Finding the way back: Local veterans struggle with aftermath of war

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By Sandy Barnes

“A curious boy asks an old soldier …
‘How did you lose your leg?’
And the old soldier is struck with silence.”

                                — Edgar Lee Masters

The brutality of war is an experience about which many veterans have few words. Yet, internalized, unspoken memories of gunfire, badly wounded buddies — and living in mortal danger — can haunt combat veterans long after they return home.

Sitting in a park on a sunny morning and watching his young daughter play, Army veteran Michael Lynch of Evergreen offered basic information about his tours of duty in Iraq in 2005 and 2006. His job was operating a .50-caliber machine gun mounted atop a Humvee, he said.

“We basically did missions everywhere,” Lynch said. “We slept in an old mortuary, 30-something of us sleeping on old cots.”

Lynch said he suffered physical injuries from jumping off the truck. However, the significant, unseen trauma with which he has been struggling is post-traumatic stress disorder. Flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety attacks have become frequent occurrences for Lynch since his return from Iraq.

“A lot of things trigger it,” he said. “It’s a hard thing to cope with.”

“Human beings aren’t meant to see and do things like that,” Lynch said, referring to his combat experiences. “One of the reasons I decided to get out was that, physically and mentally, I couldn’t do it anymore.”

He lost a friend who died in combat in Iraq.

Lynch also has seen what can happen to veterans who have difficulty coping with life after war. A former Army buddy recently committed suicide, he said.

After receiving a medical discharge from the Army, Lynch decided to complete his college work. Last week he was studying for finals to earn a bachelor’s degree in homeland security. He also is a stay-at-home father who takes care of his 3-year-old daughter, Ariana, while his wife, Jillian, works.

“My family has put up with a lot,” said Lynch. “It takes a long time to re-integrate.”

If a soldier develops PTSD, he is obviously a different person, Lynch said. He has received help and support from fellow American Legion members, and from a psychotherapist with whom he is working.

“People are out for themselves,” he said. “It’s nice to have people like the Legionnaires. The Legion has helped me out a lot.”

Reliving Vietnam

For Evergreen resident Nancy Arsenault, traumatic memories of her time as an Army nurse in Vietnam began resurfacing after her retirement a few years ago.

“We didn’t sit around and talk about it,” she said, referring to her experiences as an operating room nurse in an evacuation hospital in Vietnam. “I just stuffed it.”

However, after her extensive career as a nurse ended, Arsenault began dealing with long-buried memories of wartime trauma.

Like Lynch, Arsenault seemed reluctant to give too many details of her experiences in war. But her scrapbook filled with photos — which include those taken in the operating room of the hospital in Long Binh where she worked — offer a telling glimpse of her life as an Army nurse.

Looking through the book chronicling her year in Vietnam, Arsenault comes across a page on which a piece of shrapnel is placed.

The doctors were going to throw it out, she said. But Arsenault asked to keep the fragment that entered the carotid artery of a young soldier and killed him.

Helicopters brought wounded soldiers to the hospital, which was next to the perimeter of the fighting, Arsenault said.

“The war was everywhere,” she said. “We would get them right off the field.”

When Arsenault and her friend Karen enlisted for Army service in 1968 and were in training, she said they heard “all these terrible stories of what to expect.”

But the reality of the war and dealing with severely wounded soldiers were far worse than her expectations, she said.

“At the beginning I was in shock and awe,” she said.

While assisting doctors in the operating room of the evac hospital, Arsenault said that she often heard shelling.

“When we were in OR, we had to keep working,” she said.

After serving two years as an Army nurse, Arsenault moved to Colorado and continued working as an operating room nurse at Swedish Medical Center in Denver. There she also worked on trauma cases.

“It was the same kind of thing,” Arsenault said. “I did not want to do anything routine … . While I was working, it was, ‘Bring me the blood and guts.’ ”

However, after her retirement, Arsenault said she was no longer working in a highly charged situation fueled with adrenalin.

“After I retired, it all came to a screeching halt,” she said.

And the old memories of Vietnam began troubling her.

Like Lynch, Arsenault is receiving help for PTSD through psychotherapy. She learned about the opportunity to get treatment while attending the Veterans’ Rendezvous event in Conifer a couple of years ago.

“If I hadn’t gone to that event, I never would have known that help is available,” she said.

Contact Sandy Barnes at sandy@evergreenco.com.