The men gathered around the television set in the no-frills recreation room at the Veterans Affairs post-traumatic stress disorder facility here did not join in the cheering when President Bush proclaimed, "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all."
Vern Allen walked away from the set, which someone else turned off, and was depressed."He was thrusting it right back in our faces again," said Allen, who served 39 months with the 4th Infantry Division in the Central Highlands, saw death and dismemberment all around him and whose life began to unravel when the stress disorder set in.
"I pretty much stayed in the bottle until I arrived here," he said.
Bush was referring to ridding the nation of a sense of defeat and of a new cohesion and unity of purpose, but for Allen and many other Vietnam veterans with the psychological disorder, it was a reinforcement of failure, of being dismissed - the symptoms exacerbated in the context of a popular war.
Across the nation, Vietnam veterans with the stress disorder are complaining of problems in sleeping, feelings of detachment or estrangement, irritability, difficulty concentrating or hypervigilance and other symptoms common with the disorder - along with recollections of combat so vivid they may think they are reliving the experience.
They replayed scenes of death and homecoming insults in their minds while the far better organized and endorsed Persian Gulf war played itself out.
"Bush's remarks were extraordinarily insensitive, treating these veterans as an embarrassment of a national conscience," said Dr. Charles Marmar, the director of the San Francisco VA Medical Center's Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder program.
Marmar, who is also an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco, contributed to a study that found that 15 percent, or 479,000, of the 3.14 million men who served in Vietnam have the disorder, along with 8.5 percent of the 7,200 women. VA facilities nationwide where specialists treat the symptoms are almost always at capacity.
Vern Allen sees it every day, as he joins groups to talk through problems and emotions.
It was six years after his homecoming at San Francisco International Airport in 1973 - where he was called a baby killer - before Allen even brought up the topic of Vietnam, although the memory lurked. But as he followed the gulf war, the memory roared back.
In fact, said Marmar, many veterans tell of having complicated dreams in which they weave parts of the two very different wars. "They will dream about being in a desert, not a jungle, and under fire, and be terrified," he said. "And then at some point the dream will shift to the jungle, and it's a nightmare."
Experts do not anticipate that the same percentage of Persian Gulf combatants will suffer from the same stress (a chronic disorder that persists long after normal reaction to trauma, called post-stress response syndrome, abates).
"This war had a clear mission," said Dr. John Liebert of Bellevue, Wash., a post-traumatic stress disorder specialist. "There were mitigating conditions, the war was briefer, fewer losses, all of these things will contribute to a reduction in the severity of the condition."
Nonetheless, physicians and mental-health workers are urging gulf veterans to minimize use of alcohol.
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service