Vietnam veterans experiencing return of nightmares late in life

Experts say more time for reflection can stir bad memories

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CHICAGO — Nearly four decades have passed since the end of the Vietnam War. Bill Simon, a 65-year-old combat veteran, thought he had had long ago escaped the nightmares and flashbacks that haunted him after his return home.

"For many years, I never had any issues," he said. He had all the trappings of a successful life: a loving wife, three children and a house in Arlington Heights, Ill. But about 10 years ago, the nightmares returned. Night after night, they became more vivid and more bizarre.

"Regardless of whatever I start dreaming about, the dream always mutates into some Vietnam incident," said Simon, a research specialist at a petrochemical company. "They've gotten progressively worse. Right now, I barely sleep."

Simon doesn't know what triggered the return of his nightmares. But experts say his experience is not uncommon. As Vietnam veterans age, many discover they have more time to contemplate their lives. The time for reflection — as well as retirement, reunions with war buddies and the deaths of loved ones — can stir memories from a long-ago war.

An estimated 2.7 million men and women served in Vietnam. Their average age is 64, according to Vietnam Veterans of America. "Most are approaching retirement," said Tom Berger, director of the health council at Vietnam Veterans of America. "Once they retire, their spouse has passed and the kids have left home, without that structure, they begin to think about things."

Anniversary dates and holidays such as Veterans Day may begin to bother people. But even when a veteran seeks treatment late in life, experts say, in many cases the post-traumatic stress disorder had been there all along.

That was likely the case for Steve Aoyagi, 63, who said that when he returned from war, he struggled with anger and anxiety. To deal with those feelings, he said, "I buried myself in my work. I worked 50 to 60 hours a week. A lot of overtime. Whatever time I didn't spend at work, I would occupy myself with my kids."

When a neuromuscular disorder forced him to retire in 2002, he began thinking more about the war. "I started having nightmares about the time I spent in Vietnam. The bombs we dropped, the people who were left behind, my best friend getting killed, not being there for him."

When his son deployed to Afghanistan, Aoyagi began to dream of the body bags that were once loaded onto his C-130 aircraft in Vietnam. In his dreams, he looked down at one of the bags and realized it carried the body of his son.

Now, he goes to group therapy three times a week at Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago.

For Tim Markowski, 65, a wounded combat veteran, retirement meant more time to think about the young North Vietnamese soldier he killed while on patrol in 1967.

"He was probably about my age. He was probably as scared as I was," he said. "After all these years, that's when (the thought) creeps in. Who was this guy? He had a mother and a father. Maybe he was a dad. Over the years, that has come back to me."