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au The Sydney Morning Herald Weekend Edition March 24-25, 2007 31

T
he five ageing men told war
stories: of the North Vietnamese
soldier, his hands joined in sup-
plication, shot through the chest
with tracer fire; of the wounded
The next
marines, sheltering behind a tank, crushed
when it reversed over them; of death at close
range, delivered by bullets from a handgun
into the head of the enemy, and the look of
battle is in
fear in the victim’s eyes as he tried to swing
his rifle around.
One by one they took the stage of an audi-
torium at the Camp Pendleton marine base in
the mind
California. Their audience of nearly two dozen Jane Lyons
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marines, home less than a week from a year in


Iraq, listened quietly and intently. A LONE table stood in the wrecked Baghdad
The speakers were in their early 60s. They restaurant, four white soup bowls cupping the
were US marines and, to a man, certain they remains of its diners. For Catherine*, a US
were never more alive than during those mo- Army forensic specialist sent to investigate
ments in their youth in Vietnam. To a man, the insurgency bombing, it was the image
also, they were haunted by those instants, that pushed her over the edge.
which stalked them through addictions, But while Iraq was her undoing, going
failed marriages and the grip of depression. back proved her salvation. Catherine is one
They stood before their younger comrades, of the first US veterans of the war to
and explained how those moments could ex- re-experience the sights, sounds and smells
pand and become viral, lodging in the body of Iraq with the help of a virtual reality
and staying there forever. program being tested by the military to treat
‘‘When we kill another human being, there’s veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
a price to pay,’’ said Dave Pelkey, a helicopter At the Naval Medical Centre San Diego,
pilot five times shot down over Vietnam and where the program has been in a clinical
Cambodia, five times divorced in America. trial since July, participants wear
‘‘We try to put a barrier around our heart and headphones and virtual reality goggles
our emotions, but there is a price to pay.’’ mounted on an army helmet. The equipment
There was a common thread to the marines’ takes soldiers back behind enemy lines.
accounts, stories so graphic and intimate they A road, pitted from shelling and lined
had not even shared them with their wives: with sand-coloured houses, stretches before
those memories stayed with them, shaping them. The only sounds are the whistling of
and warping their characters, and remaining wind, the crackle of a burning overturned
dominant decades later. vehicle and the keening call to prayer from a
All five suffer post-traumatic stress dis- Shattered lives ... combat is leaving American solddiers mentally, as well as physically, scarred. Photo: AFP/David Furst nearby mosque.
order, an affliction as old as war itself. It was But as the soldier walks or drives through
officially recognised in the US as a war- these streets, sights and sound crescendo: a

Picking up the pieces


induced psychological ailment in 1980. Be- plane roars overhead, soldiers shout, a bomb
fore that, it was known by a variety of eu- explodes metres away and machine-gun fire
phemisms, including shell shock and, most seems to be coming from a nearby rooftop.
evocatively, after the American Civil War of There is even the occasional insult in the
the 1860s, as ‘‘soldier’s heart’’. distance: ‘‘Go home, cowboy. American pigs!’’
The eight-month-old program, organised A shaker box under the seat mimics the
by American Combat Veterans of War of San vibrations of a Humvee or the force of an
Diego and Colonel Darcy Kauer, aims to ex- exploded bomb, while a machine pumps out
plain the causes and effects of the disorder. smells including body odour, cordite, burning
For returned soldiers, the disorder manifests
in nightmares, depression, hyper-vigilance, In the American Civil War it was called ‘‘soldier’s heart’’. Now known as post-traumatic stress disorder, it is taking a growing rubber, diesel fuel, rotting garbage,
gunpowder, smoke and Iraqi spices.
anxiety and memory loss. ‘‘It’s hard when
you’re lining up a putt and you forget what toll on veterans of the war in Iraq, which began four years ago this week. Gerard Wright reports. Twice a week for five weeks, soldiers return
to the streets of Iraq as a psychologist monitors
you’re supposed to be doing,’’ says Bill Rider, their progress on a computer, slowly
the founder of the group. Now 63, he was when a rocket struck a dining hall. Another tarised zone in 1967, when his unit was band, army captain Michael Pelkey, commit- situps, 40 chin-ups of his 92-kilogram body, a introducing an insurgent here, a whiff of
diagnosed in 1999 as 100 per cent disabled was so riddled with shrapnel Bernal doubts sprayed with automatic rifle fire by a North ted suicide in 2004, days after he was five-kilometre run in under 28 minutes. rotting garbage there, and counselling them
with post-traumatic stress disorder. the man will live to be 50. Vietnamese soldier. Slater sprinted at the diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He sees himself as wounded and recover- through the entire ordeal. The clinician
Bernal’s deployment ended after seven soldier as he looked away to reload his He was based at Baghdad International Air- ing, but nothing more. His young colleagues measures the soldier’s stress level by

