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Columnist John Paradis: Shining a light on post-traumatic stress

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Thursday, October 12, 2017

It’s been over two weeks since “The Vietnam War” documentary on PBS concluded and yet I’m only halfway through the 10-part, 18-hour heart-stopping series.

Geoffrey Ward’s writing is so intense and the interviews conducted by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick are so fresh in their honesty and candor that I can only get through an hour at a time on my DVR recordings. It’s not something that I can binge watch. I hit the pause button a lot. I’ve cried. I’ve gotten angry. I’ve yelled.

I can only imagine how hard it must be for a Vietnam veteran to see this incredibly tragic and infuriating chronicle of their generation’s epic experience. But I can empathize.

After all, there are many sobering lessons from Vietnam to study and examine and to compare. There’s the utter futility of war — the taking of territory to only see it revert back to the hands of the enemy. There’s the hubris of American leadership and there’s misguided miscalculation galore. And who is the enemy we are fighting anyway?

Most hurtful and damaging for me are the many examples of moral injury — the secrecy, disinformation and outright lies and spin from our government and elected leaders. I find myself constantly juxtaposing the honorable and selfless service of the Vietnam veteran with the moral bankruptcy and betrayal of our elected officials and I get more and more infuriated with every account.

Recent opinion polls show that far fewer Americans would have supported attacking Iraq some 14 years ago if they’d known how much it would cost in dollars and lives, the strength of the insurgency it would inspire, and of course how few threatening weapons Saddam Hussein actually had. Sound familiar?

There are enough similarities between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Vietnam War and surely all wars to understand why watching any documentary about fighting and killing is difficult for any veteran to take in. We are the survivors.

Two winters ago, Federico Muchnik, a Cambridge filmmaker, traveled to Northampton and videotaped seven veterans, myself included, about our service. Two he interviewed were Vietnam veterans and the other five were veterans of the more recent wars in Bosnia, the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan.

At the Brushworks Arts and Industry building on Pine Street in Florence, he spoke with us one at a time in a makeshift studio. Along a plain backdrop of stark white brick and with morning sunlight peeking through old factory windows, Muchnik asked us questions that weren’t the easiest to answer — questions about why we joined, what we experienced both in war and with our return home.

Federico was intrigued by the varying degrees of post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety that we all had in common — regardless of differences in age, rank, branches of service and family backgrounds and home life.

The result is “Hunter in the Blackness,” a 37-minute documentary about post-traumatic stress that offers a message of hope, healing and recovery. About 27 minutes of the film will be shown for the first time to a public audience at the Amherst Cinema on Veterans Day at 12:30 p.m. Thanks to Carol M. Johnson, the cinema’s executive director, the showing will be free and the public is invited.

The title is from a line in the poem “Rung Sat” in Preston Hood’s “Hallelujah of Listening,” the award-winning collection that Preston, a Navy SEAL in Vietnam, wrote in 2001, after more than 30 years of reflection, and at the dawn of a new series of wars our nation was about to enter.

On patrol, I’m a hunter in the blackness

dozing off, hardened, tired of danger,

I sight the enemy, waist deep in Rung Sat,

muscular legs standing executioner quiet,

black-green smudge & sweat curled on lip.

Preston, who recently moved from Maine to Colrain, is a self-described “regular” at the Ward 8 program at the Veterans Affairs medical center in Leeds, returning to the PTSD treatment unit on a recurring basis to reconnect and recalibrate his recovery process. In his frequent visits, he’s also been able to help mentor and guide other veterans seeking VA help for the first time.

He’s the anchor in the documentary and the reason why Federico was compelled to examine the topic of post-traumatic stress among veterans.

“I’d love it if the film raised awareness, humanized the topic by showing the intimate stories these seven veterans have lived, and if it prompted some veteran out there with PTS to come in to acknowledge their condition, come to a VA ward and seek treatment, and heal,” says Muchnik, who will moderate a panel following the showing.

Preston and I are hoping for a big audience in Amherst and that people will see a fraction of our struggles, the impact on our families and relationships, and will listen and learn.

“We need more people to be aware of where we were at, that we all want to live good lives, and to be there for us so we can move on and grow as people,” said Preston during a recent conversation in Florence.

I told Preston I had trouble watching “The Vietnam War” but I owe it to him and to his fellow Vietnam vets to see the series through to its end and to watch every second. I also thanked him for giving all of us hope through his own remarkable journey of discovery and resilience.

I feel the same way about Federico’s work that originated right here in the Valley.

John Paradis, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, lives in Florence and writes a column published the second Friday of the month. He is a veterans’ outreach coordinator for VA New England Health Care System, and can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.