Retirement brings peace for some Vietnam vets, distress for others

The nightmare has haunted Jerry Kot for more than 40 years.

"I have it two to three times a year. The VC (Viet Cong) are chasing me into a warehouse. I'm climbing up high to see what's going on, but I can't be found," said Kot, a former Oak Lawn resident who now lives in Las Vegas.

"It has no bearing on what I did or where I was (during the Vietnam War). It just doesn't make sense," he said.

Kot, a 1967 graduate of Richards High School, says he knows the dream is some kind of manifestation of feelings he experienced while serving as a medic on the Mekong Delta with the Army's 9th Infantry in 1970, but he can't explain it.

Now that he's retired, with time on his hands, he finds himself revisiting some of the issues brought on by the war, feelings that he was often able to suppress during his working years. Kot said he is fortunate that he is able to retreat into his carpentry projects that enable him to keep a positive outlook on life. He said it also helps that the nation, in general, is kinder to Vietnam vets these days.

"Now I wear my Vietnam vet hat and people come up to me and thank me. That's cool," he said.

Other vets of that era are not as lucky, says Laura Broderick, a mental health social worker with Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital who helps veterans work through post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at an outpatient clinic in Oak Lawn.

Many, she said, are realizing that retirement can be a double-edged sword when you have horrors in your past. And the PTSD acquired during tours of duty on the battlefields of Southeast Asia is often compounded by memories of a hostile homecoming, she said.

In recognition of Veterans Day on Nov. 11, I asked some Vietnam vets how they feel today about their tours of duty, coming home and the issues that linger. I asked if recent efforts, such as the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick 10-part documentary series, "The Vietnam War," help to make up for past sins on the part of the U.S. government and the American people.

Some said yes; others, no.

Keeping the glass half full

Drafted at 19, Kot was just 20 when when he was shipped to Southeast Asia.

"I was there when that Cambodia thing got hot and heavy," he said. "We were the ones doing most of the fighting in Cambodia."

The field hospital where he was stationed was pounded regularly by mortars, he said. He remembers one incident very clearly with horror and sadness.

"We'd gotten hit with mass casualties and myself and another medic grabbed a litter (stretcher)," and ran onto the battlefield.

When they returned to the morgue with a casualty, "I opened up the body bag and inside was a very good friend of mine," Kot said. "It kind of messed with my head. It made me volunteer to go out in the field."

Now retired, Kot said, he spends hours in his garage, working on his carpentry projects.

"I lose myself in it," he said.

Together, he and his wife Marianne, a graduate of Oak Lawn Community High School, watched Ken Burns' "The Vietnam War" series on PBS this past month.

"We looked at each other and said, 'We lived through this. This was our time,'" he said.

"It was amazing some of the things that documentary brought into the open," he said. "It really made you feel politics is useless. That's how it made us feel."

According to District 218 spokesperson Bob McParland, the Richards class of 1967 lost four to the Vietnam War including Bronze Star recipient Daniel Walsh, Lance Corporal John Baird Jr. and Keith Gooley, who was killed during a training accident at Fort Bragg.

The other was Kot's good friend Marine Lance Corporal Mark Anderson, of Palos Heights.

"Mark was one of the nicest human beings in the whole world," Kot said. "He had a smile that made everybody feel an instant warmth, like he was smiling right at you. Everybody liked him."

Compounding the grief of loss, Kot said, was the chilly homecoming he and other vets received when they came back to the United States.

"It was horrible. Absolutely horrible," he said. He remembers his parents asking him to wear his uniform to Mass at St. Linus Church in Oak Lawn.

"I had people come up to me and say 'Why did you wear that uniform.' They didn't spit on me but I felt like they did," he said.

These days, Kot said, he looks at the situation differently.

"Today I think that story tells a lot about the ignorance on the part of American people. They didn't know the truth," he said.

And they didn't know what it was like to be in that war zone, he said.

