Monday, March 27, 2006

 

For some, war never ends

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Message: For some, the war is never over.

Article Title: For some, war never ends
http://www.veteransforcommonsense.org/?Page=Article&ID=6974

David Rice lives under constant threat of attack

Wounded by shrapnel from a North Vietnamese mortar and crippled by post traumatic stress disorder, he still smells jungle rot, ducks imaginary snipers when he is outside and huddles in the corner of his living room at night for fear of mortars.

“I know it is all in my head. This is no way for a 56-year-old man to act,” said Rice, clutching a cigarette in his brown fingers.

Some soldiers on today’s battlefields could be like Rice in 30 years. Military health officials say the number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder — PTSD — is increasing. They say too few of them are seeking treatment.

“The latest numbers project one in three, but that is still conservative,” said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Rieckhoff fought with the 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq.

He said health workers and veterans know more about mental health problems than they did during Vietnam, but many soldiers still are not getting the help they need.

The VA has limited resources to treat the new veterans and an Army stigma against seeking mental health care prevents some from getting treatment, Rieckhoff said.

“PTSD and mental health problems are the biggest issues facing the guys coming home,” he said.

Studies have shown that thousands of veterans suffer some significant form of stress from their tours in Iraq or Afghanistan. A military study of more than 6,000 combat veterans in 2004 found that one in eight Marines and soldiers — more than 12 percent of the group — reported symptoms of PTSD.

In February, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that 35 percent of Iraq veterans sought mental health services, while almost 20 percent reported a mental health problem.

Post-traumatic stress disorder was first diagnosed in 1980, but evidence of the disorder in soldiers goes as far back as the Civil War.

Soldiers with the disorder can suffer from a number of debilitating symptoms such as insomnia, intense anxiety and difficulty coping with work, social and family relationships. Symptoms may appear within months or be delayed for years.

They can also persist for decades, as David Rice can attest.

Look at the time. I should be sleeping. The pain from the shrapnel is causing too much pain to sleep. Even the methadone does little to stop the pain. Hell, if it wasn’t the pain it would be the night terrors. — An Oct. 12, 2005, e-mail from Rice. It was sent at 2:12 a.m.

Rice graduated from high school in 1967. He was 17 and decided to enlist in the Marines after seeing footage from Vietnam on the evening news.

“I saw on TV that the children were oppressed. I was an American. If you are an American, you fight for your country,” he said.

After boot camp, he was sent to Vietnam.

It was 1968 and he was assigned to an artillery unit and worked on the fire control team. When he wasn’t plotting fire missions for the battery, he was out on patrol acting as a forward observer.

“A couple of times I was far enough out that my position was surrounded and I’ll tell you, I prayed a lot that the VC did not hear me on the radio relaying their position back to the gun batteries,” he said. “A few times our own artillery got awfully close and I wasn’t sure if I would make it out.”

Rice was in Vietnam from October 1968 to March 1969 — 5 months and 28 days. He left in pieces.

Rice was walking across the top of a bunker at his unit’s firebase in the A Shau Valley in central Vietnam when a mortar exploded near him.

Shrapnel peppered the left side of his body. Two pieces were lodged in his heart and his left arm and leg were shredded.

Despite his wounds, he was able to fire several belts of ammunition from his M-60 machine gun before a Navy corpsman arrived to treat him and get him on a medevac flight.

“I woke to a blonde Red Cross nurse with green eyes and a French accent,” Rice said.

He spent five months in Navy hospitals in Japan and Okinawa. He finally returned to Camp Pendleton in San Diego and was discharged in 1971.

Rice returned to his hometown in Michigan and tried to find a job, but couldn’t hold one down. He tried to take classes, but had to drop out.

“There were too many people around,” he said.

He never considered PTSD, nor did he know what it is. With his mind in shambles and his body crippled by shrapnel, he turned to beer and drugs.

In 1988, after three failed marriages and numerous relationships, Rice checked himself into the VA hospital in St. Louis to treat his drug and alcohol abuse.

“I got so tired. I wanted to calm down. This was my last chance,” he said.

I guess our talk caused me some not so good memories and stirred up the PTSD more than I had thought it would. So the combination of talking to you and my anniversary sorta knocked me out of reality for awhile and I have been bunkered down in the house most of the time. Every time I started to write I would lock up, cry or get pissed. — Nov. 3 e-mail.

Rice admits he is a broken man. His slight build is now burdened by a large beer gut that looks like a pillow is stuffed under his shirt. He hobbles along most days with a metal cane — sometimes in the mornings he needs two.

Rice speaks with a slight lisp — his front teeth were knocked out in a 1994 bar fight and his left eye is covered with an eye patch.

Rice’s house on Main Street in Wade is both a refuge and a prison.

The ramshackle one story house is covered in 11 American flags — all hung upside down as a signal of distress. A black MIA/POW and a Marine Corps flag hangs next to his door. Old, junky computer desks crowd the porch.

Rice spends most of his days in a dingy living room smoking cigarettes and surfing the Internet.

Being outside, even in his yard, makes him feel exposed. He rarely leaves and most times only to go to the Veterans Affairs Medical Center on Ramsey Street for treatment.

Before his appointments he waits in the stairwell because he fears a mortar attack when he is in groups of more than five people.

“Flashbacks are not always the same and not always about the same thing nor of the same intensity,” he said. “The ones that really get me are the ones that start out as dreams and then I wake up and they are still there. Sometimes smells, sometimes sounds, sometimes the whole thing.”

Quality of life in the limited time I have left is important and almost as important is to warn the troops, new veterans, boys and girls (doing the jobs of men and women) about what they can expect. — Oct. 17 e-mail.

Rice was living in Fayetteville in 2003. He owned a computer parts business and a house. Rice said the PTSD hadn’t flared up in a while.

Everything changed when the city fined him $10,000 for having a messy yard plus $1,000 for clean-up costs. Rice claims the crew took some rehabilitation equipment.

He fell into a funk that cost him his business and house in Fayetteville.

“Their actions caused enough trauma to set off the PTSD so that it is as bad, and in some cases worse, than it was 30 years ago,” he said.

For the next three years, Rice wrote to the city and to lawmakers in Washington seeking help. He also asked Mayor Tony Chavonne for help.

Chavonne looked into the issue, according to e-mails to Rice.

“Sir, I have reviewed the files regarding your situation, including the correspondence with the Governor’s Advocacy Council for Persons with Disabilities, the Cumberland County Veterans Affairs and the VA Medical Center. It is our opinion that the situation was handled properly from the city’s perspective,” Chavonne wrote in an e-mail.

The response was a crushing blow, Rice said, and cost him his six-year relationship with his girlfriend. With no cure for the disorder, Rice has resigned himself to a life unfulfilled.

“All I wanted was to get an education, fall in love, marry, raise a family, and enjoy my work,” Rice said. “What a stupid fool I was to help them by giving up my life dreams and goals.”

Staff writer Kevin Maurer can be reached at maurerk@fayettevillenc.com or 486-3587.

Please visit Veterans for Common Sense at http://www.veteransforcommonsense.org
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