CHICAGO – Nearly four decades have passed since the end of the Vietnam War. Bill Simon, a 65-year-old combat veteran, thought he 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. “The way that I’m dealing with my PTSD now – this is so true for the others – is by occupying my time,” he said. “Keeping busy keeps me going.”
Memories form a complex web of images and emotions. It’s hard to know how one event might trigger recollections from decades before, experts say.
At Lovell, more Vietnam veterans are reporting symptoms of late-onset PTSD. “I think that’s due to the fact that Vietnam veterans are at an age when they’re experiencing more loss and all the life changes that can be triggers,” said Anthony Peterson, who runs the center’s treatment programs for post-traumatic stress.
The passing of a spouse can stoke feelings of survivor guilt. A serious illness can force a veteran to confront death in the same way he once did in Vietnam.
Experts emphasize it’s never too late to get help.
“We have good treatments for PTSD. If you come into the hospital and see us, we can help you,” said Dr. Matthew Friedman, director of the Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD. Studies show that treatment is effective regardless of whether a person seeks help immediately after the event or decades later.