Jeff Jardine

Modesto Vietnam veteran shares experience with ‘moral injury’

Phil Schmitt of Modesto, who served in the Air Force loading bombers at Da Nang and Phu Cat, came to the Vet Center to be treated for PTSD. But it wasn’t until later he began to understand he had an even deeper issue: moral injury.
Phil Schmitt of Modesto, who served in the Air Force loading bombers at Da Nang and Phu Cat, came to the Vet Center to be treated for PTSD. But it wasn’t until later he began to understand he had an even deeper issue: moral injury. jjardine@modbee.com

Phil Schmitt spent two tours of duty in Vietnam loading 750-pound bombs into Air Force planes in bases at hellholes such as Da Nang and Phu Cat.

Most of the planes came back to be reloaded. The bombs, of course, didn’t.

“I loaded thousands and thousands of tons of bombs,” the 67-year-old Modesto resident said. “They went somewhere.”

But it wasn’t until the brass reassigned him to debrief the pilots after their bombing runs that he saw the real effects.

“Now I’m looking at films of the bombs exploding,” Schmitt said. “Villages being hit. Seeing bodies on the ground. Children. The quality of those films was very good.”

Collateral damage, long before anyone coined the term. Like so many others, he kept what he saw to himself, returning stateside when his hitch ended in 1970.

“Later, it comes into play,” Schmitt said. “I turned to both heavy drinking and burying myself in my work. I didn’t socialize. I was isolated. I didn’t have many friends. I didn’t relate well with people outside of the military.”

Post-traumatic stress disorder? Sort of. It’s generally the first diagnosis for any veteran with emotional issues. So, for decades, veterans such as Schmitt were treated for PTSD through Veterans Affairs and at places such as the Modesto Vet Center on Carpenter Road. But in recent years, it has become apparent to those treating PTSD that other forces churn inside these veterans – a condition only recently defined as moral injury.

PTSD stems from fear resulting from traumatic incidents. Moral injury shares some common symptoms, including anger, depression, anxiety and sleeping issues that can lead to drug or alcohol problems. But moral injury also involves sorrow, grief, guilt, shame and alienation, according to experts.

It affects some as it did Schmitt. They withdraw. They use alcohol or drugs to make their post-war world more palatable. Others, such as an Iraq War veteran from Ohio about whom I wrote because he co-wrote the book “NamRaq” with Turlock Vietnam vet Ronn Cossey, lose all concept of the consequences of their actions and behaviors back home. The Iraq vet experienced severe problems that resulted in stays in mental institutions, and he literally vanished into the Kentucky hills for a time, suspected (but later cleared) of committing crimes involving weapons.

Eventually, many, including Schmitt, reach out for help.

“I came here five or six times, but didn’t come in,” Schmitt said when we chatted Wednesday morning at the Vet Center on Carpenter Road. “My wife was upset with me. I had a stroke, but I went right back to drinking.”

Finally, he walked through the doors. There he met Steve Lawson, the center’s director, and Lance Stowe, its chaplain. They began treating him for PTSD.

“But PTSD therapy did not address the moral injury,” Schmitt said. “It’s an issue entirely on its own.”

Once they understood what he’d been through, they began working to help him cope with it.

“It’s been a lifesaver,” Schmitt said. “I’m not sure where I would have ended up.”

Stowe could help because, like Schmitt, he, too, bore responsibility for deaths that might have involved innocent civilians and possibly some friendly fire incidents.

“My moral injuries are managed, but they go back 40 years,” Stowe said. Working with psychologists, he’s come to understand the condition and why it is different than PTSD.

“They occupy two different spots in the brain,” Stowe said. “The difference is that you can manage PTSD with medications or therapy. Moral injury doesn’t turn off. It goes 24-7. Remorse, regret – the symptoms continue to play over and over in your mind.”

PTSD, he said, can stem from a single event. Moral injury can be the result of multiple exposures. He spent 13 months in Vietnam. Schmitt did two tours of duty there. But many of today’s military personnel will do several tours of duty. And, he said, they range from 18-year-old kids to 40-somethings in the National Guard reserves.

Stowe’s artillery unit accounted for more than 350 confirmed casualties.

“I don’t know what I’d have done if I’d had to return,” he said. “We did lots of damage. Lots of things were the cost of war – the innocent loss of life – things that couldn’t be prevented. I wasn’t doing well when I came home. I went to college, but I was a mess.”

Stowe said his spirituality has enabled him to deal with his issues and help others.

“I became a Christian when I came home after the war,” he said. “I understand that forgiveness comes through Christ. Many of these guys don’t really get that. But if there’s an outside God who cares and loves them, they can forgive themselves.”

He shares his story with those dealing with moral injury, explaining to them that what happened was an event and not the defining part of their lives, and that blame needs to be spread around – not borne solely by the individual. Some of the younger soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan can’t get past that, he said.

“They shot that little boy or old man,” Stowe said. “Their prefontal cortex (the part of the brain involved in abstract thinking, thought analysis and regulating behavior) is not fully developed. They go and do things and say, ‘I can never forgive myself.’

“But when you employ body and soul, the spirit ... God never designed us to carry anger for long periods of time,” he said.

Aligning with counseling efforts, superior courts throughout California – Stanislaus County included – are assessing whether so-called Veterans Courts would be beneficial. Rebecca Fleming, the county’s courts administrator, she said she has met with veterans advocates including Stowe, government officials and others.

“We’re trying to see what would be appropriate for this area,” she said.

When a veteran commits a crime and the action can be linked to PTSD or moral injury issues, a Veterans Courts judge would determine the next step.

“Whether to commit them to therapy instead of throwing them into the court system,” Stowe said.

Whatever works, he said. Stowe moderates a group session at the Vet Center every Tuesday from 10:30 a.m. to noon. Because the military has been more proactive in helping the Iraq and Afghanistan war vets reacclimate to civilian life, most of his members are Vietnam vets.

“Vietnam was worse because nothing was ever done about us,” he said.

The help Schmitt receives gave him insight into what his father, H. Lawrence Schmitt, endured. An agent in the OSS, which preceded the CIA, Larry Schmitt was captured by the Germans in 1943 and tortured by the Gestapo until the war ended two years later.

“When he came home, he spent six months in the hospital,” Schmitt said. “Talk about someone who suffered from PTSD. ... It took me well into my 60s to understand what went on with my dad.”

That’s because Schmitt kept torturing himself for things that happened in Vietnam. Not so much anymore.

“(Therapy) doesn’t erase it,” he said. “But I can deal with it better now.”

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or (209) 578-2383. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJardine57.

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