By Art Holliday
ST. LOUIS (KSDK) - Three Vietnam veterans try to explain the unexplainable, how something that happened 40 years ago causes so much anguish today.
"In terms of veterans, it's a war wound. It's permanent. It never goes away," said psychiatrist Dr. Jay Liss.
"You can't unsee something you've seen and you can't unhear something you've heard and you can't unsmell the ungodly smells of war," said Bob Thompson.
"There's no medication to help you to forget. You never ever forget," said Albert Boyd.
The Department of Veterans Affairs questionnaire for diagnosing post-traumatic stress disorder has 31 symptoms, including: depression, anxiety, panic attacks, chronic sleep impairment, memory loss, impaired thinking, difficulty adapting to stressful situations.
Post-traumatic stress disorder can occur following a life-threatening event like military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents, or violent personal assaults like rape. Most survivors of trauma return to normal given a little time. However, some people have stress reactions that don't go away on their own, or may even get worse over time.
In the late 1960s, Albert Boyd served a ten month combat tour in Vietnam. Awarded a Bronze Star for acts of merit in a combat zone, Boyd witnessed friends killed and maimed by the enemy.
"You don't get over it when people are blown apart, and you see them laying there or they may walk up a hill and certain parts of their body are blown off and you're trying to take care of them, you're trying to comfort them, then they die on you," said Boyd. "That's something that the public doesn't understand what you're going through. I hear guys when I go to my meetings, they say their wives, they can't understand it and they bring out the comment 'get over it.' You don't get over a thing like that."
Albert Boyd attends a weekly support group for PTSD. He can't sleep without medication and the fear of war can surface at any time, more than 40 years after combat.
"If you're in a dark room and you feel like somebody's there and they grab your ankle, that initial jolt and that initial scare, that's what I get when I get my post-traumatic stress," said Boyd.
The documentary footage on YouTube and The Fight Continues website shows the aftermath of a 2004 firefight in Fallujah. U.S. Marine James Sperry is bleeding from head and chest wounds. Documentary filmmaker Kevin Sites captured the incident on-camera. At one point another Marine leaned down to comfort Sperry. "You're going to be alright, buddy. Alright? Hang in there. You're going to go home."
Sperry returned to Camp Pendleton, Calif., but combat left him depressed, despondent, and divorced.
"From there I spent the next six years basically doing the road of drugs alcohol, suicide attempt. Put in a mental ward," said Sperry. "It eventually led to divorcing my wife, losing my child."
For Sperry, the emotional pain got to be too much.
"I got up that morning, decided I'd have enough of the pain, had enough of everything, and I saw no future for myself. Got a rope and threw it over the garage rafters and made a noose and right when I was going to put my head in the noose I stopped myself and got into a car and drove straight to the VA," he said.
Sperry, who now lives in Lebanon, Ill., sought treatment, and he now serves his country by counseling other veterans about the difficulties of life after the military and PTSD, through his organization The Fight Continues.
"The military spends so much time getting these guys combat-minded and getting to go to war, that combat mindset, and they spend almost no time at all on how to become a civilian," said Sperry.
Some soldiers don't get treatment and don't acknowledge the pain, fearing the stigma of PTSD could hurt their careers. In 2005 Marine helicopter pilot John Ruocco killed himself. He and his wife had discussed seeking counseling, but Kim Ruocco describes a military culture that discourages soldiers from admitting they have mental health problems.
"Being a military wife, I knew very well not to tell anyone that he was struggling for fear that it would interfere with his ability to be promoted, his ability to fly," said Ruocco. "He had worked really hard to become a pilot."
"The first thing I tell them is 'You'll never forget and you'll always be angry,'" said Dr. Liss. "Now let's see how we're going to live with that."
Dr. Liss has been counseling and teaching coping skills to veterans with PTSD for more than 40 years. Some veterans seek him for treatment because they know he's part of their brotherhood. He's a Vietnam vet who went to war.
"It's very important to have that experience for them to have a relationship and to be able to be understood," said Dr. Liss, "so I don't think someone who has not had the experience of the trauma and tragedy can understand the suffering of a veteran."
Boyd and Sperry agree.
"It's a brotherhood and you want that brotherhood with your counselor," said Sperry. "You want them to understand what you're saying to them."
"When I talk to psychiatrists from the VA," said Boyd, "I ask them 'Do you have any military background or have you ever been on the front line, have you been in the war?' They say no. We need more experienced psychiatrists and doctors who know exactly what we've gone through to help you with your illness."
Vietnam vet Thompson wiped away tears during his interview, still getting emotional talking about war.
"To have a 500 pound bomb go off within a hundred yards of you and it hits so hard it lifts you off the ground, and you see body parts going in the air, to explain that to someone is impossible," he said.
Thompson receives treatment for his post traumatic stress. He says he and other vets are frustrated by the Veterans Administration, which for many years didn't recognize the existence of PTSD.
"For the last 40 years, plus we've been fighting this system for PTSD to be recognized," he said.
"The veterans have a saying," said Boyd. "The VA will deny you, deny you, delay you, delay you until you die."
If that seems like exaggeration, consider that more than two-thirds of the U.S. Senate wrote a bi-partisan letter to President Obama asking him to get directly involved in ending the backlog of veterans disability claims. The number of disability claims pending with the Department of Veterans Affairs is more than 882,000. Some veterans wait more than a year to have their claims resolved.
Boyd is suing the VA for denying him benefits he believes he deserved because of post-traumatic stress.
"You fight one war overseas and you fight another war when you come home," said Boyd.
A St. Louis spokesperson for the VA says new policies in place will expedite PTSD disability claims.
Resources for military PTSD:
Veterans Crisis Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
The Fight Continues
National Center for PTSD (Dept. of Veterans Affairs)
Mobile app: PTSD Coach