"I saw women and kids, age 10-11 years old, with rifles and who were booby-trapped with bombs, walking up to GIs and 'boom.' In some villages 95 percent were VC or sympathizers. It was very confusing. You never knew what was going to happen," he said. "We were afraid all the time, especially at night."

Documentaries like the Burns' series should help people understand that most Vietnam vets were drafted, he said. "We didn't ask to be there. We were at the mercy of our own corrupt government."

Things are better today, he said, "without a doubt." But many vets still wrestle with PTSD.

"Some of the guys really went off the deep end," he said. "We had a medic who had seen a lot of crazy fighting. When we would get hit, he'd get so drunk and then sleep right through it. We'd all be scurrying. He'd just sleep. Different people reacted differently."

Kot, 68, said he's found a way to look past the horror.

"My cup is always half full these days," he said.

In early October, Kot and two of his two classmates, Gene Ricketts and Gene Cunningham, were honored on the field between the first and second quarters of a Richards home football game.

"It was neat," he said. "My family was there. The crowd cheered."

Tough to move on

Larry Blankman, too, served a tour of duty in the Mekong Delta. In 1967, Blankman said, soldiers didn't know "the truth."

"At the time it didn't make any sense. It wasn't about conventional warfare, trying to capture land or free the people. It was all about body count," said the veteran Army infantryman.

"We did the best we could to protect ourselves and our buddies," he said. "We just wanted to come home."

And that's where salt was tossed onto their emotional wounds.

"It affects you forever," he said. "I still deal with the consequences of the war. The war for me and others isn't over. We live with the nightmares and all the feelings of loss of friends and so on. You just keep asking yourself 'For what?' American life didn't mean anything to anyone. We were just a bunch of poor kids that nobody cared about. I felt they were trying to thin out the population."

Blankman said much of his anger has "to do with our government still not taking care of our veterans."

Some of that was brought out in Burns' documentary.

"I liked the first few episodes," he said. "Then I kind of got turned off. I had heard a lot of it before. I thought (the series) would get to a lot more."

Still, he said, "I think the best thing to come out was for the American people to see how our government actually lied to us. They had all the people believing" that the war was just.

Blankman, who turns 71 in January, said: "I was a young hillbilly boy from Lafayette. I had no idea where Vietnam was, no idea about the war. I didn't really know what Communism was. I had never been away from home. And there they come and draft me. They send you to a foreign country. I can never forget the smell. To see people living the way they did. These people went to the bathroom right in the street.

"Physically I'm OK," he said, but he did lose part of his left lung last year, something he attributes to the spraying of Agent Orange.

"Anybody in-country was exposed to Agent Orange because it was in the air, in the water system. It was everywhere. It was in the rice paddies and the canals," he said.

He said it's true that many of the feelings he'd once thought were forgotten have come rushing back in retirement.

"The nightmares are much more frequent," he said. "You cannot spend a year in Vietnam or any other conflict and come home and ever expect to be the same. I still deal with PTSD. I have a lot of anger and issues. I see a psychiatrist and a social worker."

'Twenty years too late'

Blankman travels from his home in Crown Point, Ind., to Oak Lawn every few weeks to meet with Broderick.

The social worker said that while not everyone gets PTSD, anyone who has experienced a threat to their life or has witnessed a threat to someone else's life can suffer from it.

Keeping busy with a job or a family can keep the condition under wraps, she said.

"After Vietnam, many vets were able to get jobs easily. There were lots of factory jobs. They were able to get married and buy a house. They became great contributors to society," Broderick said.

"But now they're retired and Vietnam is back. There's nothing to keep them busy. Things on TV trigger (memories). I have a lot of men (veterans) who've been able to manage this for 30 years and now they're having symptoms," she said.

Broderick said the Burns series was "validating" to many Vietnam vets even if it was "about 20 years too late."

For too long, she added, Vietnam vets have "felt alone."

