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Comrades In Arms: Program Brings Veterans Together to Talk About Trauma of War

Discussion in 'News, Politics & Debates' started by batgirl, May 27, 2007.

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  1. batgirl

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    “Civilians seldom understand that soldiers, once pressed into war, will forever take it for the ordinary state of the world, with all else illusion. The former soldier assumes that when time weakens the dream of civilian life and its supports pull away, he will revert to the one state that will always hold his heart. He dreams of war and remembers it in quiet times, when he might otherwise devote himself to different things, and he is ruined for the peace. What he has seen is as powerful and mysterious as death itself and yet he has not died, and he wonders why.”

    - From “A Soldier of the Great War” by Mark Helprin

    After 36 years of marriage, Kay Jones can honestly say she's never had a fight with her husband, J.R. “You can't argue by yourself,” she says. “When I'd tell him, ‘We need to talk,' I'd say my piece and that was it,” Kay says. “He'd listen and walk away.”

    Kay and J.R. met after he returned from Vietnam, where he served in the Marine Corps, and married a year later. For 36 years, she believed the only thing that happened to him in the war was the day his platoon was on a hill. “They were drinking, there was some incoming fire, and he said he was on his hands and knees throwing up and couldn't find his rifle,” Kay says. “That's all he ever told me about Vietnam. I didn't think he saw any other action. I didn't think he'd ever shot anybody. I didn't realize.”

    Eight weeks ago, after 36 years, her husband started telling her about what he'd seen and done in Vietnam. For 37 years, J.R. Jones thought everyone who served in the war felt the same way he did. “I thought it was the price you pay for going to war,” says the 59-year-old retired railroad engineer. “I don't have feelings. There's no sadness. There's no happiness. The only thing I've felt is anger.”

    And anger was a place he was not willing to go, for fear of what he might do. “I'd just stuff it,” J.R. says. “I'd get so pissed I'd see fireworks in my peripheral vision, but I was afraid to let it out because I was afraid of the consequences. So I stuffed it for 37 years.” Especially with Kay, with whom he has raised three sons. For 37 years he's woken up six to eight times a night, sometimes screaming. He has isolated himself from other human beings. He says he planned, but didn't carry out, two homicides.

    “I had all the symptoms of major depression,” J.R. says. “All except thoughts of suicide. Then one day I was driving down the highway and this tandem dump truck was coming at me and I thought, ‘Boy, I could swerve into him and end it right here.' And then I thought, ‘Oh oh, I've got all the symptoms.' ” And not just of major depression. Major depression, you see, is just one of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

    It's a sterile room in the basement of the Providence Center, with space for 50, and five seats occupied. Vietnam veteran Chris Poloynis wasn't sure who, if anyone, would show for the first meeting of the Vet to Vet program in Missoula, besides himself and fellow facilitator J.R. Jones. Vet to Vet is new to Missoula and just nine weeks old in Montana, and designed to help soldiers and Marines who have returned from Iraq or Afghanistan and are having trouble readjusting to life after combat - vets who may be suffering from PTSD or depression. The idea is simple. It can be difficult for someone who was brave enough to go off to war, to return home and admit they're having problems to officers or family or mental health professionals. Many fear for their jobs. But they may be more comfortable talking about it with other veterans - veterans who have gone through what they're going through.

    “It is kind of a backdoor way to get to them,” says Fort Harrison's Dr. Rosa Merino. “But it's a way they can come in in a non-threatening situation.” Peer-to-peer counseling isn't new, but Vet to Vet is in these parts. Merino recruited Poloynis and Jones to facilitate sessions in Missoula, and 17 other veterans to do likewise at other locations around the state.

    “We're not an organization,” says Tom Huddleston of Helena, a Marine Corps combat veteran from the Vietnam era. “We're just people who share a diagnosis, and a need to support other veterans.”

    They attended a training session with Vietnam veteran and peer-to-peer advocate Moe Armstrong in Helena, and agreed to launch Vet to Vet programs in their hometowns.

    “When we came back from Vietnam, World War II veterans were in their 50s and we were in our 20s,” says Alan Johnson, who served as an Army medic. “They didn't want much to do with us. Our hair was too long and we listened to hippie music.”

    Johnson, Jim Dickerson and Don Dunbar, all older veterans, saw the Vet to Vet flyers up in Veterans Administration offices and came to the first meeting earlier this month. Poloynis and Jones hope vets of more recent wars who might need support will show up in the weeks to come. “A lot of people think World War II was more intense, but the reality is soldiers saw an average of 40 days of combat in World War II,” Johnson says. “In Vietnam, we averaged 240 days. These guys in Iraq are going out on patrol and getting shot at every single day.”

    “And they're going on multiple tours,” Jones says. “Most of us had one 13-month tour in Vietnam but these guys are getting sent back to Iraq, sometimes four or five times. These guys don't have any choice.” And the war they are fighting, an urban war against insurgents, is very different.

