Stress hits some vets late in life

Life changes have Vietnam veterans in their 60s seeking treatment for nightmares, flashbacks

November 11, 2013 | By Colleen Mastony, Chicago Tribune reporter

Nearly four decades have passed since the end of the Vietnam War. Bill Simon, a 65-year-old combat veteran, thought he had had long ago escaped the nightmares and flashbacks that haunted him after his return home.

"For many years, I never had any issues," he said. He had all the trappings of a successful life: a loving wife, three children and a house in Arlington Heights. But about 10 years ago, the nightmares returned. Night after night, they became more vivid and more bizarre.

"Regardless of whatever I start dreaming about, the dream always mutates into some Vietnam incident," said Simon, a research specialist at a petrochemical company. "They've gotten progressively worse. Right now, I barely sleep."

Simon doesn't know what triggered the return of his nightmares. But experts say his experience is not uncommon. As Vietnam veterans age, many discover they have more time to contemplate their lives. The time for reflection — as well as retirement, reunions with war buddies and the deaths of loved ones — can stir memories from a long-ago war.

An estimated 2.7 million men and women served in Vietnam; Their average age is 64, according to Vietnam Veterans of America. "Most are approaching retirement," said Tom Berger, director of the health council at Vietnam Veterans of America. "Once they retire, their spouse has passed and the kids have left home, without that structure, they begin to think about things."

Anniversary dates and holidays such as Veterans Day may begin to bother people. But even when a veteran seeks treatment late in life, experts say, in many cases the post-traumatic stress disorder had been there all along.

That was likely the case for Steve Aoyagi, 63, of Des Plaines, who said that when he returned from war, he struggled with anger and anxiety. To deal with those feelings, he said, "I buried myself in my work. I worked 50 to 60 hours a week. A lot of overtime. Whatever time I didn't spend at work, I would occupy myself with my kids."

When a neuromuscular disorder forced him to retire in 2002, he began thinking more about the war. "I started having nightmares about the time I spent in Vietnam. The bombs we dropped, the people who were left behind, my best friend getting killed, not being there for him."

When his son deployed to Afghanistan, Aoyagi began to dream of the body bags that were once loaded onto his C-130 aircraft in Vietnam. In his dreams, he looked down at one of the bags and realized it carried the body of his son.

Now, he goes to group therapy three times a week at Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago. "The way that I'm dealing with my PTSD now — this is so true for the others — is by occupying my time," he said. "Keeping busy keeps me going."

For Tim Markowski, 65, a wounded combat veteran from River Grove, retirement meant more time to think about the young North Vietnamese soldier he killed while on patrol in 1967.

"He was probably about my age. He was probably as scared as I was," he said. "After all these years, that's when (the thought) creeps in. Who was this guy? He had a mother and a father. Maybe he was a dad. Over the years, that has come back to me."

It wasn't until after his retirement that Markowski went to Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital and was diagnosed with PTSD. "We got on with our lives — I did — but it never goes away," he said.

Memories form a complex web of images and emotions. It's hard to know how one event might trigger recollections from decades before, experts say.

At Lovell, more Vietnam veterans are reporting symptoms of late-onset PTSD. "I think that's due to the fact that Vietnam veterans are at an age when they're experiencing more loss and all the life changes that can be triggers," said Anthony Peterson, who runs the center's treatment programs for post-traumatic stress.

The passing of a spouse can stoke feelings of survivor guilt. A serious illness can force a veteran to confront death in the same way he once did in Vietnam.

Jim Shotsberger, 64, of Elmwood Park, started suffering nightmares in the mid-1990s after a heart attack. "I had dreams of people getting killed. The operations that we went on. The constant rocketing and mortars," Shotsberger said.

Those memories intensified after open-heart surgery in 2010. At work, he struggled with a nagging feeling that something terrible was about to happen. For a few weeks, he worried that the building would explode. He knew it was irrational, but he couldn't shake the thought. He retired soon after.

Now, he tries to focus on the present, but his mind always seems to reach back. "When you get older, you start going back in time," he said. He has since sought support at the Hines VA. 


Vietnam veterans, long ignored, are in the spotlight now


DURHAM -- Robert Jones of Durham can see now that after he got out of the Marines he was still looking for a fight.

He could get jobs, but because he was prone to lash out at bosses and coworkers, he couldn’t keep them. He argued with his wife. He yelled at his kids.


He had nightmares and flashbacks. He hated crowds.

Finally, he realized he needed to talk to somebody about his experience in the war.  The Vietnam War.

It’s been 40 years since some veterans returned from their tours of duty in Vietnam, but many are just opening up about what they went through in Southeast Asia. After advocating for years on behalf of those coming back from more recent combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, Vietnam vets are asking for attention for themselves, and they’re getting it.

