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War Trauma : Former Vietnam Warriors Offer Support for Gulf Vets Affected by Combat Stress

February 07, 1991|FRANK SOTOMAYOR | NUESTRO TIEMPO EDITOR

Joe A. Manriquez was riding an RTD bus and listening to his Walkman radio when he heard the news: The Persian Gulf War had begun.

"I felt like the Vietnamese Tet offensive had started all over again," Manriquez recalled. "Boom! Oh, my God!

"I started shaking, sweating, getting real nervous. I thought to myself, 'Is this going to be like Vietnam all over again? ' "

Manriquez, a highly decorated soldier during two tours in Vietnam, would not wish the psychological trauma that he has experienced on anyone. He and other Latino Vietnam vets are hoping that things will be better this time for U.S. military personnel when they return from the combat zone.

During an interview scarely 24 hours after the initial U.S. attacks on Iraq, long before the course of the conflict would unfold, Manriquez said he planned to provide "peer counseling" when Persian Gulf veterans return home.

He knows all too well that psychological time bombs can explode if veterans keep the trauma of war pent up. Although significant differences exist between the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars, Manriquez believes "peer counseling" will be vital.

"I will let them talk to me. Anything they want to talk about. Let them take the pressure off. I will tell them, 'Yeah, I know. I've been there. Hey, you're home. Are you all right? Is anything eating you in the heart?' And they might say, 'Yeah, I saw this, I saw that.' "

As elsewhere around the nation, the war brought strain and anxiety to the Latino community of Southern California, which has thousands of sons and daughters, cousins, neighbors and friends serving in the U.S. armed forces.

Some had felt that the United States should avoid war; others supported President Bush's action. But once the battles began, people crowded around TV sets or tuned in radios to keep abreast of developments.

Carmen Serafin, like many mothers of service personnel, prayed for her two sons' safe return. She told of getting a video from one son, Eddie Hernandez, an Air Force technician, before the outbreak of hostilities.

Hernandez, a 1988 graduate of San Gabriel High, looked nervous in the video, his mother said. "He has matured with that experience," she said. "He said to pray for him. Of course, we do pray. It's the only thing we can do."

Serafin did not know exactly where her older son, Army Sgt. Gabriel Hernandez, 23, was deployed in the Middle East.

Marie Cruz, who had dated Gabriel Hernandez for the last several months, said that having Gabriel away was "the worst feeling in my life." She said she found it hard to describe the pain and frustration. But she later shared some verses she had dedicated to Gabriel:

"You are gone, in a far land . . .

I try to keep on going, I try to pretend you're still home.

I hope that some day this darkness in my heart is taken away, only to be replaced with the happiness I used to have before they took you away."

"Almost everyone here has relatives or friends in the Persian Gulf operation," said Ruben Treviso, at the Veterans in Community Service office in Whittier.

Latinos have served prominently in the armed forces and have borne a heavy burden as casualties, said Treviso, a Vietnam veteran. He expressed hope that the final tallies of U.S. wounded and dead will be relatively small this time.

Concern about loved ones in the Persian Gulf led Dolores and Bertha Sanchez to form a volunteer group in Lincoln Heights called Support for Latino Military Families. It set up a hot line (227-9060) to offer crisis intervention and Spanish-language support groups. The group has been flooded with calls and is appealing for funds to stay afloat.

More bilingual professionals are needed for the group, said Ed Carrillo, director of the Vets Center in the City of Commerce.

Carrillo also believes there will be a need to help returning Persian Gulf veterans to "vent their feelings. . . . When we came back from Vietnam, nobody wanted to hear our pain, our trauma."

After Manriquez returned home to La Mirada on Oct. 20, 1971, he experienced painful flashbacks of the horrors of combat. No counseling was available to help him cope, and he said he was an alcoholic for five years.

"That was how I was coping with my flashbacks of Vietnam. I would get a beer and down it and laugh it out. I did not know that I was on self-destruct, slowly but surely trying to kill myself. Smoking, drinking, everything that could harm me, I was doing."

At that time, he recalled, he did not know that he could go to a Veterans Administration hospital "to dry out."

Ten years to the day from his return from Vietnam, Manriquez said he tried to commit suicide.

When he was admitted to a veterans hospital in October, 1981, Manriquez was told he was suffering from PTSD--post-traumatic stress disorder--a condition that has stricken an estimated 15% of the 1 million men who faced combat in Vietnam.

PTSD is characterized by flashbacks, nightmares, memory loss, numbing of emotions, rage, panic and depression.

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