T
he Iraq war entered its fifth year months. As his flight left Iraqi airspace, he weapon, shooting him in the face with his port for five months. ‘‘He really wasn’t recep- at Camp Pendleton lionise him as a war dog, monitoring heart rate, breathing and sweating.
on Tuesday. As of this week, wept in his seat, racked with guilt and un- pistol at close range. tive to talking about things that happened and the ultimate warrior. ‘‘The one thing that we definitely do know,
there had been 3230 American answerable questions. ‘‘I should have been happy, as a hero, to look over there,’’ Stefanie says. ‘‘He would get But when he and his wife, Tonia, sleep which this [program] has confirmed, is that
military casualties, while as ‘‘I was saying, ‘Thank you’, and saying, in his eyeballs and kill one of those rotten really defensive. ‘‘ ‘Did you ever see anybody away from home, he barricades the door of memory and experience are very tightly
many as 65,000 Iraqis have been ‘Why Lord? Why am I alive?’ That has bastards, but damn, here it comes again,’’ die over there?’ ‘Yes, but we don’t need to talk their hotel room because he feels the lock linked, and if somebody has a very powerful
killed in the conflict, according to the Iraq bothered me quite a bit, because I don’t know Slater told the marines. ‘‘I can hear the noise, about that.’ He wasn’t someone to use harsh isn’t secure enough. He doesn’t like being memory, there are things that can make
Body Count site in England. The number of why I’m here. I’ve isolated myself from a lot of feel the adrenaline rush. I look in his face and words with me.’’ outdoors among crowds. He pulls away from them relive it,’’ says Lieutenant Commander
American wounded stood at 23,417. people. I don’t like to go nowhere. If I go to a I can see the fear in his eyes. I see the blood and Later, looking through her husband’s family and friends, from society and social Robert Mclay, the psychiatrist in charge of
For the injured, the road to recovery has restaurant I have to have my back to a wall. I the guts coming out of his orifices and grab the journal, she found a bloodstained patch life. He feels guilty that he survived. the project.
been a waking nightmare of bureaucratic de- have nightmares and I’ll be crying in my AK-47 and run. Maybe I could have got him as from an Iraqi uniform. He had been at- ‘‘He’ll tell you that marines don’t cry,’’ The treatment is based on the concept of
lays and inflexibility and an apparent lack of sleep. I’ll be shouting, but she doesn’t know a POW. That rotten, no-good bastard is fight- tacked and almost pulled out of his Tonia says, ‘‘but he cries.’’ exposure therapy, which asks patients to
concern for their wellbeing from almost any- what I’m shouting about.’’ Humvee. He saw the bodies of children In 2004 Sargent was standing partly out of repeatedly and incrementally visualise the
one outside their immediate family. ‘‘She’’ is Bernal’s wife, Nancy. One night, who had been run over by the military a hatch of an armoured personnel carrier A original trauma in a therapeutic
While the official Pentagon estimate is that soon after his return, a neighbour let off fire- vehicles, an especially painful image be- bullet fragment struck him below the left eye, environment. Patients can then process their
between 15 and 30 per cent of returning crackers in the beachside town of Carlsbad, cause their first child, Ben, had been exiting through the left side of his head. emotions and decondition their responses.
soldiers will suffer the disorder, a variety of near Camp Pendleton. Bernal began crying, born the year before. But the difficulty sufferers have in
reports, experts and those dealing directly then put his wife on a plane back to Houston. At home, Pelkey was hyper-vigilant, sleep- imagining what they fear most is what led
with the affliction suggest the toll will be ‘‘I told her I didn’t want her around me,’’ he ing with a loaded gun next to the bed. De- Albert Rizzo, a clinical psychologist at the
much higher – to at least 40 per cent.
Marine Gunnery Sergeant Enrique Bernal
says. ‘‘[She] said, ‘I cannot live with you again
like this. You were like this when you came
spite his symptoms, he wanted to make a
career in the military. We try to put a barrier University of Southern California and the
creator of the virtual reality program, to
received a double dose of it. He served in home from Vietnam.’ ’’ There were options for treatment, Stefanie improve on what he saw as the flaw in
Vietnam, returned to civilian life, then says, through clinical help and medication, but around our heart and conventional exposure therapy.

