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PEACETIME VISIT CAN HEAL - OR OPEN - OLD WOUNDS

SHARE PEACETIME VISIT CAN HEAL - OR OPEN - OLD WOUNDS

Al Warden is a Vietnam War veteran who remembers the splendor of Vietnam's countryside.

"It's a beautiful country. On one occasion we were out on kind of an ambush in a night location. I still remember to this day thinking what a beautiful, beautiful country it was," he said."I would like to go back to some of the places where some friends had died. I don't know what I expect by doing that, but maybe it might rival away some demons," he said.

Returning to Vietnam can provide a resolution some veterans have had to live without over the years. But there are also veterans who probably should not return.

"People who are very angry could potentially be too stimulated by going back there. Those are folks that have not worked through Vietnam issues, not come to some acceptance of them and maintain a high level of anger," said clinical psychologist Steven Allen, coordinator of the Post Traumatic Stress outpatient clinic at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Salt Lake City.

Allen said treatment of the disorder involves a person's trying to develop perspective. "Trying to see things from a different point of view from the way they have seen things. A trip to Vietnam can help provide some closure and help them see things differently," he said. "To bring home the idea the war is over and to see that things are very different than they were - to see the people that are living there, and particularly to get a sense of people on the other side also suffering great injuries."

Don Waak, a member of the Vietnam Veterans of America Inc. board of directors in Texas, went back in May after leaving Vietnam and the war in 1970.

"I told my wife I didn't know how I would come back, but I wasn't scared to go," Waak said. "Everything goes through your mind. There was a lot of apprehension, a lot of anxiety about how we were going to be received. I made it out of that country last time, am I going to make it out this time? It really didn't have any panic, per se, until we started landing in Hanoi."

His comfort level improved as the trip went along. "I've always thought the country was beautiful. I've said for years `I wonder what it would be like without the war?' "

Warden is chief of the VA's veterans assistance section in Salt Lake City. "For some time I held a grudge against the Vietnamese," he said. "If I had the chance I probably wouldn't even talk to them because of the way maybe I would come across to them. In thinking back, it wasn't the people's fault. They're just like we are. I think they got caught in a super bad situation."

Warden said he now holds no grudges, even against the soldiers he fought against. "It is usually the politicians and leaders that put them in that situation."

Warden can see advantages and disadvantages to a return trip, depending on the individual. "I think for the most part going back there, unless they're really disabled by PTSD, it would be good for most people."

PTSD has a number of potential symptoms: wanting to avoid a traumatic situation or reminders of a traumatic situation, wanting to avoid discussing feelings, social withdrawal or isolation, daydreams, nightmares, being jumpy, easily startled, anxious or having difficulty concentrating. Some have other sleep disturbances.

Vietnam veterans suffering from PTSD brought the disorder some legitimacy, even though it had existed for centuries. "It is documented in the Odyssey," Allen said. Victims of rape, assault, a natural disaster or some other intense trauma all are subject to the disorder.

Allen suggests that veterans thinking about returning to Vietnam plan to travel in groups, not alone; keep a journal of their feelings and experiences; talk about their feelings with their spouse or other traveling companions; and anticipate some upsets. "Expect it to be emotionally trying."

Not all veterans can afford to go back. Others are just not interested. No one should feel like they have to go back, Allen said.

Vietnam's bureaucracy toward foreigners can be daunting to even the most sophisticated traveler. "If somebody is having difficulty dealing with stress, I wouldn't want them going through that," he said. "For veterans in therapy, I would recommend they discuss it with their therapist" before deciding whether to make a return trip.

"After being away from things, we can make bad experiences worse - your mind replays and replays and relays," Warden said. "Sometimes in going back and facing the demon, you find out the demon isn't quite as bad as it was."