    “What this country doesn't realize is guys like me who were in Vietnam have four or five triggers,” Jones says. “The sound of a helicopter, the smell of diesel fuel, a car backfiring, fireworks - the Fourth of July is one continuous anxiety attack for me. But these young people now are fighting an urban war, and when they get back, everything can be a trigger - a car horn, a door opening, a window closing, a stop sign. If this country thinks Vietnam vets went postal, they ain't seen s--.”

    Jones says he can't stand the thought that the men and women coming back from these new wars might endure what he has for decades without help. His wife agrees. “I hate the thought of him going his whole life - I mean, from 20 to 60 - as miserable as he's been,” Kay Jones says. “I mean, I met him after he came back from Vietnam so I had no comparison. I just thought it was his personality that he never opened up, or talked much, or laughed. I always thought he was so strong. Now I know he had to do what he did to survive.”

    Chris Poloynis says he has been through 15 major surgeries, and two years ago was given two years to live when he was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis. He says he was exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam. “A lot of guys my age who were in Vietnam are getting it,” he says. “There's no cure for it.”

    Poloynis, 57, has been through a medical and mental health wringer since his year in Vietnam in 1968-69, including being locked up in a mental health facility after suffering a severe breakdown in 1990. He's since been through the program at the National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder at Menlo Park, Calif. After years of drug and alcohol abuse, he says he's not only kicked those habits, but weaned himself off all medications that don't relate to his physical health. “What I realized was that it's time for me to forgive myself and start a new life,” Poloynis says. “A lot of guys who have PTSD do an incredible amount of drugs and alcohol. It's because they don't know forgiveness - of their country, or themselves, or whoever they blame for it.”

    Poloynis came north in 2004, to be close to a female friend he's known since he was 15 who lives in Calgary. He can't get closer to her without putting himself out of reach of the VA benefits he needs. But he says he's so much better now than he was just a couple of years ago, and Merino says that's one of the great things about Vet to Vet: It's just as beneficial to the vets giving help, as it is to those who seek it. “The vets feel empowered and refreshed,” she says. “They have wisdom they can pass on, and in helping others, they help themselves.”

    Vet to Vet is not a substitute for treatment of PTSD or depression, just a way for veterans to seek help in an environment of trust. While a reporter and photographer were allowed into the initial meeting to help publicize the program and the five participants all agreed to be quoted, facilitators emphasize that in the future, everything that is said in the room, stays in the room. “We'll either help them,” Jones says, “or get them help.”

    Vietnam vets have nearly 40 years' experience in navigating the Veterans Administration paperwork and bureaucracy, too. Elsewhere in the state, Vet to Vet includes those who fought in the Korean War and World War II. Two of the men are surprised when Poloynis tells them he no longer takes meds for mental health issues. “I tried not to take the pills for a while,” Dickerson says. “I told my doctor I was going to stop, and two days later I went before a judge. I figured, ‘Hell, I better get back on 'em.' ”

    “I take pills for anxiety, depression, to go to sleep,” Johnson says. “That doesn't count the ones I take for diabetes, cholesterol and hypertension. I've made my peace with taking pills - they're what are keeping me alive.”

    Dunbar spent 25 years in the military, but was never sent overseas. He says he's at the meeting because he wants to support his fellow veterans any way he can. “I've been dealing with Vietnam vets for a long time,” he says. “There's always something in their eyes they can never seem to get rid of.”

    Dickerson wishes there had been something like Vet to Vet when he got out of the service. “You almost had to be homeless and divorced half a dozen times to get help back then,” he says. “The claims process itself can bring out anger and rage,” Jones adds.

    The conversation bounces around. Some won't read newspaper articles about the death and destruction in Iraq because, as Dickerson says, “It makes me sick to my stomach.” Some have great disdain for President Bush, some think American lives are being sacrificed for Halliburton profits. One says he doesn't care what anyone says, there are no civilians in a war zone, period. They're talking, getting things off their chests. That, says Tom Huddleston, is what the weekly meetings are all about.

    “One, they give you a reason to get up, get dressed and go somewhere,” Huddleston says. “Two, it gives us a community. It's like having your squad, your platoon, your division back. The thing about combat is, it might provide the worst times of your life, but at the same time it provides the best. You don't get any closer to human beings than you do in combat. You know you're in it together, and you know you'll give it up for each other.”

    The legacy of older veterans who suffer or suffered from PTSD and depression are multiple failed marriages, resumes listing 25 jobs, hospitalizations every four to five years, and substance abuse “to take away the screams of the dreams and ghosts we walk with,” Huddleston says. “When you're deployed, you have to disengage from your family, your loved ones, your children and your God,” he says. “When you return home, it's not that easy to re-engage. The Indians know the story of the eagle and the wolf. The eagle soars. The wolf hunts, it's a predator, a defender.

    “When vets come home, they're all wolf. They don't know how to fly. We hope Vet to Vet helps our men and women come all the way home, to re-engage, to love their children, love their wife. We don't want our younger brothers and sisters to go through what we have.”

    Jones says they are here to help any vet who walks through the door of their weekly meeting. “If we can't help them, we won't send them somewhere else,” he says. “We'll walk them there. Because we don't leave one of our own.”

    Source: VINCE DEVLIN of the Missoulian
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