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Landmark Vietnam War Series May Trigger Unwanted Memories For Some Vets

U.S. soldiers operate a machine gun in Vietnam in this undated photo.
National Archives and Records Administration
U.S. soldiers operate a machine gun in Vietnam in this undated photo.

Starting Sunday, PBS stations around the country begin airing a 10-part series on the Vietnam War produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Many veterans will be watching. Others say they definitely will not watch because they want to avoid the traumatic memories that could be triggered.

“The Vietnam War” is being billed as a rare cultural milestone, at least for veterans of the war. The filmmakers have been planning the documentary series since 2006 — meaning their production process has been about as long as the war itself, from the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964 to the Fall of Saigon in 1975.

Landmark Vietnam War Series May Trigger Unwanted Memories For Some Vets
Landmark Vietnam War Series May Trigger Unwanted Memories For Some Vets
The documentary "The Vietnam War" begins an 18-hour run on PBS this weekend. Concerns over untreated PTSD will likely lead some veterans to turn away and cause others to turn toward treatment.

The series may be too intense for some Vietnam vets, according to Henry Peterson, a chaplain with the Veterans Affairs hospital in San Diego. He counsels veterans with post traumatic stress disorder,PTSD, and he surveyed some of them to find out who will be watching. He said many of his clients will not.

“It could bring up some memories that they don’t want to deal with,” Peterson said. “It could bring up some memories they may need to deal with.”

RELATED: Vietnam Vet Surfers Use Waves To Open Up About Their War Experiences

Almost anything can trigger the vivid and aggressive thoughts associated with PTSD. It might be a door slam or the smell of diesel, according to Tina Mayes, a staff psychologist at VA San Diego Healthcare.

A U.S. soldier helps a fellow wounded soldier in Vietnam in this undated photo.
National Archives and Records Administration
A U.S. soldier helps a fellow wounded soldier in Vietnam in this undated photo.

Most common triggers

“It can be something someone says. The way they say it,” she said.

News, films and documentaries are among the most common triggers.

“I would say the majority of veterans that I work with when their symptoms are high, they’re actively avoiding any media,” she said.

Vietnam vets are particularly vulnerable. Most of them were not treated early. The PTSD treatment evolved after this group of vets had returned from the war. In the 1970s, the VA was often unwelcoming. Society in general appeared, at best, uninterested in the plight of returning vets. Older Vietnam vets, in particular, have among the highest rate of suicide.

“Honestly, we don’t know why, but some of the research suggests that it was because of the way they were received when they came back,” Mayes said.

'It affects everyone'

This group of vets can end up living for decades with the symptoms of untreated PTSD, including feelings of aggression that seem to emerge from nowhere, said Larry Taylor, a combat veteran of Vietnam.

“It affects everyone,” Taylor said. “I would say my own wife experienced PTSD just from her relationship with me and the war I fought in.”

Before Taylor was treated, he coped by avoiding his triggers. He did not watch movies like “Apocalypse Now” or “The Deer Hunter,” but he ran into trouble when news coverage of the original Gulf War blanketed TV. As the war raged, so did Taylor’s symptoms.

“Basically, after the Gulf War, my PTSD kicked in,” Taylor said. “I would wake up screaming. My wife would wonder what’s going on. I was having nightmares all the time, during the daytime.”

U.S. soldiers wade through a river in Vietnam in this undated photo.
Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, Audiovisual Archives
U.S. soldiers wade through a river in Vietnam in this undated photo.

Find a loved one to watch it with you

Still, Taylor did not seek treatment for another decade. He is now chief of chaplain services at the VA in San Diego. He plans to watch the 18-hour-long documentary.

“I think today I know the difference between a bad memory and reliving a situation,” he said. “Fortunately, I’m not reliving things the way I once did.”

Taylor is counseling other Vietnam veterans that they should not feel obligated to watch the documentary. If they do watch, he advises them to find a loved one to watch it with you. Taylor is enlisting his wife of 46 years.

In the past, the VA has provided outreach around movies like “Saving Private Ryan” for vets who may be triggered by what they are seeing. This time the VA is partnering with PBS, preparing to provide counseling to any vets who feel it is time to start working through their own experience with the war.