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Vietnam, Iraq Vets Recall War Experiences

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 12, 2009 – Generations of American servicemembers braved and survived the din, destruction and uncertainty of war to return home to enjoy the freedoms they helped to preserve for their fellow citizens.

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Retired Navy Rear Adm. Robert H. Shumaker is a famous U.S. military veteran who coined the term “Hanoi Hilton” when he was a prisoner of war from 1965 to 1973 in North Vietnam. Any person –- civilian or military –- who thinks they may have emotional problems should seek professional help, he said. DoD photo by Gerry J. Gilmore

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Yet, returning veterans also can experience troubling wartime memories after the shooting stops.

Robert H. Shumaker, a tall, erect 76-year-old retired Navy rear admiral with a shock of silver hair and bright blue eyes, is a famous U.S. military veteran who coined the term “Hanoi Hilton” when he was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.

Shumaker was shot down Feb. 11, 1965, while flying his F-8 Crusader jet during a combat mission over North Vietnam. A faulty parachute caused him to break his back upon reaching the ground, and he was captured by the North Vietnamese.

Over the next eight years, Shumaker said, he and other captive American servicemembers were held in several prisoner of war facilities, where they experienced beatings and torture. He was released on Feb. 12, 1973, and retired from the Navy in 1988.

Shumaker was at George Washington University’s Marvin Center on Veterans Day yesterday, watching volunteers write letters to servicemembers and their families and assemble care packages for troops.

“It is really uplifting seeing the patriotism of people and the compassion of people to do this,” Shumaker said. The event was sponsored by military-support organization Blue Star Families and ServiceNation, a national campaign that encourages volunteer service, in partnership with Target and the Public Broadcasting Service.

Shumaker said he is participating in a PBS documentary series that looks at how people, including military members, deal with stress and depression to achieve resilience and happiness in their lives. Titled “This Emotional Life,” the PBS series is slated to premier at 9 p.m. Jan. 4-6. Check local listings, as the time may vary in different markets.

“I’m in the happiness and resiliency” portion of the documentary, Shumaker said, noting he appears in the last segment of the program.

Another of the human stories presented in the six-hour series, Shumaker said, involves the emotions experienced by a couple who lost their daughter in the April 16, 2007 shootings on the Virginia Tech campus.

Shumaker was asked how he was affected by his experiences in North Vietnamese prisons.

“It was pretty tough,” Shumaker said, noting that he and his fellow prisoners -- who at one time included U.S. Sen. John McCain -- “were tortured a lot.” He acknowledged he’d undergone counseling to deal with the psychological repercussions of his wartime imprisonment.

“I think professional people can assist that [healing] process and speed it up a lot,” Shumaker said. People with traumatic memories and injuries, he said, require “a lot of understanding by the people that surround them to bring them back into the fold.”

Any person –- civilian or military –- who thinks they may have emotional problems should seek professional help, he said.

“I think for too many years we’ve viewed psychiatric disturbances with aversion -- you know, as a kind of a scar you don’t want to reveal,” Shumaker said. “I think through the years, and particularly now, we’re starting to emerge” from that mindset.

At age 26, former Marine Sgt. Brian Friend considers himself “one the luckiest men alive,” having avoided death during two duty tours in Iraq. He served 20 months in Iraq during his four-year enlistment.

Friend now attends Portland State University in Portland, Ore., on the Post-9/11 GI Bill. He recounted his hair-raising Iraq experiences on Veterans Day to an audience at George Washington University during his monologue in “The Telling Project” performance that features military veterans and family members.

Since February 2008, The Telling Project has produced 10 performances across the Pacific Northwest. Friend said he became aware of the project through his school’s student veterans organization.

Friend came away with a concussion and a ruptured eardrum after experiencing 19 enemy improvised explosive device attacks during convoy duty over the last six months of his final deployment in Iraq in 2006 and 2007.

“I’m still alive. I’m still in one piece. And, for the most part, I am still me,” Friend told the audience.

Upon his military discharge in September 2007, Friend took a year off to assemble funding to complete his college degree. He also discovered that he carried psychological wounds from his Iraq service.

“During that time, I actually went through one-on-one counseling and group therapy for [post-traumatic stress disorder] for nightmares and stuff,” Friend said.

Participating in Telling Project performances, Friend said, has helped him to deal with his post-traumatic stress disorder. The monologues also educate people about what veterans can experience after they return from war, he added.

“It is like a weight off my shoulders,” Friend said, when he shares his war experiences with audiences. “It is very therapeutic.”

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