Watching "The Vietnam War": a flashback moment for vets?
A national conversation on a still-painful war begins Sunday with the premier of Ken Burns' and Lynn Novick's documentary, "The Vietnam War." PBS describes the series as "an immersive narrative," featuring footage of the war and first-hand accounts from vets on all sides, including the Vietcong. That means that Vietnam veterans who watch the show could experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder as they re-live combat. Edgardo Padin is a Vietnam veteran and a psychologist who recently retired from the Louis Stokes Veterans Administration Medical Center in Cleveland, where he worked with vets with PTSD.
“Post-traumatic stress disorder is a reaction to an overwhleming and extreme event in someone’s life where they feel as if they are going to die or something horrible is going to happen to them. As a result of that, the memory traces of that remain in the person, in many pople, and they are easily aroused by something that reminds them of that event.”
He says the reactions can be severe.
“In some cases people go into what’s called a dissociative state. The dissociative state means they suddenly feel as if everything around them is back into that particular memory that they have, so that in veterans, particularly in Vietnam veterans, they may feel they are back in the jungle,” said Padin.
Pagin said he worked with one Korean War veteran whose case was particularly severe.
“He was forced to kill an entire village. And one of the people that he killed was an 11-year-old boy. And the face of that 11-year-old boy would suddenly pop in front of him, float in front of him, for many, many years. That’s a dissociative state.”
Pagin said it’s unlikely that the television documentary will trigger a dissociative state or hallucinations in Vietnam vets. But he said the series is likely to raise uncomfortable feelings.
“Some of them may become disturbed and may want to talk about it with someone. You’ll also have veterans calling that are very upset because of what they see. They may call and be upset that the Vietcong were given attention, because they still see them as, partly, an enemy.”
In his work at the V.A., Padin said Vietnam War veterans had strong opinions about every war that followed, from the First Gulf War to the 2003 Iraq War and the current war in Afghanistan.
“That was partly in function of what they were still carrying around with them after the Vietnam War,” said Padin.
Padin said Vietnam veterans’ traumatic memories are not just of the horrors and miseries of the battlefield. Vets also re-live the trauma of being misunderstood and undervalued by their fellow Americans upon their return.
“Much of what we have come to understand about the Vietnam veteran and their problems with the post-Vietnam syndrome is not just the war, which was pretty bad. I would say between 10 to 15 percent of all soldiers who were actually in combat or went to Vietnam had post-traumatic stress. That’s been shown over and over again. However, those who came back and received the type of social reprimand that they received made it much worse.”
“One of the most important aspects of helping people recover from traumatic events is positive social support. If they don’t have that,” he said, “it’s very hard to recover.
Pagin enlisted in the United States Army in 1966, and was “in country” in Vietnam from December, 1966 until December, 1967. He was a member of the 173 rd Airborne Brigade, “but I wasn’t a paratrooper,” he said. He helped move troops into and out of combat zones as part of the 335 th Assault Helicopter Company.
“I saw a lot of people die,” he said. “Even as a company clerk, I had to write a lot of letters to families, telling people their son was dead. Worked with a lot of people to carry the soldiers and move them out of the battlefield.”
Padin said that was just as traumatic as coming under fire.
“Certainly those who were in actual firefights and in combat went through tremendous stress, tremendous trauma, tremendous strain. But also many of those who were in the background of which I have some experience with – I had experience with both the front and the back – went through extreme stress and trauma.”
He said it’s like “undigested food.”
“I remember coming back, I wasn’t able to talk to anyone. My marriage broke up. I went to jail. I used drugs,” he said. “It wasn’t about until 10 years later when I begin to see some of the things that had happened to me and what they meant, that I decided to get a degree in psychology and see if I can learn something.”
He did. He eventually earned a Ph.D, moved to Cleveland and took a job at the Veterans Administration clinic in Cleveland, where he started treating vets for PTSD.
“I realized this is something I can do well,” he said.
Veterans who wish to speak with a professional about their Vietnam War experiences can call the Veterans Crisis Line: (800) 273-8255.