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[whitespace] The casualties of war: Patrick McGregor of the Northbay Veterans Center says the 25th anniversary of the war's end could spur an emotional crisis for vets.

Photograph by Michael Amsler

Patrick McGregor

Still Haunted by the Past

By Patrick Sullivan

HE DOESN'T LOOK like a haunted man. Sitting in his sunny Rohnert Park office, talking earnestly about his job working with troubled war veterans, Patrick McGregor looks exactly like the dedicated mental health professional that he is.

But the searing memories remain. The pleasant smile fades from McGregor's face as he recalls those traumatic days some 30 years ago when he was a Navy hospital corpsman serving both on the battlefield and in the operating and recovery rooms of the U.S.S. Repose, a floating M.A.S.H. unit stationed off the shores of Vietnam.

"We received mass casualties right from the battlefield," he explains. "So I've seen my share of wounded and dead and men blown to bits."

Of course, it's not those troubling memories alone that make the 56-year-old director of the Northbay Veterans Center something of an expert on the ongoing impact of the Vietnam War.

More than 58,000 members of the U.S. Armed Forces died in Vietnam. But the dead were not the only casualties. The war also inflicted devastating psychological wounds on many combatants, injuries to the mind and spirit that linger even decades later.

Since the Northbay Veterans Center opened its doors in Rohnert Park in 1992, some 4,000 veterans have come through its doors, seeking help to cope with the lingering effects of battle, especially post-traumatic stress disorder. Veterans from all wars are eligible, but McGregor--who serves as one of the center's four licensed counselors--says that between 80 and 90 percent of his clients served in Vietnam.

That disproportionate representation occurred partly because the vet center program itself evolved out of the Vietnam War. Congress established the national network of centers in 1979 specifically because many Vietnam-era veterans were still having difficulty readjusting to civilian life.

But most of all, McGregor says, the high numbers of Vietnam vets visiting his center and others like it across the country can be chalked up to the nature of the war itself.

American soldiers in Vietnam fought a demoralizing war of attrition in which progress made one day seemed to evaporate the next. Many came to doubt whether the war was winnable or even ethical. Then they returned home to find themselves at the center of an intense national controversy.

"The social climate at the time was very anti war for what a lot of people think were pretty good reasons," McGregor notes. "But it also ended up being anti the warrior, the veterans coming home. . . . It's really true. It's not a myth or hearsay. They got spit on, they got yelled at, they got called baby killer by their own peers, people around their age.

"And then sometimes they were called losers and quitters by their father's generation, who had, quote, won a war."

The Northbay Veterans Center offers a wide array of services, including individual therapy and group counseling, to incoming veterans, who range from highly functional members of society to homeless men living up in the hills of Sonoma and Mendocino counties.

"The majority of the people who come here have jobs and families, but they also still have their memories and their nightmares and their guilt and anger," McGregor says. "But then you also have people who have had major readjustment problems. They can be quite intelligent and put a lot of work into jobs and family and it still doesn't quite come together for them."

Still, the vets center in Rohnert Park does not see the same high numbers of homeless veterans that pose a special challenge for counselors in Oakland or San Francisco. Only about 8 percent of McGregor's clients are homeless.

"We have homeless here but not in the numbers that an inner city vet center would have," McGregor says. "But I don't want to downplay the homeless veteran problem. It's a major issue nationally, and a big issue here."

Other troubled vets go for months or even years without experiencing the kind of intense emotional turmoil that usually brings people into the center. What often sets off an emotional crisis is a significant date of some kind--such as the upcoming 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon.

"Yeah, that's going to be a big trigger," McGregor says. "We're already talking about that and getting prepared. If they lost a limb or were wounded or lost friends or killed an enemy, just the visual effects of seeing people trying to get on the helicopters from the roof of the embassy, well, it's a very powerful trigger. The reactions run from profound sadness and loss to anger and rage at the situation."

But, surprisingly, McGregor says he and his co-workers view such triggering events as a golden opportunity. It provides an important chance to dig up deeply repressed emotions and traumas. "When you take an anniversary and get it out on the table, that's exactly the point, figuring out how to put some closure on it," McGregor explains. "That's why we try to capitalize on those times, because it can be healthy for a lot of people."

But if anyone imagines that this upcoming anniversary will provide the exorcism necessary for America and its veterans to banish the ghosts of the Vietnam War for good, McGregor doesn't hold out much hope.

"Nope," McGregor says. "And I think I can say that for all of us, in the military or not. It's a big event that happened in the '60s and '70s that has just left its mark on nearly every person between [the ages of] 45 and 65.

"It never goes away."

Indeed, he says, even veterans from World War II still experience intense emotions about their role in a battlefield drama that ended more than half a century ago.

"That's the problem with war," McGregor says. "It's such a big trauma to any society that's engaged in it, on all the sides, that it leaves a lasting effect. That's the really sad part, for the warrior and the society.

"Personally, I was kind of hoping that it would go away after a while," he says with a wry laugh. "But it doesn't."

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From the April 20-26, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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