Monday, May 7, 2001

Stress disorder
continues to haunt
isle veterans

Life changes can trigger
the onset of post-traumatic
stress symptoms

By Gary T. Kubota

WAILUKU >> Alfred "Doc" Wylie was 53 years old when he went into Maui Memorial Medical Center for corrective eye surgery and found the ghost of war.

When he awoke from surgery, he was surprised to find medical officials asking him questions about his mental state.

"Apparently, when I was under I started freaking out," said Wylie, 60.

"From 1958 to 1961, I worked on a combat aircraft carrier. I was in Lebanon, Cuba, above the Arctic Circle near the Russian submarine base at Murmansk. ... Thirty-three people I knew got killed in two years."

Wylie is among a growing number of U.S. veterans who have experienced nightmares of life-threatening military experiences, as they approach an age when they once again face the possibility of death or a radical change in life.

Suppressing their war experiences for decades while engaged in routine jobs and family life, some veterans are finding their defenses lowered as they grow older and face heart attacks, diabetes and strokes.

Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) include anger, depression, sleep disturbances including nightmares, tendency to react under pressure with survival tactics, psychic or emotional numbing, loss of interest in work and activities, guilt, hyper-alertness and emotional distance from one's wife and children.

They walk out on jobs, use alcohol and drugs to suppress their disorder, and have failed marriages.

Nationally, 134,582 veterans have requested treatment for the disorder, more than 1,120 of them from Hawaii and other Pacific islands.

Medical officials and veterans note many do not seek help because they fail to recognize the problem or are unable to go through the sometimes frustrating process of qualifying for treatment.

Of the 1.2 million who served in Vietnam, an estimated 350,000 veterans may have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the Veterans Affairs' National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Center education division head Fred Gusman said in some northern California areas such as Modesto, Stockton and Livermore, veterans are asking for treatment for the disorder more than for any other illness.

He said in Hawaii the number of requests for treatment also is extremely high.

Gusman said veterans of World War II and the Korean War are coming in and receiving outpatient service for post-traumatic stress disorder -- something that rarely happened 20 years ago.

He said veterans who witnessed traumatic battle events now may also qualify for medical benefits.

Wylie said for a long time he thought his social problems were tied to his childhood and being from a devout Catholic family.

After the eye surgery, he began to recall experiences as a nuclear weapons specialist on the USS Saratoga -- a British pilot fatally doused with jet fuel, a crewman sucked through a jet engine, a Marine fatally struck by shrapnel.

He himself had a brush with death from radiation poisoning.

"It would have killed me if they hadn't pumped me with morphine and antibodies," he said.

He said he had difficulty receiving veterans disability benefits because the documents that would have confirmed his experiences were "classified" and unavailable until two years ago.

Dr. David Bernstein, the acting assistant chief of staff for mental health for the VA in Hawaii, said if left untreated, the disorder does not go away and may get worse.

"It's a chronic illness," Bernstein said.

Richard Sword, a psychologist who counsels veterans, said a number of military people go into law enforcement and do not seek mental health help because it could hurt their careers.

"They put it off," Sword said. "They sweep it under the rug, and the rug gets lumpy and they trip on it. They don't recognize it. They just think they're angry and upset."

Former Vietnam veteran Rodney Pupuhi, now listed as disabled because of the disorder, worked as a deputy sheriff at Maui Circuit Court for about 10 years.

He said his memories of combat sometimes surface when he is watching a television program depicting gun battles.

Pupuhi, who served more than three tours in Vietnam and received a Silver Star for bravery, said he does not want to recall specific combat experiences.

"This kind of thing is really powerful stuff. The guys start crying. I can't open the can of worms up again," he said.

He said he re-enlisted once after hearing that most of his platoon had been killed on a mission.

"I was kill-crazy ... and I did kill," he said. "Sometimes I get the flashback. I still stay up all night."

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