WASHINGTON — Walter C. Benton retired from the Army as a first sergeant with almost 30 years' service, including Korea, Vietnam and Desert Storm. He had three children, seven grandchildren and a boxful of decorations. He was numbered among the "Chosin Few," a group of soldiers whose bravery and endurance against overwhelming odds during an epic battle in Korea places them in the very first rank of U.S. fighting men.
But of all his experiences, the one that still haunts him occurred Christmas Eve 1950, on a bitter-cold beach at Hungnam, North Korea. It was there, amid the chaos of an army reeling from defeat and awaiting evacuation in the American equivalent of Dunkirk, that 18-year old Pfc. Benton encountered the aged, half-frozen Korean woman.
He drew her into the circle of GIs huddled around a bonfire. He heated cans of tomato soup and fed her. He pieced together her story of lost family and exhaustion. He struggled in vain to convince her she must move quickly to a safer place. And, minutes after a landing barge carried him off the beach, he saw her blown to pieces--killed by American demolition charges set off to destroy abandoned munitions.
When he first saw her, Benton remembers, the Navy was playing "White Christmas" on a loudspeaker. When the smoke cleared, "there was nothing left."
Like the soldiers who recently broke their silence on No Gun Ri, the village where scores of Korean refugees were apparently killed by American troops who feared infiltrators, Walter Benton kept the story of that Christmas Eve buried inside him for decades. "You just never talked about it, kept it bottled up, I guess," he says, even though "there's never a Christmas that goes by that I don't think about it."
Benton and countless other combat veterans of the nation's forgotten war occupy a unique and painful niche: For most of the half century since they marched off to keep the world safe from communism, many struggled in silence with emotional wounds that threatened to destroy their lives--with nightmares, alcoholism, violent tempers, family problems, difficulty holding civilian jobs.
Only fairly recently have some found release in speaking out about the experiences that trouble them still.
Korea was never like other wars. Fought from 1950 to 1953, it was the first armed conflict of the Cold War, and it ended in bitter stalemate: Communist North Korea's surprise invasion of South Korea swept down the mountainous peninsula and nearly drove the ill-prepared U.S. garrison into the sea. Gen. Douglas MacArthur turned the tables with the brilliant Inchon amphibious landing behind enemy lines and U.S. forces quickly pushed all the way to the Chinese border--only to be overwhelmed and driven into bloody retreat when China entered the war.
The three-year conflict, which ended in an uneasy truce, claimed 36,914 American lives and left 103,284 wounded, compared with 58,167 killed and 153,303 wounded in the nine years of Vietnam.
And those who fought in Korea belonged to a different era. Raised in the stoic, deal-with-it-yourself culture of World War II, combat veterans of Korea were exposed to the same kinds of psychological damage as those in Vietnam and other wars. The difference is that Korean veterans came home to a country eager to forget the war they had fought. And, whereas"post-traumatic shock syndrome" was recognized and routinely treated as a medical problem after Vietnam, most men who fought in Korea struggled alone.
Not only was little counseling offered, but many considered it weakness to seek help.
"Especially the older generation, they had the idea that it's personal and they didn't want any outside interference," Benton, now 67, says. "They think they can handle it, and often times they can't."
Paula Schnurr, a professor of psychiatry at the Dartmouth University Medical School and an official at the Veterans Administration's National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, says the post-combat emotional problems of Korean veterans were neglected by the government and by research scientists alike.
"It's unfortunate that a number of the Korean veterans have suffered," she says. "If they haven't talked about it and they have the sad memories, the nightmares after all this time, they may think they're going crazy. If they're sitting there in a chair and start weeping, they need to know it's normal."
"There was a lot of research done after World War I and a lot after World War II and then the psychiatric literature moved on to other issues. It wasn't until later that it was realized that some of these problems hadn't gone away," Schnurr says.
As a measure of how Korean veterans were overlooked, Wong Suey Lee of Anaheim, now 73, recalls visiting the Long Beach Veterans Administration hospital a few years ago. Information about benefits available to different veterans was posted on a wall. There was material for veterans from World War II, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War, but no mention of Korea.