Ever since the Vietnam veteran returned home, he has been fighting a new, ongoing war -- the mental odyssey of coming to terms with himself. But also participating in the struggle have been his family members -- wife, father and mother, children, siblings -- as well as lovers and friends. Instead of destruction, however, this war demands social repair work and intimate human communications.
Instead of seeking an enemy, the vet and family must seek each other.
"It's hard when he has his flareups," says Janice Stucke, 30, of veteran Tom Hagel, with whom she has been living for two years. "He throws things unknowingly. He has hurt me. It's hard to pick up the pieces and say, 'I love this man.' But I know a whole lot of it isn't Tom when this happens. But I'm also aware I'm sitting on a bombshell."
"After you get close to someone, especially a number of people, and they get killed right in front of you, it has an impact," says Hagel, 37, who returned from Vietnam in 1969 and is now a law professor at Dayton University. He got married three years after he came back, but "it lasted about five or six months. More than anything else I couldn't handle the strain . . . At that point, any time I felt like I was getting close to someone I'd cut off the relationship. I was afraid if I got involved and it fell apart, I'd be hurt and I'd lose someone again. A lot of friends I met in the war died."
Hagel's mother also has her share of the pain. In the book Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation (Doubleday, 1984, $19.95 hardback, $4.95 paperback), Hagel's mother, Betty Hagel Breeding, told author Myra MacPherson that her son's depressions "really frightened me. When he was home for Christmas vacations, he'd rather spend time in the basement reading than be with others. It was just as if he was a frightened little boy or something . . ."
The veteran's family members will frequently find an "ambivalence" on the part of the returning vet, says psychiatrist John Smith, 42, who heads the Center for Stress Recovery, affiliated with the Brecksville, Ohio, VA Medical Center. "He may be periodically fascinated by the war, keeping reminders of it around him, and yet will often not talk about it with the family. Or, when he talks about it, gets so upset, they will collude with him in not talking about it, so he won't get upset."
The veteran's partner, says Smith, then becomes "a buffer for the vet to everyday life. They provide the stability, pay the bills, shop for the clothes, get the kids to school, handle interactions. In some cases they become the intermediary between the institution and the vet for disability payments . . . They modulate the world."
"There's a whole range that can be said about how the veteran suffers," says Arthur Egendorf, 40, a New York-based psychologist, who interviewed 1,400 veterans and nonveterans in four major areas of the United States for a coauthored, congressional study, "Vietnam Legacies." He is also author of the recent book Healing From the War (Houghton Mifflin, 1985, $15.95). "Some guys have had a terrible, terrible time." But, he continues, "as long you're wrapped up about when the world is going to make it up to you, you're not available to people you can have some impact on right now . . . Anyone who has a relationship with you will have, as a partner, a less than full human being."
"Very often we're contacted by the wives or the friends," says David Harrington, 41, a Washington social worker who, with clinical psychologist Jeffrey Jay, 36, heads the Washington-based Back in the World Inc., a clinic that counsels veterans and family separately, or in couples. "We work with them, letting them know they're not alone. Attempting to get them to get the veteran into counseling . . . Ultimately you want to help the veteran understand what happened and how that trauma has gotten in the way of constructive relationships in the home. "The stress factor creates an intensity that gets driven into the family. Very often the children can be having problems in school. The sleeplessness, the anxiety can be transferred into the children. The vet can be doing well and the spouse can be showing the classic symptoms of PTS post traumatic stress ."
Getting the veteran to acknowledge the problem is a huge step for the spouse or family, says Smith. "If a family wants him to get help he may be angry or resistant. Angry that they're making a problem out of his problem; that will inhibit the family taking the step" to get professional help.
"I was kind of confused," says Elba Viruet, 36, whose husband, Joe, 35, returned from Vietnam in 1971. "He wouldn't see anyone, not even me. He would come out whenever he felt like it, to eat dinner . . . He'd say, 'There's nothing wrong. I just want to be alone.' I asked him to go to the doctor and he refused."
They had married in 1970; Joe, left for Vietnam less than two months later. When he returned, the problems surfaced almost immediately. Viruet found he "couldn't stay indoors. Which of course led my wife to believe I didn't want to be near her. I was very angry, the anger was getting worse, intense, dangerous."
"I never gave up," says Elba Viruet, who says the problems over the past 15 years have made her "stronger . . . When he got very depressed, I let him go through it and then, when it was too much like seclusion, I'd talk to him and tell him how I felt . . . But eventually it came to a point."
That point had been foreshadowed for some time, with violent outbursts. Joe Viruet took it out on the dog at first. Then, he says, he almost killed a female drug addict who was trying to steal his car radio. But one day, when he reacted violently toward his then-2-year-old daughter when she grabbed his leg unexpectedly, he knew he had reached the limit.
"I ran straight down to the VA hospital," says Joe Viruet. "I wasn't diagnosed 'post traumatic stress,' it was too early for PTS then. I was diagnosed 'chronic schizophrenic' . . . I asked the psychologist if I was crazy. Her answer was, 'Just a little.' "
"They had him in one of these rooms where they keep psychotic people," says Elba Viruet. "I didn't stay home a lot, I became a workaholic. It was work, then see him, then take care of my daughter, then time for bed, and then time to get up again."
When Viruet came home on weekends, he was so drugged up he would fall asleep on her, says his wife. She gradually weaned him off the drugs he had been made dependent on until "he realized what was going on and then he himself cut down . . . and he started seeing things differently, started feeling for the family -- my child and myself -- and becoming a man."
But that was not the panacea. Although he is starting a business and the marriage is "a thousand times better," the healing is by no means completely over. Even now, "when I'm getting edgy, it comes back a little bit . . . I stay very quiet, a little bit introverted. I like to be alone. Elba will notice that right away. She'll tell me, 'Don't worry, you'll be all right . . . ' "
And although Tom Hagel can reduce his depression with a prescribed tranquilizer, there are countless hurdles, says Janice Stucke. "He has gone through repetitive circles where he gets better and then goes down into depression."
There are other factors: Hagel has had severe physical complications. Also, the proliferation of 10-year Vietnam anniversary activities has opened up painful memories.
There is professional help available -- vets' rap sessions, vet centers, VA hospital outreach programs and private therapy. But initiation from the family members and the veteran is the necessary precedent. Many veterans have found that active participation in the life around them brings them around.
Hagel is "starting to realize things in life that are important to him," says Stucke. "Now he's trying really hard to keep things together."
The answer, says Joe Viruet, is for veterans to "try anything, except drinking. There's no set cure. Have people around you when you need that little extra push . . . Once in a while, take a rest to forget about it all . . . Keep a positive anger -- where you won't give up . . ."
"Time doesn't heal," says Egendorf. "It's wisdom that heals. And you can get wise in an instant or spend your whole life resisting it.
" It is important that the veteran shifts his relationship with the past, that he remembers as a witness rather than as a victim."