"The only people who can relate to them are other vets. And so we've created this separation. The other thing that's very painful for them is there was no ticker-tape parade when they came home, like there was at the end of World War II," she said. "When these vets got off the planes, they were met with protestors.

"So we have a lot of men who feel shame for their service," she said. That affects their self-esteem, she said.

Their PTSD symptoms, which can include sleep disturbance, social isolation and irritability, can be triggered by TV series, photographs or news coverage of tragedies, such as the Las Vegas mass shooting, she said.

When it kicks in, Broderick said, they can become "hypervigilant."

Most vets who contact her for help with PTSD cancel their appointments, she said, "because avoidance is a way of life.

"They'll tell you, 'I don't have a problem.' But ask their wives and they'll say otherwise," Broderick said.

The Veterans Administration offers trauma services at Hines as well as community based clinics, she said.

Various methods are employed. Broderick said she has great success with cognitive processing therapy (CPT).

"That means we find a stuck point, work it down to find the root of what is causing those feelings and then correct them, change the feelings attached to the memory," she said.

Often, trauma affects the individual's sense of safety, self-esteem, power and control, she said.

"You also look at the illogic of things. Someone may say, 'I can't trust anybody' but you point out they've been married for 40 years, so they can trust people," she said.

At long last, 'respect'

Rich Bukowski, former commander of the Oak Lawn VFW, didn't care for the Burns series.

"I thought it was far-fetched. There was too much political stuff," said Bukowski, who served as a radio operator with the Army in Vietnam from 1967-68. "It's hard for me to watch shows like that. There are too many bad memories. It was hard when I came home, especially at (O'Hare) airport when I got told I was a baby killer.

"I came in early in the morning and people were pushing me around. They wouldn't let me get a cab or nothing," the Kelly High School graduate said.

He said he felt a bit vindicated after Chicago hosted the Vietnam Vets Welcome Home parade in 1986.

After that, he said, "People started treating me with respect."

Bill Browne, commander of Benjamin O. Davis VFW Post 311 in Richton Park, said he found the documentary to be "surprising."

"I learned a lot about the things that went on behind the scenes," he said. Of particular interest, he said, were the clips that featured the top brass talking and the interviews with North Vietnam vets.

"It puts things together, explains why we were there," said Browne, who also serves as Cook County director of veterans affairs.

Browne was 20 and living on Chicago's South Side when he realized he was about to be drafted and instead joined the Air Force. He served in both Vietnam and Thailand, he said.

"I did not go in-country, I wasn't in a foxhole or on the front lines. But I was responsible for radio communications and driving a jeep for others who were in those situations," he said.

After he was discharged in California, he said, "They told me not to wear my uniform home. They said people did not appreciate the fact that you were over there killing people for no reason. It was one of those things where I had to come home and go back to work and just keep quiet about it."

It wasn't until that parade in Chicago that things started to turn around, he said. The Vietnam Moving Wall also has been helpful, he said.

"It's good to see. It's good to remind people of the 58,000 people whose names are on it," he said. "A lot of vets appreciate that because some of their friends are on that wall."

Joe Stachon, who served as a Green Beret in Vietnam from 1968-69, was 20 when he was shot.

He was still 20 when he was shot a second time.

The recipient of two purple hearts said he found the PBS series to be "historically correct."

"I took it as a roving history," said Stachon, who lives in Palos Heights.

Today, he said, things are better for Vietnam vets because of the younger generation, who "helped bring the plight of veterans to the forefront.

"And more people spoke to (and appreciated) them than us. I'm not sure why. It might have something to do with volunteerism, the fact that they weren't drafted, that they chose to serve," he said.

After Sept. 11, 2001, he said, there came a sea change in how the public viewed vets.

"It's a whole different feeling now. It's kind of nice. You're standing in the Jewel and someone comes up and says, 'Thanks for your service.'"

Sure, he added, "It was a long time to feel ostracized.

"But we had each other."

The veterans crisis line is 800-273-8255, press 1.

dvickroy@tribpub.com

Twitter @dvickroy

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