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When Marines return from Iraq to Camp Pendleton, they attend what's called a warrior debriefing. The session is designed to help them make the transition from a war zone back to the safety of their home community. Commanders of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force recently began inviting Vietnam veterans to speak at these debriefings about the emotionally wrenching after-effects of combat stress.
Alison St. John of member station KPBS attended a debriefing and has this report.
Unidentified Man: Good morning, Marine. Good to see you. Welcome back.
ALISON ST. JOHN: A couple of hundred Marines fresh back from Iraq pack a small auditorium on base. A show of hands reveals most of them have been gone for a year. They shuffle slightly in their seats during the initial presentation but the atmosphere changes when Mike Sloan(ph), a graying Vietnam veteran, gets up to talk. The rows of shaved heads lift and turn to pay attention. Sloan starts with the thanks he never got when he returned from war.
Mr. MIKE SLOAN (Vietnam War Veteran): Now I want to personally thank all of you for going harm's way to protect my way of life.
ST. JOHN: Sloan moves on to something else he didn't get: advice on how to deal with the devastating thoughts and feelings that surfaced after he got home.
Mr. SLOAN: We're asking you not to repeat the mistakes that we made. Left untreated, combat stress will lead to depression, paranoia, suicide, even pass on your symptoms to your loved ones, your significant others, and your children. A few months ago...
ST. JOHN: One by one, half a dozen Vietnam veterans talk about their own experience with dealing with nightmares that devastated their personal and working lives. They say virtually anyone who's been in combat would experience some kind of combat stress symptoms later. Some studies suggest about one in three people experience symptoms, from sweat-drenching fear to uncontrollable anger.
Decorated veteran Jack Lyons(ph) tells the Marines to reach out for support if the feelings come up. He says it's the secrets that will kill you.
Mr. JACK LYONS (Vietnam War Veteran): The thing to remember is, you are brothers here but there's a lot of uncles that are ready to help if anything comes up.
ST. JOHN: Outside the meeting hall, Vietnam vet Bill Ryder(ph) says he hopes sharing openly about his experience of post-traumatic stress will help the Marines, but it also help him heal the feelings he was left to deal with alone when he got back from Vietnam.
Mr. BILL RYDER (Vietnam War Veteran): Back from 'Nam, there was no diagnosis for PTSD and they didn't start diagnosing that till 1985, '86. So that left a lot of Vietnam veterans out there in the wilderness, and we just didn't understand what the heck was happening to us.
ST. JOHN: Though PTSD is now recognized as a medical condition, it can be risky for Marines to admit they're suffering. Many believe their military career could be damaged in a culture that values strength; revealing fear, anger and vulnerability is considered a weakness. But Ryder says there are practical reasons why the Marine Corps is paying more attention now to combat stress.
Mr. RYDER: Of course there's a little bit of the bottom line involved here. They realize that if they don't retain their experienced combat veterans, that they just have to go out and spend more money to retrain those people.
ST. JOHN: Officials on base didn't want Marines fresh back from Iraq to speak to the media about something as sensitive as post-combat stress. But Colonel Darcy Cower(ph), the first commander on Camp Pendleton to invite the Vietnam vets to speak at a debriefing, says he believes dealing with the symptoms of combat stress is crucial.
Cower says when he first returned from combat in the first Gulf War, he got into so much trouble he was nearly court-martialed. Cower believes the term post-traumatic stress disorder is a misnomer.
Colonel DARCY COWER (Camp Pendleton): Personally I think that PSTD, that D needs to come off the end. It's not a disorder. They're injuries. And that's one of the things we're trying to get across to people, is you can be injured, psychologically, emotionally and spiritually.
ST. JOHN: Cower believes the military has to let go of the stigma attached to revealing emotional wounds.
Col. COWER: It's going to take some time to completely change the culture. As this war continues on, we're slowly chiseling at that culture and trying to change it so that we eliminate that stigma as much as we can.
ST. JOHN: Cower says one group of Marines on Camp Pendleton has invited the Vietnam vets back. He hopes the lessons learned in Vietnam will help a new generation of Marines and soldiers as they return from war to communities around the country.
For NPR News, I'm Alison St. John in San Diego.
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