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Vietnam Vets Warn Marines About Combat Stress

Thousands of Marines are returning to Camp Pendleton from Iraq. As they return they attend debriefings, to help them make the transition from a war zone back to the safety of San Diego. Commanders of

Vietnam Vets Warn Marines About Combat Stress

Thousands of Marines are returning to Camp Pendleton from Iraq. As they return they attend debriefings, to help them make the transition from a war zone back to the safety of San Diego. Commanders of the First Marine Expeditionary Force recently decided to invite Vietnam Veterans to speak at the debriefings about the emotionally wrenching after-effects of combat stress.  KPBS reporter Alison St John has more.

A couple of hundred marines pack a small auditorium on base. A show of hands reveals most of them have been gone for a year. The rows of shaved heads turn to pay attention when Mike Sloan, a graying Vietnam veteran, gets up to talk. Sloan starts with something he never got when he returned from war


Sloan: I want to personally thank you for going into harms way to protect my way of life.

He moves on the something else he didn’t get -- support for the devastating thoughts and feelings that surfaced after he got home.

Sloan: We’re asking you not to make the mistakes we made left untreated. Combat stress will lead to depression , paranoia, suicide. You can pass on to your symptoms to your loved ones, your significant others and your children.

One by one, half a dozen Vietnam Vets talk about their own experiences of dealing with nightmares that devastated their personal and working lives. Studies suggest between 25 percent and 95 percent of those returning from combat suffer stress symptoms, from sweat drenching fear to uncontrollable anger.

Decorated veteran Jack Lyons tells the Marines to reach out for support if the feelings come up. It’s the secrets that’ll kill you, he says.


Lyons: And the thing to remember is you are brothers here but there’s lots of uncles that are ready to help you if anything comes up.

It’s a two way street for the Veterans who volunteer to speak. Outside the meeting hall, Vietnam Vet Bill Rider says he hopes sharing openly about his experience of post traumatic stress will help the marines. But it also helps him heal the feelings he was left to deal with alone when he got back from Vietnam.

Rider: Back from Nam there was no diagnosis for PTSD, and they didn’t start diagnosing that till 1985, 86 -- and that left a lot of Vietnam vets out there in the wilderness and we just didn’t understand what the heck was happening to us.  

Though PTSD is a recognized diagnosis now, it’s still risky for marines to admit they’re suffering. Their military career could be damaged in a culture that values strength and labels these kinds of feelings as weak.  But Rider says there are very practical reasons why the Marine Corps is paying more attention now to combat stress. 

Rider:  Of course there a little bit of the bottom line here, they realize if they don’t retain their experienced combat veterans, that they just have to go out and spend more money to retrain those people.

Officials on base would not allow any recently returned marines to be interviewed.

But Colonel Darcey Kauer -- a commander with the First Marine Expeditionary Force --agreed to talk about why he believes speaking openly about PTSD is so important. Kauer says when he first returned from combat he got into so much trouble he was nearly court-martialed. He says the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a misnomer.

Kauer: Personally, I think that PTSD , that  “d”  needs to come off the end, it’s not a disorder they’re injuries and that’s one of the things we’re trying to get across to peoplem-- that you can be injured psychologically, emotionally and spiritually.

Federal Studies report that 80 percent of soldiers who showed potential signs of PTSD were not referred for mental health follow up. Kauer says he believes the military has to let go of the stigma attached to revealing emotional wounds.

Kauer: It’s going to take some time to completely change the culture and as this war continues on, we’re slowing chiseling at that culture and trying to change it so that we eliminate that stigma as much as we can.

Thousands of Marines are cycling back through San Diego, between deployments and after they are discharged. How the community helps them deal with the emotional aftereffects of combat trauma will decide if they make the transition successfully or become another generation like the Vietnam Vets forty years ago.

Alison St John, KPBS News.