Eight years ago, Linda Dunning needed an outlet.

The marriage to her Vietnam veteran husband was strained to the breaking point. He had chronic problems with his health, with work, with stress and with finishing college.Dunning, a resource teacher at Terra Linda Elementary School in West Jordan, turned to writing. First, it was therapy for herself. Later, as she learned more about the war that scarred the nation's psyche, it became a message for others.

The result was a book now titled "Shadow Wife," reflecting her feeling that, in a sense, she lives in the shadow of her husband's Vietnam War experiences. It won second place in the Utah Arts Council's annual writing competition, and she is seeking a publisher.

"You have two choices: You can pretend it doesn't exist or you can dive into it and try to understand. At the time, I thought that was my choice. I understand this or I leave him," Dunning said.

"The thrust of the book is not necessarily being in the shadow of my husband, but living a shadow life with the people around me. Civilian people don't understand what the wife or the girlfriend is dealing with," she said. "The main idea is facing the shadow self within yourself. The person who goes through a crisis goes through that and the people around them go through that, too."

An Indiana native, John Dunning was a Navy hospital corpsman who spent part of a year in the jungle and the rest at a battalion aid station at An Hoa, about 22 miles south of Da Nang. He dealt with others' gruesome combat injuries, was wounded himself, received the Purple Heart and found himself home in a country embarrassed by his military service.

America's inability to deal with Vietnam is perhaps best summed up by the mixed messages in John Dunning's homecoming scene at the airport: One anti-war woman spit on him, another woman whose son was killed in Vietnam gave him cookies, and his family received him affectionately - except for two anti-war relatives who started a fight.

Later, John Dunning became convinced his health deteriorated because he had been exposed to Agent Orange. He now is classified by the Veterans Administration as 50 percent disabled.

Linda Dunning, a Utahn who protested the war in college, met her husband-to-be in Colorado. They married and eventually moved to Utah. She found her husband to be smart, sensitive and funny.

But he also was haunted by Vietnam.

Although the couple talked, Linda Dunning said she couldn't figure out why he couldn't get on with his life. She developed more insight after reading the daily letters he had written to his mother from Vietnam.

"It was a profound experience. I could see the change - this nice Midwestern basketball person becoming the person he is now," Dunning said. "It helped me understand what I was going through with my husband.

"His experience affected my experience. I don't see things the same way anymore," Dunning said.

Her research into Vietnam veterans also opened her eyes as she learned of high suicide rates, birth defects in children born to men exposed to Agent Orange and reliable estimates that one out of three homeless people is a Vietnam War veteran.

She said her book attempts to look at the profound sense of betrayal felt by the men who served - and the fact this can strongly affect the relationships in their lives.

Dunning said she's found that many women - especially professionals - deny the war has anything to do with their troubled relationships. Others recognize the problem but are afraid to say anything.

She hopes her book will help others recognize that Vietnam combat veterans' experiences have set them apart. "It's a parallel world, separate from our existence. You can't get into that existence, but you certainly can understand it and walk with it."