Vietnam vets find war returns when they retire
By Denise Crosby Sun-Times Media email@example.com August 19, 2012 4:36PM
Long time Vet advocate Dave Bee of Aurora is struggling with PTSD from his days in Vietnam. He is now getting help and wants others to know how common this sydrome is. | Steven Buyansky~Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 21, 2012 6:10AM
Dave Bee led a squadron of Marines through the bloodiest year of the Vietnam War — including the surprise Tet Offensive in 1968. After the war, he moved forward, beyond the horrors of conflict, devoting himself to raising a family, working in the maintenance department at West Aurora High School and doing lots of charity work.
But, like an increasing number of veterans, when Bee retired, the memories of war returned. No longer preoccupied with the business of everyday working life, Bee began experiencing flashbacks from his “14 months in hell.”
Suddenly, this social, outgoing man was struggling with depression. He became increasingly withdrawn from the activities that had given him such pleasure, unable to share his feelings even with his tight-knit family.
“He just never talked about it,” says his 28-year-old son Charlie. “I know how Pops is. He didn’t want to burden others.”
Bee’s first flashbacks were triggered while playing Santa Claus. There was something about seeing the severely disabled kids on the ground that created images of fallen comrades of long ago. It hit so fast, Bee sent a letter to the Hope Wall School in Aurora giving up his role as St. Nick because of “circumstances beyond my control.”
It’s easy to “push these bad memories to the back of your mind when you’re busy,” Bee says. But when you suddenly have all this time on your hands, “it hits you in the face.”
Many Vietnam vets dealt with the war’s trauma by “pushing through” with work, says Erica J. Borggren, director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs. But when that structure is suddenly gone, problems begin. And experts predict there will be more vets seeking help for PTSD.
While post traumatic stress has been a major focus for troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, she says this late onset brought on by retirement is not a “broadly recognized narrative” for PTSD.
According to a recent Stars and Stripes article, major life events like retirement often trigger personal reassessment and forgotten memories. But for Vietnam vets who received no welcome home parades and had limited mental health options, this sudden loss of structure could lead to “serious psychological issues” as their generation — the average age of a Vietnam vet is 65 — enters retirement age.
By talking to other vets, Bee, 65, found that PTSD is “unbelievably common” for Vietnam vets after they retire.
According to data from the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics, more than 5 million of the country’s 7 million Vietnam veterans are between 60 and 70 years old, with an additional one million turning 60 within the next five years.
Since January, Bee has been under the care of a psychiatrist and social worker, and plans to join a recently formed support group of Vietnam vets who meet regularly to discuss their struggles.
“There are so many bad memories, you never forget,” he says. “But you learn to deal with them.”