WATERTOWN, New York (Reuters) - In the Vietnam War, some in the U.S. military who opposed the war wore a paper clip on their uniform as a sign of dissent — an underground tradition some who fought in Iraq want to revive.
Sgt. Eli Wright, a medic who served in Iraq and is awaiting a medical discharge for post traumatic stress disorder and a shoulder injury, has a gallery of tattoos on his arms and legs. He recently added a black paper clip on his right hand.
“During Vietnam, guys that were against the war would wear a paper clip on their uniform somewhere, it was a little way for them to identify themselves,” Wright said in an interview at the Different Drummer Cafe in Watertown, near Fort Drum.
“It stands for People Against People Ever Re-enlisting — Civilian Life is Preferred,” he said.
“We decided instead of just wearing paper clips, we would actually tattoo them, a permanent reminder of our dedication to getting out,” he said, adding that he’s hoping other soldiers who oppose the war in Iraq will follow suit.
“It’s my salute hand. I broke the regulations to get it,” he added. “That’s why I keep it covered with a band aid.”
“On my last day I’m just going to take it out, salute the commander and show him how I feel.”
Wright was a battlefield medic in Iraq and then worked at Walter Reed Army Medical Center when he came back in 2004.
He was assigned to wards of patients with amputations, brain injuries and other wounds from Iraq and Afghanistan, and later worked in the emergency room where he said many patients were Vietnam veterans with drug and alcohol problems.
“Seeing their problems, and how far back their problems go, I started really looking at this entire system,” he said. “I saw these failures across the board, it’s multigenerational.”
“It was just overwhelming.”
Wright has post traumatic stress disorder, he has trouble sleeping, memory loss and anxiety, and is a recovering alcoholic. He is one of about 300,000 service members suffering mental health problems after serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.
“They’ve told me straight up they don’t have the staffing, the resources to provide individual counseling so they give you drugs and put you in group counseling,” he said.
Such stories are deja vu for Dean Anthony, 60, an infantry officer in Vietnam in 1968. He was shot in the head but escaped serious injury and went back to duty.
“That’s had a huge effect on me, to come so close to dying and not even be seriously hurt,” he said.
Anthony said the term PTSD did not even exist when he came home. “What we did do is we were very, very angry.”
He said the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dredged up the past and spurred him to train as a counselor. He works at a family counseling center in Watertown where he sees soldiers with anger issues, substance abuse and other symptoms of PTSD.
“Warfare is going to bring trauma to a portion of people that engage in it, even if it’s a good cause. The parallel between Iraq and Vietnam is it’s a dubious cause,” he said.
Tom Berger, who chairs the Vietnam Veterans of America’s PTSD committee, said several factors indicated the proportion of troops serving now who will have mental health problems could exceed the 20 to 30 percent of Vietnam War veterans.
In Vietnam, most soldiers were drafted and served only one year-long tour. In Iraq and Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands of service members have deployed more than once.
“Another complicating element is approximately 16 percent of our active duty troops are women,” Berger said. “They’re exposed to the same kind of traumatic events as men are and America has never dealt with that situation before.”
Thirdly, the “signature wound” of Iraq and Afghanistan is traumatic brain injury caused by roadside bombs. Symptoms often appear some time after an injury and can include mental problems overlapping with the symptoms of PTSD.
“With battlefield medicine back then, people who are surviving now would have died back in Vietnam,” he said.
Berger said military commanders were making efforts to deal with mental health problems, but lacked resources and staff.
While young veterans are in the headlines, Berger said the largest group seeking mental health care at Veterans Affairs’ facilities was Vietnam veterans still suffering 40 years after the war that polarized America in the 1960s and 1970s.
“PTSD isn’t cured but its symptoms can be treated and alleviated,” Berger said. “There’s always the very real possibility that under the right circumstances, all that stuff can be triggered to come back, and that’s going on now among Vietnam veterans to a large degree.”
Reporting by Claudia Parsons; Editing by Eddie Evans