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Cost of freedom: Warriors still paying price from physical, mental injuries

‘There’s nightmares, daymares, thinking of stuff all the time’

POSTED: July 6, 2014 12:45 a.m.

The physical and mental wounds from combat are David Godfrey’s enemy today, nearly four decades after his part in the Vietnam War ended.

“I’ve lived with it every day. You don’t get over it,” the South Hall County man said.

While Americans have paid tribute to freedom and independence with firecrackers and picnics this holiday weekend, many veterans know — and are living and suffering from — the very real costs of war: lost limbs, Agent Orange-related illnesses, traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, among others.

“Americans have been very willing and able to sacrifice lives and body parts for what we have today,” said West Hall’s Sean Adams, who lost both legs in Afghanistan.

“But, as a veteran, when I see kids out here acting stupid, I’m like, ‘Man, if you only knew the dangers outside this little town, you’d quit being stupid and you’d respect the holiday better.’”

For this group of warriors, there aren’t just one or two injuries to contend with. Usually, it’s a batch of problems, stretching literally from head to toe. And mental injuries accompany physical ones.

The accounts are usually gripping — those of 18-year-olds in the throes of terrible violence.

• • •

The memories still haunt Godfrey, a South Carolina native who served as a Marine platoon radioman.

“You’re the No. 1 target,” he said. “You learn to run real fast, especially going across rice paddies.”

On Jan. 5, 1966, Godfrey was hit in the shoulder by sniper fire in a battle southwest of Da Nang, Vietnam. A helicopter rescued him and another fallen soldier a couple of hours later.

Later, at the hospital, doctors told him they probably couldn’t save his arm. He woke up later and felt for his arm, fear turning to relief as he found it.

Since then, Godfrey has endured 14 procedures, including a reverse shoulder replacement in 2011. Infection set in and lingered, forcing more surgery this past January.

Also in Vietnam, Godfrey was exposed to Agent Orange, a herbicide used to defoliate plants during the war.

The spraying by U.S. forces was meant to remove foliage that could provide cover for the enemy and to clear land, but it ended up creating a horrible legacy for the U.S. military — primarily cancer, but a host of other diseases as well.

Godfrey, who suffers from diabetes, lost his kidney to cancer at age 30 and later was diagnosed with colorectal cancer.

“The arteries in my legs are gone, so they had to take artificial arteries and hook them into my aorta and run them to my right leg and ... a year later, to my left leg,” he said. “I can put my hand right below my navel and feel my heartbeat real easily.”

• • •

For years, Mike Stirling of White County battled PTSD, not knowing the root cause of his troubles, but he later determined they stemmed from a battle at an Army base on the Cambodia-Vietnam border during the Vietnam War.

He was part of an Air Force unit whose job was to fly missions over the Ho Chi Minh trail, which was the main supply line for the communist North Vietnamese forces trying to overtake the U.S.-supported South Vietnam.

Stirling’s base was subject to repeated mortar attacks, with quietness “making you more nervous than anything else.”

Protocol was to head for a bunker and wait out attacks.

On one occasion, Stirling said he told the others, “Even though I’m the lowest-ranking guy, let’s go check the airplanes and make sure there’s no damage.”

What he didn’t know at the time was that enemy soldiers had reached the base.

He led a group out of the bunker and, as he approached parked U.S. aircraft, a plane suddenly exploded.

“We all run back to the bunker and the next thing you know ... we hear Vietnamese voices,” Stirling said. “So, what’s happened is the bad guys have gotten on the base and passed our position. And we have to fight our way back to where the Army was.”

He made his way to the Army location and shouted for others to follow. The fourth one behind was Sgt. Edward DuPere, who was killed by enemy fire.

“That is where I ended up with my PTSD — him getting killed,” Stirling said.

The PTSD wouldn’t surface for years after he left the service in 1969. With his youngest daughter’s graduation in the early 1990s, he began to reflect on his life, and that brought back visceral war memories, including DuPere’s death.

“It was as if (former baseball slugger) Mark McGwire had taken a bat and hit me in the head,” Stirling said, with a slight smile. “I was back (in Vietnam) and I couldn’t get away from it. There’s nightmares, daymares, thinking of stuff all the time.”

At the Atlanta VA, he found someone who “asked all the right questions ... until she got to the crux of the problem,” he said.

Stirling apparently was feeling guilt over DuPere’s death. The VA worker pointed out he couldn’t be responsible because, as the lowest-ranking person, he was not a key decision-maker.

