professor of psychology at Cleveland State University and one of the world's top specialists on PTSD. "All data that is available is overwhelmingly clear that the war in Iraq is pushing all the buttons for Vietnam veterans, and for veterans of WWII as well."

    Photographic reminders
    On a recent Sunday evening, George and Michael sat at the family's kitchen table, photographs from their respective wars spread across the Formica.

    "Did you ever have that feeling that you were just never coming home?" George asked his son, as he took in a digital print of Michael grinning from a gun turret, with the desert stretching out behind him.

    "Every day," said Michael.

    Michael smoked one cigarette after another; George drank Pepsi. There were long silences. To relive the trauma and share it with a reporter was not easy. There were times when both men had tears in their eyes.

    At one point, to regain their composure, they stepped outside. They looked out through a cold drizzle on the town with its boarded up factories and small houses.

    George was shivering as he wiped away a tear. Michael stamped out a cigarette and glanced out under the brim of his "Semper Fi" baseball cap.

    "You OK, Dad?" he asked.

    "I love ya, kid," George said as he reached out and hugged his son.

    Source: The Boston Globe
     
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  3. becvan

    becvan Queen of the Blunt! Premium Member

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    This damn thing made me cry.

    I understand that bond, the struggle all too well. Mine may not be war, but the mother-son trauma is exactly like the father-son one.

    Thanks Hope. It's rare that I get to read about any situation similar to mine.

    bec
     
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