“They made a promise to each other that what happened to them would not happen to another generation, where they would be cut off and not be able to talk about their experiences,” said Dr. Harold Kudler, a psychiatrist at the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center. “But at the same time, they wondered, ‘When will somebody do this for me, and welcome me home?’”

Not only does the nation seem ready now to listen to their stories, but it finally has something to say to Jones and others who served: Thanks, and welcome home.

A very late ‘welcome’

From oral history projects to expanded federal health benefits to a belated welcome-back party planned for March 31 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Vietnam veterans are in the spotlight in a way many say they have never been before.

Though they trained in large numbers, many of the 2.7 million men and women who served in Vietnam came back quietly, alone or in small groups. By the time the war ended in 1975, U.S. sentiment had turned against the war and, to some degree, those who had been recruited to fight it. There were no welcoming committees, no big parades.

That left Vietnam veterans in a difficult position.

“We send people to war on our behalf. They’re fighting for our country. They’re representing us,” Kudler said. Because of the political climate, he added, Vietnam vets came back to find few places where they could talk about what they had done and seen, even within their own families.

“When people come back from war, there is a need to be reintegrated into the community, where your experience is accepted and you’re recognized for your contribution to society,” he said.

“That didn’t happen for Vietnam.”

So reluctant were they to talk, Kudler said, that Vietnam vets wouldn’t even go to VA hospitals when they knew they needed help. The VA wasn’t always sympathetic to their concerns, routinely denying claims because veterans could not prove they had been injured, traumatized or exposed to Agent Orange, for example, making the veterans feel even more isolated.

Veterans who did talk about their experiences did so with one another, Kudler says, in settings where they would not be judged or misunderstood. Gradually, they began letting in psychiatrists and psychologists, who recognized patterns in the veterans’ experiences and symptoms. Thousands still attend regular, informal sessions at local Vet Centers across the country.

PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder – was developed as a clinical diagnosis largely out of those veterans’ revelations, Kudler says. But while the military’s understanding of PTSD has been used to help veterans of the first Gulf War and those in Afghanistan and Iraq, many Vietnam veterans were never diagnosed and didn’t get treatment.

They’re getting it now.

Speaking and healing

“Every day, we get new Vietnam veterans at the VA who have never been here before,” Kudler said.

The timing, he said, is not coincidental.

Vietnam vets are now in their 60s and older, retired, and either in need of VA medical care or anticipating it. When they come to the VA to get treatment for an old injury related to their military service, they’re also screened for PTSD.

Recent rule changes at the VA also mean that veterans don’t have to prove they were exposed to Agent Orange; if they served in Vietnam and have diabetes, which has been linked to exposure to the pesticide, they’re cleared for treatment.

Jones wouldn’t talk to anybody about the eight months and 22 days he spent in Vietnam in 1968-69 until an ex-Marine friend finally talked him into going to the Vet Center to meet with others who had been there.

“We kind of kept it all to ourselves, for the most part. Or I did,” Jones said of his Vietnam experience. “It was the only way I knew how to survive.”

Jones describes most of his post-war years as “surviving, not living,” because he was so emotionally disconnected from his family and friends.

“It’s been so therapeutic for me,” he said, “to realize there is such a thing as healing.”

Since he started going to the Vet Center, Jones has become close friends with about a dozen Vietnam vets from around the state who contributed to an oral history project on the Vietnam War. The work was led by Sharon Raynor, an associate professor of English at Johnson C. Smith University and daughter of a Vietnam vet.

Recently, Raynor and the group led a discussion with students at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies who will be conducting their own oral history interviews with veterans, including some who served in Vietnam. Some of the material will be submitted to the Veterans History Project at the National Archives in Washington.

Seated in a circle in a basement at the Center for Documentary Studies, the men told snippets of stories they have now relayed many times to high school students, civic groups and others who have invited them to speak.

John Nesbitt described having to repair military vehicles that had been hit with mines, their interiors stained with the blood of the soldiers who had died in the explosions.

Ronnie Stokes recalled the sound of a bomb going off, the sight of the smoking boots of the soldier who had been next to him seconds before, and touching his own face to see if he was still alive.

Louis Raynor, Sharon Raynor’s dad, told the students they could read about the war, but what he and the others saw “are the pages not in the book.”

Jones, now 63, told the class that it is still difficult for him to talk about his service but he does so because it helps him deal with the memories, and he hopes it will inspire other veterans, especially younger ones of more recent wars, to do the same.

“The reward I get is that these kids are curious, they want to know,” Jones said. And it gives him a chance to tell others, “Don’t wait 40 years like we did.”


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