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VA Cautions Ken Burns' Vietnam Documentary Could Trigger PTSD


For the next two weeks, PBS stations around the country are airing a 10-part documentary about the Vietnam War. The trauma of Vietnam runs deep for many of those who fought there, and the Department of Veterans Affairs is preparing for a possible surge in veterans seeking counseling because of the film. Steve Walsh from member station KPBS reports.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have been planning this series since 2006, making the production process about as long as America's role in the Vietnam War.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It was obvious that they could pick us up on their radar. I remember my knees shaking. And I was saying, holy smokes, I'm going into war.

WALSH: The film is intense by design.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And I was just performing what I was doing.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And then I got hit.

WALSH: Maybe too intense for some Vietnam vets. Henry Peterson is a chaplain at the VA in San Diego. He counsels people with PTSD. He surveyed them to find out who will be watching.

HENRY PETERSON: Some are going to watch it. Few will. It could bring back some memories that they don't want to deal with. It may surface some things that they may need to deal with.

WALSH: Tina Mayes, a staff psychologist at the VA, says almost anything can trigger the vivid and aggressive thoughts associated with PTSD - a door slam, smell of diesel.

TINA MAYES: It can be anything that somebody says, the way they say it.

WALSH: News, film and documentaries are among the most common triggers.

MAYES: I would say that majority of the veterans I work with - they try - when their symptoms are high, they're actively avoiding any media.

WALSH: Vietnam vets are particularly vulnerable. PTSD treatment evolved after this group of vets came home from war. Society in general appeared, at best, uninterested in the plight of returning vets. Older Vietnam vets in particular have among the highest rates of adult suicide.

MAYES: Honestly, we don't know exactly why. But there is some research that suggests that one of the reasons is because of the way that they were received when they came back.

WALSH: This group of vets can live for decades with the symptoms of untreated PTSD, like the aggression that feels like it comes out of nowhere. Larry Taylor is a combat veteran of Vietnam.

LARRY TAYLOR: I would say my own wife has suffered post-traumatic stress just in her relationship with me and the war that I fought in.

WALSH: Before he was treated, Taylor coped by avoiding his triggers. He skipped the Vietnam films "Apocalypse Now" and "Deer Hunter." Then the first Gulf War blanketed TV.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Three, two, one, impact.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Boom. There's a hit. There's a shack. (Unintelligible). Oh, yeah.

WALSH: As the war raged, so did Taylor's symptoms.

TAYLOR: Basically, after the Gulf War, my PTSD kicked in. I would wake up screaming. My wife was wondering what's going on. I was having nightmares all the time during the daytime.

WALSH: Still, Taylor wouldn't seek treatment for another decade. Now he's the chief of chaplain services at the VA in San Diego. He plans to watch the 18-hour long documentary.

TAYLOR: I think today I know the difference between a bad memory and reliving a situation. And I'm fortunately not reliving things the way I once did.

WALSH: In the past, the VA has offered help around the release of movies like "Saving Private Ryan." This time, it's partnering with PBS to reach vets who might need counseling. Taylor's guidance for vets is, don't feel obligated to watch. If you do, he says, find a loved one to watch with you. Taylor is enlisting his wife of 46 years. For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh in San Diego.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIDDEN ORCHESTRA'S "DUST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Steve Walsh