T
rejoined the Marine Reserve in 1997. he causes of and responses to post- ‘‘the shame of that is overwhelming’’. ‘‘If you look at post-traumatic stress
Bernal, 54, goes by the name of Rick. He
was brought up in Houston, the devout Cath-
traumatic stress disorder are as
complex as war itself. David
‘ ‘ We were goi ng to ta ke ma r r iage
counselling and my husband was eager to, our emotions, but there disorder, one of the cardinal symptoms is
the avoidance of cues and reminders of the
olic son of a meatworker. Then he went to Grossman, a retired army colonel but at the same time he was wary of doing traumatic event, so it is a pretty tall order to
Vietnam. Less than a month after he re-
turned, Bernal was at his parents’ home,
and professor of psychology at the
army’s officer academy and professor of mili-
that. He was working with so many high-
ranking officers and he said if they found
is a price to pay. ask someone to imagine the thing that
traumatised them,’’ he says.
preparing a barbecue with his father. tary science, described a process where the out, ‘my career is over’. DAVE PELKEY, Vietnam veteran In 2003 Rizzo came across the game Full
‘‘He kind of looked at me and said, ‘You’re body of a soldier in combat will ‘‘blow its bal- ‘‘Unfortunately, he was suffering at such an Spectrum Warrior, which the army had built
not the son I once had,’ ’’ Bernal recalls. ‘‘And I last’’. This abrupt redirection of nervous en- Recovering ... Iraq veteran Kenneth Sargent extreme level, he decided to take his life.’’ Tonia’s energy and enterprise in guiding to train soldiers, and he quickly realised the
looked at him and said, ‘Your son died in order ergy can spike a pulse rate of 70 to 200 within with his wife, Tonia. Photo: Sean Masterson Stefanie Pelkey is now an advocate for her husband’s recovery have transformed potential of turning its training graphics into
to stay alive.’ I was an altar boy until 20 years a second, he wrote in a 2000 paper. early treatment of the disorder. When she how the military treats and accommodates treatment. ‘‘We use the best possible
old. I became someone else then. You don’t A consequence of this physiological con- ing for what he believes, just like me. talks to veterans and their families, she states the families of its wounded, and landed her technology for training and conducting war.
understand: I didn’t do that on purpose. You vulsion is sleepiness and extreme weariness, ‘‘It’s easier to fight from afar. It’s hard to her case in the simplest terms. on national television. Still, she notes, ‘‘I Why not use the best technology for treating
have to forget your morals and everything else. a condition magnified in the case of combat realise that our enemy, who we hate so bad, is ‘‘It’s a matter of life or death with the severity often feel more like a mother than a wife.’’ the aftermath?’ he says.
‘‘You’re the hunter and they’re the hunted. extending over days, weeks and months. human. We look at them as an object. They ... Is it your life that you want, or your career? ‘‘I see him as inspirational,’’ Tonia says. ‘‘He The Office of Naval Research approached
If you don’t get them first, they’ll get you.’’ When he was 22, helicopter pilot Pelkey look at us the same way. It didn’t keep me ‘‘I would rather have my husband working has the ability to continue to live life and Rizzo in 2004 for a three-year research
Bernal was an invaluable military com- flushed a North Vietnamese soldier into a from wanting to kill them. I would just rather at WalMart and being by my side, than endur- function. Having nurtured him from road- project. Rizzo has spent two years testing the
modity when he re-enlisted, a seasoned, clearing. The soldier looked up and clasped his kill them from afar. ing that mental anguish of trying to hide his kill state to a loving, compassionate human software at the university’s Institute for
smart combat veteran, albeit with dodgy hands in prayer. Pelkey sent a round of tracer ‘‘The Marine Corps trains you to armour- [disorder] from his command.’’ being, to see him dealing with secondary Creative Technologies, with the help of the
knees and a dubious back, ingrained with the bullets through those hands, into his chest. plate yourselves. But your mind records that, Marine Master Sergeant Kenneth Wayne issues and see him deteriorating in front of technology company Virtually Better, the
marine culture and standards; a man who ‘‘Flying back,’’ he says, ‘‘I had tears in my and will play it back. You carry some of this Sargent is in training to become the man he me. He died that day as the marine I knew, Naval Medical Centre, Camp Pendleton and
could lead by example. eyes. ‘Oh my God, I killed a guy.’ emotional garbage in your head. You can’t used to be before the loss of five centimetres and was reborn as the guy I know now. How nine other veterans hospitals and universities.
He volunteered for Iraq, despite the mem- ‘‘It’s bizarre, but we aren’t robots. We talk explain to anyone who wasn’t there ... You of his temporal lobe, before the removal of his do you grieve for someone that’s alive?’’ Several hundred soldiers are scheduled to
ory of the experiences and consequences of about how much we want to kill the enemy, don’t want to open up yourself and talk about inner ear and the replacement of his nasal T hen she jokes about t he m issi ng take part in treatment or projects to develop
Vietnam. ‘‘My only answer is I remembered but it’s still going to come back and haunt it. I’ve never talked to my wife about this.’’ passage, before the shattering of a palm-sized five centimetres of Sargent’s temporal lobe, the program. Mclay says: ‘‘The next step is
that war,’’ Bernal says. ‘‘I did not want to let you, because it’s an unnatural act.’’ It is this fact, the absence of explanation and piece of his skull, back when his cognitive the section of the brain that processes sight, large-scale use – to start disseminating the
those kids out there by themselves.’’ Pelkey was followed onstage by Al Slater. honest recollection from a husband to a wife, abilities and attention span were those of a hearing and memory. ‘‘That left room to technology, to train people how to use it.’’
One of them, a 19-year-old, was killed He was a company commander in the demili- that Stefanie Pelkey wrestles with. Her hus- 35-year-old man who was whole: 50-plus retrain him.’’ * Not her real name.

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