JARDINE: Vietnam veterans to share more stories

jjardine@modbee.comJuly 8, 2013 

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate textJeff Jardine
    Title: Local columnist
    Coverage areas: People, issues, the community
    Bio: Jeff Jardine joined The Bee's staff in 1988 after a decade at the Stockton Record. He covered sports before moving into news in 1996 and became the Local Columnist in 2003. He graduated from University of the Pacific in 1979, majoring in communications and history.
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    On Twitter: @jeffjardine57
    E-mail: jjardine@modbee.com

Two years ago next week, I wrote about a group of valley Vietnam veterans who collaborated on a book about their experiences during the war and its aftermath.

When it went to print last year, 19 of them bared their souls in "The Conflict That Was a War: In Vietnam and at Home."

The project brought together a group of men who fought during America's most unpopular war and who came home to a most- unreceptive public.

They wrote because they had stories to tell. They wrote because all of them suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and because writing can be both therapeutic and cathartic. Only in the past three years, said co-author Mike Thorington, have many of them been able to proudly wear their Vietnam War caps, march in Veterans Day parades and feel accepted.

"It was strange to have people say, 'Thank you,' " said Bill Bruno, another of the contributors.

They self-published and are jointly promoting the book ($18.99) wherever and whenever they can, with all proceeds benefiting veterans and veterans' causes, including the Modesto Vet Center. That is where many of them met while attending group PTSD sessions.

They sell by word of mouth. They sell the books at the Vet Center on Carpenter Road. Thursday, on the Fourth of July, they sold books at Graceada Park. It's also available at the usual online book-selling sites.

And by the month's end, they should hit 1,000 copies sold.

Something very surprising — at least to the authors — developed along the way. It began with a woman who bought the book, read it and returned to buy two more copies.

"She'd lost a brother in Vietnam," Bruno said.

Upon closer inspection, through sales receipts and anecdotally, they now estimate that women constitute roughly 40 percent of their buyers. And in talking to them, the veterans came to understand why: The women's husbands, fathers or children have been to war and brought back similar demons. The book has helped them understand what their soldiers, sailors and Marines endured and explains things their veteran kin have kept inside — or not.

"More families have been touched by (PTSD)," Bruno said.

According to the Census Bureau, more than 27,000 veterans live in Stanislaus County. About 700 visit the Vet Center.

Which makes the veterans' book more relevant now than anything they had imagined.

"We want to help those who went through Iraq and Afghanistan," Thorington said.

"We want to reach the veterans who have no idea of what awaits them," Bruno added.

The authors believe their book cries out for a sequel, and one is in the works. Some of the veterans will focus on their lives before they went to Vietnam, and how it changed them.

But the next book will include chapters written by the wives and the kinfolk who endured PTSD by living with these vets. Indeed, family members — those who didn't bolt in fear — endured the flashbacks, the mood swings, in some cases the physical abuse, the drug use, the flaring tempers and the sullenness right alongside the veterans. Yes, PTSD can be contagious.

"Wives suffer from secondary PTSD," said veteran Phil Schmitt, 65. "I didn't start the (therapy) process until I was 60. My wife said, 'I always knew that guy was inside you.' "

The new book, the veterans hope, will mean to the families what their book meant to other veterans. It should go into print in early 2014, with a goal of making people aware of the counseling available to veterans' wives and girlfriends, and to better understand the ghosts the soldiers brought home from Vietnam.

"They need to know there are people out there who can help," Schmitt said. "We don't want them to go through what we went through."

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.

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