Combat-related stress can last a lifetime
February 18, 2005
By Kimberly Hefling, Associated Press Military Writer

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Freshly home from World War II, Reni Winter's father charmed his way into her mother's heart, and the two married.

Slowly, however, the violence he'd witnessed at Okinawa began to haunt him, and he became abusive. As a young child, Winter knew Marine Lance Cpl. Jerry Joseph Ohana only as the man who called occasionally from an institution. At 7, those calls stopped when her mother decided to cut him out of their lives.

"We were forbidden to mention his name," said Winter, 50.

Hundreds of thousands of veterans like Ohana were institutionalized with war-related psychiatric problems after World War II. Thousands of others among the 4 million surviving veterans are still struggling with post-combat trauma.

The National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder estimates that one of every 20 World War II veterans suffers from the disorder, with symptoms such as bad dreams, irritability and flashbacks.

Many never got help, in part because few people knew what to look for 60 years ago. The Army sent psychiatrists into battle with the troops, but there was little awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder then.

"We didn't even know how to spell it, let alone pronounce it," said retired Col. Bob Jones, 87, of Clarksville, Tenn., who was hit by a tank while serving in World War II with the 101st Airborne Division.

Others saw seeking help as a sign of weakness. In 1943, then-Lt. Gen. George S. Patton called two soldiers hospitalized for what was called combat fatigue "cowards" and slapped them.

Herman Eickhoff, 80, of Mount Vernon still has nightmares about the eight months he spent in a German POW camp during World War II. In one, he's working as a prisoner, repairing German railroads. Sirens blare as American forces drop bombs around him, unaware he is on the ground.

"It always comes back to you," Eickhoff said of his wartime experience.

Unlike today's veterans, he can't confide in his war comrades because nearly everyone in his 1st Infantry Division platoon was killed or seriously injured.

"There was none of them left," said Eickhoff, a retired carpenter. "It was that bad."

Combat-related stress disorders became more widely recognized after the Vietnam War. Today, recruits undergo psychiatric screening before they enlist and receive counseling and screening once they come home. There's also medication to treat those with war-related trauma.

Yet the stigma associated with postwar trauma persists.

An Army study published last summer in the New England Journal of Medicine found that one in eight troops coming home from Iraq reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress, but only about 40% were interested in getting help. Some said they worried about how peers would view them, or that it would affect their careers.

Jeffrey Matloff, program director of the post-traumatic stress disorder team at the Veterans Affairs San Diego Health Care System, said troops need to realize they aren't alone.

"It's a normal reaction to the abnormal events of being in combat," Matloff said.

Jones, who recovered from his injuries and later fought in Korea and Vietnam, agreed.

"I think it's good that people get this attention," he said. "A lot of people, when they come back, they're bitter, they're hard-nosed, they're rough. They believe in force. They've got to be retooled mentally."

For Ohana, that retooling never occurred.

He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and spent nearly 50 years in the care of the VA. After years of searching, Winter found him in 1988 in a VA home in New York. She began arranging to have him moved to Indiana, but he died Dec. 2 at 76 in Montrose, N.Y.

With modern medicine, Winter said, "Who knows what kind of life he could have led? The sacrifice that he gave ... it's just as valid a sacrifice as anyone who give their life or is wounded."