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updated: 4/22/2014 5:29 AM

Undiagnosed a generation ago, PTSD still haunts older vets

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  • Ceasar Soto

      Ceasar Soto

 
 

In the era before soldiers were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, veteran Ceasar Soto of Grayslake brought those issues home with him from the war in Vietnam, he says, only to have his condition made worse by a group of fellow Americans.

Born at a naval station in Panama during his father's military service, Soto says he imagined coming home from Vietnam and being greeted by joyous crowds as seen in the iconic photograph of the sailor kissing a woman at the end of World War II. "It was insane how happy they looked," Soto says in an interview.

Instead, when he returned to New York City in January 1969 after a year in Vietnam, Soto sought solace in a bar. Five men and two women began to hassle him and call him names.

"They zeroed in on me because my hair was still short," Soto remembers. The bartender, a Korean War veteran, pulled out a baseball bat and forced the group to leave. Later, when Soto left the bar, the gang jumped him, dragged him into an alley and beat and kicked him.

"Then they spat on me and urinated on me, including the women," Soto says. "I woke up in a hospital."

Envisioning a civilian life as traumatic as his year in Vietnam, "I ended up on the Brooklyn Bridge, just contemplating," says Soto. "I was so ashamed."

The featured speaker at last night's entry in a series titled "The Stories of War From Those Who Have Been There" at the Warren-Newport Public Library in Gurnee, Soto brings attention to the Lake-McHenry Veterans and Family Services program affiliated with the Lake County Health Department. Now in its fourth year of a five-year federal grant with support from the Lake County Health Department and the McHenry County Mental Health Board, the agency offers a variety of services to veterans and their families, regardless of whether a veteran's discharge was honorable or not. Visit lmfvs.org or phone (847) 377-8386 for details.

"The symptoms of PTSD may have been subdued for a very long time," says Steve Ruohomaki, LMVFS clinical supervisor, in an interview. Drafted into the Army out of graduate school at the University of Chicago, Ruohomaki, now 67, was a social worker greeting soldiers returning from Vietnam.

"There was no awareness of PTSD and there was not a specific diagnosis for it," Ruohomaki says. "Now, the older veterans are reaching out for help."

A federal lawsuit filed last month by the Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic contends that many Vietnam veterans with behavior issues caused by their PTSD were given less-than-honorable discharges and denied veteran benefits.

"I've lived with it (PTSD), and I'll probably die with it," says Soto, 65, who went through dozens of jobs and two marriages before finding stability now with his wife of 13 years, Luz, and his last six years as an employee for the Illinois secretary of state office in Waukegan.

Having seen many comrades and enemies killed on the battlefield, Soto says those memories can be raw and difficult to discuss. Once, when a girl noticed his Bronze Star license plate and asked how he earned the honor, Soto replied, "I got it for killing people."

He sometimes tells the story of how his M16 rifle jammed as he came face to face with an enemy soldier. Another American shot and killed the soldier. Going through that enemy's belongings, Soto says he realized they had something in common when he discovered that the dead combatant carried a photograph of a woman who might have been his wife, girlfriend or sister.

"Did he imagine his life was about to end? Was my life about to end, too?" Soto remembers thinking.

Telling these stories helps civilians realize what many veterans endured, and why some need help. Soto says he likes to finish his public talks with a poem he wrote. Titled "Homecoming," it talks about the sacrifice made by veterans.

"Black stone speaks the names of those who paid the price," the poem concludes. "But there are no bugle taps, or muffled drums, or gun salutes or flags flying for those who have paid the ultimate price, but have not yet finished dying."

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