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Sunday, May 27, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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John Voorhees

Documentary Looks At Vietnam Vets' Stress

``Two Decades and a Wake-up,'' 8 p.m. Monday, Channel 9.

After the Civil War, they called it ``soldier's heart.'' -----------------------------------------------------------

After the Civil War, they called it ``soldier's heart.'' After World War I, it was ``shell shock.'' Veterans of World War II suffered from ``battle fatigue.'' Now, after Vietnam, it has been identified as ``PTSD'' - Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

No matter how we glorify war, the terrible truth is that it takes an awful toll upon the participants who are lucky enough to stay alive. Some are able to put it behind them. Others are not; it's estimated 800,000 American soldiers who fought in Vietnam are suffering some degree of PTSD.

It's the subject of ``Two Decades and a Wake-Up,'' Steve Smith's documentary that KCTS-TV premieres at 8 p.m. Monday. Smith's film follows a group of Vietnam veterans who return to that country with hopes of exorcising the demons that have haunted them for two decades.

Some of the footage was seen on a ``Nightline'' that ABC aired in March 1989. As was clear from that earlier documentary, the vets who went on this journey were trapped in a kind of time warp. For them the war was not really over, and for most of them it took the shock of Vietnam today to help them put the war into some kind of perspective that would allow them to get on with their lives.

The first part of the program tells how the project came about. We are introduced to Bill Koutrouba, a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Army, in which he was a medic. Three times he had tours of duty in Vietnam; three times he was wounded. His service record includes treating more than 200 seriously wounded GIs. Yet for Koutrouba the war still was not over; when a dispute with a neighbor over a tree threatened to escalate into violence, Koutrouba discovered that not only had he and his neighbor both served in Vietnam, but both were suffering from PTSD.

Together they established a therapy group to deal with the problem, and it was from that group that several decided to make the 1,000-mile trip to Vietnam.

If you saw that earlier documentary, you will recall that one of the greatest surprises the seven men and one woman had was in learning how much Vietnam had changed since they had last seen it. Villages had turned into cities; a battle-scarred land had turned green and productive; and Americans were merely tourists to the hosts of Vietnamese children they met at every turn.

Part of the healing process was discussion, by the veterans, of their reactions while on the journey; the responses from all but one of them could not have been more positive: ``They moved me,'' said one. ``I felt like I came home - more so than when I actually returned to the U.S,'' said another, tearfully. ``I felt uncomfortable about coming here, but I'm having a good time,'' said another. Another admitted it was painful when you see the enemy as just another person. Most came to realize that their real enemy was PTSD.

While much of Vietnam has changed, there were still reminders - a rusting helmet here, bullets still lodged in a wall there, an exploded shell by the side of the road. But the veterans also found that some locations had changed so completely that they could not find any signposts. They arrived with no doubt in their minds that they could find old battlefields; for the most part they had either disappeared or changed significantly.

One veteran relived a recurring dream; another conquered a demon that resulted from a close call while fighting in an underground tunnel.

And all of them felt great sadness that the death and suffering they had seen and endured had really accomplished so little. ``And for what?'' one of the vets asks of no one in particular. And when they returned to Seattle, their arrival was greeted with the kind of welcoming cheers they had been denied long ago.

Earlier this year, the group met again to see if the effects of their journey had been long-lasting. With the exception of the one veteran who said he felt worse after the trip than before it, all of them felt their lives and their outlooks had improved, thanks to the return visit. The program closes with an update telling us what has happened in their lives since that momentous visit.

At 9 p.m. tomorrow, KCTS-TV follows the airing of ``Two Decades and a Wake-Up'' with a half-hour special, ``Vietnam Aftermath: Combat Stress and the Vietnam Veteran.'' In it, Renee Timothy will host a studio discussion of stress-related problems for Vietnam vets. Viewer calls will be taken at that time.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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