“It was like someone had reached over and turned a key off on a motor that was running and giving me problems for years,” he said.

PTSD has long been a major problem for military personnel, especially those in combat areas.

“We see a lot of depression as well. PTSD and depression often go hand in hand,” said Sherry Broadwell, a clinical psychologist at the VA’s clinic off Thurmon Tanner Parkway in Oakwood.

Veterans struggle with mental trauma for years — and often decades — after guns have stopped and smoke has cleared.

• • •

Cecil Boswell, a U.S. Army veteran of World War II, spoke on June 6, or D-Day, about that fateful day and the hard-fought battles that followed, leading to Nazi Germany’s surrender.

The 96-year-old Gainesville man got emotional as he recalled one battlefield where he was pinned down between two slain soldiers.

“There were dead ones lying everywhere,” he said.

In earlier days, stress on the battlefield often was referred to as “battle fatigue,” a term that fell into infamy with one slap of a mentally worn soldier’s face by World War II Gen. George S. Patton. In World War I, soldiers also were deemed to have “shell shock” because of horrific combat conditions.

“It is definitely a real condition,” Broadwell said. “We see the evidence of that every day. ... The phenomenon is similar across conflicts, but there is a difference in the way it presents itself.”

In the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, for example, “you don’t know where the enemy is and that creates changes in terms of how PTSD presents itself,” she said.

It’s possible to have PTSD without being wounded, but in the case of veterans interviewed for this story, PTSD almost always accompanied a physical injury.

“A number of factors determine risk for developing PTSD,” said Bekh Bradley-Davino, acting chief of the Atlanta VA’s Mental Health Service Line. “Physical injury to self in combat is one of those factors.

“Other experiences that can occur while deployed to a combat zone also increase risk for developing PTSD. Some examples of these are witnessing the injury or death of others, exposure to explosions or blasts and experiencing a sexual assault.”

Godfrey suffers from it as well, plagued by sleep deprivation and nightmares.

“I’m on my third (marriage) and I’m just fortunate I’ve got a wife this time that doesn’t say ‘Get over it,’” he said. “I have a loving wife that understands ... and that’s what makes it work.”

Americans generally treated Vietnam veterans coldly upon their return from combat in the 1960s and early 1970s.

“The first time I ever heard the words ‘thank you’ was at the Vietnam Memorial in 1982,” Godfrey said.

• • •

At 21, Adams still is at the beginning of returning home with life-altering injuries.

He was leading a patrol in Afghanistan in February 2012 when he stepped on a homemade explosive device. Adams was flown to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

“When I got blown up, I lost everything,” said Adams, who now uses both a wheelchair and prosthetic legs to move around. “I lost everything physically, mentally, personally — you name it, it got ripped from me.”

A West Hall resident and Chestatee High School graduate, he said he is undergoing “life” therapy.

“You try to do what you did before. Every time you go to hang out with friends, you got to make everything handicapped-accessible,” he said. “The biggest thing is finding stuff to do. Things get very boring at times.”

Adams, who retired last fall from the Marines, also lost a pinky finger and thumb in the blast, and he suffers from traumatic brain injury and PTSD.

“To me, if America knew what Afghanistan was, they would see that we have a modern-day Vietnam,” he said. “We have teenage kids roaming there with suicide vests strapped to them, people with bombs in the trunks of their cars, motorcycles with a 20-pound (explosive) that could knock half a squad down.”

Danny Kiles, 47, of Gainesville, an Army veteran of the Persian Gulf War, said he suffers from Gulf War Syndrome, a disease marked by many symptoms, including chronic pain and fatigue.

His pain stretches from his neck to his feet, where he also suffers from neuropathy and plantar fasciitis. Last week, he got some good news from the VA in that surgery has been scheduled for the plantar fasciitis.

Kiles also deals with PTSD, which manifested after he stopped working.

While working, though, “I knew there was an underlying problem because I was angry all the time,” he said.

Kiles also spoke to the horrors of war and the split-second decisions that must be made.

“If you’ve got a kid walking up with explosives attached to his chest, what are you going to do?” he said. “Are you going to let that kid kill you and your buddies or are you going to shoot that kid?”

However, despite the mental and physical struggles, Kiles said he is convinced about one thing.

“I would serve my country all over again ... because some of my brothers did not come back home,” he said.

The Cost of Freedom: Stirling

The Cost of Freedom: Stirling

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