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Refighting Vietnam (in Rochester)


During last year's presidential election, many political analysts felt the dialogue sometimes seemed unable to break free of issues surrounding the decades-old conflict in Vietnam.

Perhaps that's because our nation hasn't finished wrestling with the ghosts of that controversial war. And now that struggle is defining the way we react to Iraq.

Just ask anyone who works with veterans in Rochester about what the men and women serving in the Middle East can expect upon their return, and the "V" word emerges quicker than you can say "post traumatic stress disorder."

"I had a veteran from Vietnam whose job was to go on the riverboats looking for Vietcong and of course the families would be terrified, the children would be screaming, and there was terrific danger sometimes," says Carol Zimmerman, vice president for clinical services at the Veteran's Outreach Center on South Avenue.

"When he came home and had kids, he couldn't stand his kids screaming and crying. It just put him into a huge rage. His marriage didn't last very long, and certainly it took a lot of time for us to reconnect him with his family."

While analysts and armchair generals on the tube are busy debating the tactical similarities (or dissimilarities) between the two conflicts, another comparison between today's war and the one that first gave PTSD its name is getting short shrift: the reception and the level of care Iraq soldiers can expect when they return stateside.

Now, with no end to that conflict in sight, the people serving Rochester's veterans are looking at the first trickle of returning soldiers for clues about whether we've learned anything from Vietnam.

What will we see? "We're going to see ---," Zimmerman begins, before stopping mid-sentence to carefully reframe her answer for the uninitiated.

"There's enormous readjustment issues for the person coming home from combat that we here in the United States can't understand because we've never lived through a war," she says. "We're probably one of the only countries in the world that's clueless to what the ongoing horror is. So for our returning soldiers who are living this every day, they feel very disconnected when they come home. If you came home to Paris in 1945, everybody there had lived through the horror. Here, we're clueless; we live in Disneyland."

What former soldiers won't want to talk to their families about are those things that make Iraq a non-stop emotional pressure-cooker.

"In this war, no matter where you are, your life is threatened 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And you're seeing this insanity where children are carrying grenades so you don't know who the enemy is," Zimmerman says.

Other than its survivors, if there's one group that wants to put the Vietnam conflict --- and its aftermath --- behind it, it's the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA has taken plenty of criticism in the past for not doing enough for returning vets. With that in mind, VA officials nationally and locally are trying to avoid a repeat.

On the front lines of that battle is Pamela Wright, whose official title is "clinical point of contact." Her explanation of their welcome-home plan contains a tacit acknowledgment of the VA's past image:

"When veterans started coming back, we wanted to make things different than what happened in the Vietnam era, so the Veteran's Health Administration [the arm of the VA that includes health care] created a seamless transition task force up in central office that linked with the Department of Defense," she says.

Based out of the VA Medical Center in Canandaigua, Wright is a key player in the local VA's plan to ease the freshest batch of vets into the system. Along with case managers and medical personnel, she and an administrator make up the Iraq/Afghanistan Returning Veteran Task Force.

"We are doing outreach to make sure all the veterans who return and all the military personnel who are going out to the war know about the VA hospital and the services we provide," she says. Beyond letting veterans know what services are available, the task force also can help them navigate the system. For instance, a psychiatrist could help a local vet who needed to get into the nearest inpatient PTSD unit (which, for Rochester vets, is in Batavia).

Wright's optimistic about the program, but since the local VA facilities haven't seen many Iraq war vets, it's impossible to tell exactly how well the initiative is working.

"I would say we have been averaging almost one a day since September," Wright says. Maybe a third of those have symptoms of PTSD or another mental illness, she estimates. "We are seeing PTSD and depression and anxiety, but I haven't done any statistics with it at this point."

But part of the definition of post traumatic stress disorder is the persistence of its symptoms. And this is precisely why the VA and other veterans groups can hold out hope that the story of the Iraq war veterans will diverge from that of their predecessors who fought in Vietnam. When veterans from Vietnam returned, Wright admits, the VA --- or anyone else --- didn't know what PTSD was or what to look for. Without any help, the condition festered for many veterans and got worse over time.

"Today when they come back, if they come in and get help soon, it may not lead to PTSD," Wright says.

Like VAs around the nation, the Canandaigua unit is trying to do more with less. Yet Wright, with 15 years in the VA at multiple facilities, remains largely optimistic.

"I think we're handling it and I think our management is very aware of our needs," she says. "For instance, I'm sure the PTSD clinic is reporting to the upper management how many are coming back, so that if we need more staff we'll be able to get that staff."

Still, a hint of worry creeps into her voice as she looks toward the future.

"Let's face it: It's not like it use to be," she says. "We did have more staff at one point. If it continues to get cut I suppose there would be issues, but I think we're doing a pretty good job here."

Tom Cray is also concerned by the possibility of more cuts in the future. The president of Veteran's Outreach Center wonders about the much higher human and economic costs --- in education, health care, law enforcement, and other arenas --- the public may have to pay if the federal government skimps on its service to the vets from this war.

"These are not just veteran problems; these are community problems," he says. "This is a public policy issue and we'd better recognize that and deal with it."

As part of their ongoing outreach efforts, the Canandaigua VA Medical Center, 400 Fort Hill Avenue, Canandaigua, is hosting an open house for soldiers and veterans. There will be information on veterans' service organizations, vet benefits, health care, etc. The event runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, January 22, at the Building 5 Auditorium. Info: 393-7348 or 463-2687.