Thursday, January 15, 2009

VA therapy gives elderly vets chance to talk

VA therapy gives elderly vets chance to talk

By Dan Olson - Minnesota Public Radio News
Posted : Tuesday Jan 13, 2009 10:24:17 EST

RICHFIELD, Minn. — Eighty-six-year-old Don Frederick sits in the Ranger room in his Richfield home. It’s where he keeps his World War II mementos — maps, flags, photos, emblems, diaries, medals, books and more.

His war stories run the gamut. They include warm memories of welcome wartime respites in scenic Italian seaside towns to recollections of brutal training, bad food, terrible weather and the horrors of combat.

Frederick was a Ranger in the Army’s 4th Ranger Battalion. He recalls an assignment in a raid on a German base in North Africa to capture 10 prisoners for interrogation. Not many of the enemy soldiers surrendered willingly.

“A lot of them were shot, a lot of them were bayoneted, a lot of them were grenaded with hand grenades,” he said. “If they didn’t give up right away, why, they were put aside.”

“Put aside” means killed.

Several years ago, the Veterans Administration realized some older veterans are troubled by the memories of war like these, even more than 60 years later. The VA estimates that one in 20 older veterans have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from traumatic war-time experiences.

During visits to the VA to discuss their physical condition, veterans are given the chance to talk with professionals who can help them cope with troubling memories.

Winter and cold weather, it turns out, triggered anxiety in one of the World War II vets that Dr. Susan Czapiewski, a psychiatrist at a VA hospital in Minneapolis and an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, talked to — a man who fought in the Battle of the Bulge during one of Europe’s coldest winters on record.

“He watched a lot of friends die — they weren’t able to bury them,” she said. “The bodies were stacked like cordwood, and so whenever he’s cold, it brings back a lot of those memories.”

One day during a mission in Italy, Frederick was captured by the Germans. From then until war’s end more than 14 months later, he was a prisoner of war. His German captors interrogated him, shuttled him around to nearly half a dozen prison camps without the 21-year-old having any idea what would happen to him.

He wanted to know what his captors were going to do with him and where they were taking him, but he also says he didn’t panic.

Until now, Frederick has related his World War II experiences to only a close circle of fellow veterans. He’s never discussed them in detail with his wife, his three children or even his brother, another World War II vet. That has changed.

Frederick is now sharing his accounts with people willing to listen to what he has to say, including Czapiewski. The talking is therapy, Czapiewski said. Talk therapy hinges on the talker making a connection with a listener, she said.

Frederick’s mind is razor sharp, and his spirits seem good, but he has an incurable illness that is taking a toll on his body.

“Some days I feel good, and they say I look good, but inside I don’t feel so good sometimes,” he said.

It may be Frederick is more willing to give his account because he senses a deadline and wants to make sure people know what happened during the war.

Czapiewski backs off from calling talk therapy a cure for memories that cause stress and anxiety in some older military veterans.

“Some people need to talk it out; some people don’t,” she said. “I think that a person knows what they need to do, and a good therapist will meet the person where he or she is and not try to say, ‘come on, come on, tell me more, tell me more,’ but really be respectful of how much the person can say at any given time.”

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