A Vietnam vet's battle with PTSD

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 22, 2012

By Katie Scarvey
Bob Penn knew that he couldn’t go on any longer. He had to get some help.
“I was seeing dead people in the rear view mirror when I was driving,” he said.
He was having flashbacks, vividly remembering smells and sights from his time in Vietnam, re-living a nightmarish part of his past.
It’s something that veterans with post traumatic stress disorder ({PTSD) understand all too well.
Penn has been living with PTSD for a long time. He was a teenager in 1969 when he volunteered to serve in Vietnam. A Marine stationed with a medical unit, he was injured when a rocket exploded near him.
But there were other things that happened, things that are difficult for him to talk about, involving fellow soldiers descending into a dark psychic world that most of us might consider depravity. There were some incidents in a cemetery that are etched in his mind. He’s hesitant to discuss them.
“Over the years it just started chewing on me,” he said.
More than 40 years and thousands of miles removed from Vietnam,he’s still affected in ways that are difficult to explain, or control.
When he got back to the United States, he bounced around at a few jobs before finding one he could stick with, at a motorcycle shop..
He self-medicated, although he might not have really understood his motive at the time.
“I was an alcoholic, drinking a case of beer a day, smoking three packs of cigarettes a day.
“I was so angry. Anything would set me off. I stayed drunk for 30 years.
“Anything that went wrong frustrated me. I just had all this anger built up. I took everything personal, I couldn’t talk to my wife right.”
He recognized that he had a problem and quit both drinking and smoking. He replaced those with cycling, and threw himself into that with a passion, riding about 20,000 miles a year, he says. It helped him relieve the stress he felt.
But then his knees gave out, he says, and he couldn’t cycle anymore.
Later, he took a job in building maintenance in Winston-Salem. He took out his frustration in that job by “beating up walls.”
After 17 years there, he had to quit.
“I had all this anger. My anger was going to cause somebody to get hurt.”
But things didn’t really improve after he quit his job.
“I was staying in the house and not going anywhere, hiding in a corner,” he said.
He felt he needed to do something. He’d had some anger management counseling and knew that he was in bad shape, he says.
“For a while, I felt like leaving this world. I wasn’t good enough. Everything was my fault.”
That’s when he found some help through the Hefner VA Medical Center. He went through a six-week inpatient treatment program for PTSD there.
“I was desperate and at my wit’s end,” he said. He’d been assured by a few people who had completed the program that he could find hope there.
“I went through their encouragement and my desperation,” he says.
Penn found the camaraderie helpful.
It was a relief to be able to talk about things that he couldn’t even discuss with his wife.
During the third week of the program, he began delving into his combat experience and trauma issues.
“They kind of tore you apart and built you back up,” Penn said. “That was very hard for me. I cried for about two or three days in that session. I got through that, luckily.”
He appreciates the respect that he felt from the VA staff involved in the program.
“They treated me like I was the only one there,” Penn says. “All the way from the lady that does the cleanup up to Dr. Watson. They all treated you with high respect, always called you sir.
“If you felt like you had something to say, they were really attuned and listening to you. Those people have to be very special to deal with us, with all our ups and downs.”
It was therapeutic to be able to talk and to realize he wasn’t the only one facing certain issues, Penn said.”Some of the stuff I just couldn’t talk about, but I got a lot in,” he says.
He had to face up to some tough emotions. For example, he recalls taking a Vietnamese girl to a civilian hospital. She was dead on arrival, so the hospital refused to accept her. The medical unit didn’t know what to do with her, and Penn agonized about what happened next.
“We just left her at the riverbank,” he says. “I’ve always had problems dealing with that.” Brought up to respect people, he says he worried over not giving her a proper burial.
He doesn’t feel he’s cured and says he probably won’t ever be, but he’s happy to have some tools to deal with his emotions.
“I learned that there’s hope out there,” he says.
One thing he shares with many victims of PTSD is hypervigilance. He can’t ever relax, and he feels bombarded in noisy environments. Paradoxically, he says he’ll have trouble hearing the television but will be hyper-sensitive to sounds that for most people are simply background noise.
He takes some medication to help with anxiety.
One of his big issues is feeling detached from God. “I’m still trying to deal with that,” he says.
He believes the program helped his marriage.
“My wife…she didn’t realize how much stress I was carrying around with me. She just thought I was angry. The program has helped her understand me. She knows that when I’m mad it’s not her. It’s just certain things (that) trigger it. I’m working on dealing with the triggers and getting over it as best I can.”
Penn continues to go to counseling every week and says he plans to continue “for a long time.”
Now that he’s not working, he tries to get out of the house, although it’s hard sometimes. He likes to visit other veterans. He meets with a veterans’ group on Thursdays, and with the help of a psychologist, members talk about their issues and try to help one another, he says.
It’s easier to be around other veterans than the rest of the world, Penn says. There is understanding there that can’t be found in a world of civilians.
“You can be yourself around other vets and not be judged.”