The War Within: Eyewitness News investigates PTSD, Part IV

The War Within: Eyewitness News investigates PTSD, Part IV »Play Video
Vietnam veteran Mike Stevenson
* Editor's Note: This is an installment in an Eyewitness News special report on post-traumatic stress disorder. For months, Eyewitness News has been documenting personal accounts of the devastating disorder. Many military veterans have never spoken publicly about their agonizing problems.

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As our armed forces continue fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, more and more are coming home with post-traumatic stress disorder. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates 18 veterans a day, or 6,500 a year, commit suicide.

Many fought in Vietnam where PTSD is an ongoing battle, even now.

"You would have three guys in a fox hole and one guy gets shot and other guys live. You know what kind of mental effect that has on you?" says Oildale Vietnam veteran Mike Stevenson.

Stevenson was just 17 years old when he was dropped in a jungle to fight as a Marine.

"It's unreal some of the things I've seen," says Stevenson.

After 17 months of heavy combat in Vietnam, the Marine rifle expert came home, changed forever.

"Main thing is bodies, children, women. It's unreal whenever they wire up a child with an explosive and send him out to us. They're babies and don't know what's going on," he says.

Stevenson was diagnosed with post traumatic disorder. As a result, he has been plagued with nightmares, anxiety, anger for years. His life was a wreck.

"It got bad for me. ... I went through three marriages, drinking, doing drugs," said Stevenson.

It took 30 years and being homeless for months, but Stevenson finally sought help and has turned things around. Today, the numbers on just how many Vietnam vets suffer from the disorder is controversial. Some say one in five, others one in three.

"When I come out of LAX, I was spit on. And like a good Marine, I just kept on walking, " says Bakersfield Vietnam veteran Tom Coulter.

Coulter spent a year in Vietnam.

"I just had to put up with rocket attacks and mortar attacks and sniper fire," says Coulter.

The former Marine was a radio man, but was enlisted at times to do other gruesome jobs like retrieving bodies of fellow Americans dropped at an airbase. He has never spoken publicly until now.

"This one guy I remember, got a bullet under his chin and it took the top of his head off. And when he come in he was already in rigor mortis, stiff body and his legs were spread apart. And had to crack his legs together in order to get it threw the door," Coulter bluntly said.

For Coulter, the memories are like yesterday. The result: four broken marriages, jobs lost, anger and nightmares of war within that never seem to end.

"But the PTSD, the dreaming. My wife today I have hit her a few times while we were sleeping," says Coulter.

But instead of turning her back, wife Artie took an interest in learning more about her husband's illness.

"I didn't understand the anger, I was afraid I was just constantly in turmoil. He's made a big change. He's a very different man than he was a year and a half ago," says Artie Coulter."

Five years ago, Bob Piaro founded the California Veterans Assistance Foundation for homeless veterans on Decatur Street in Oildale. Diagnosed with PTSD at 19 years old, he lost a leg to a grenade in Vietnam.

"In a combat zone, like in Iraq and Afghanistan, these guys lose a buddy right next to them. They don't grieve, they don't have time to grieve. You just go ahead and stuff it, leave it sit there. But sometime, it's going to come back."

And it did for Bakersfield chaplain and former Army National Guard captain, George Fraser. But, in a non-combat role.

"They had gone through all this stuff in Vietnam. Meanwhile, I'm sitting' in Bakersfield," says Fraser.

Fraser suffers from a form of PTSD called "Survivors Guilt." He served in military intelligence during the Vietnam War, hearing detailed stories of horror from veterans in combat.

"I entered into that whole arena of depression and anger," says Fraser.

But, of course, it's not just Vietnam, but veterans of all wars.

"When you see bodies, when you see the aftermath of war, people hurt," says retired staff sergeant Randy Gonzales.

He spent 20 years in the military including five months in Iraq and Kuwait as a chemical operations specialist during the Gulf War.

"Not too long ago, I was with my brother and his family and someone popped a balloon. and I reacted to take cover and that was kind of embarrassing," Gonzales told us from his Bakersfield home.

Until tonight, Gonzales hasn't spoken in detail about his time in the Gulf War, even to his three sons. He snapped photos of the war he showed to us that he's never shown to anyone else.

"I remember going on the highway of death with all these vehicles that had been torn up from the war," an emotional and teary eyed Gonzalez said."

The highly decorated veteran who grew-up in Taft attends counseling sessions at the VA clinic and takes medication for depression.

The once self-described "life of the party" and "jokester" says his message to veterans: you must ask for help if your hope is to get better.

"Do you think you'll ever be your old self?" we asked.

"Well, what I've learned is we all change, ya know and I just have to accept the new me," Gonzales said choking-up.

Before the interview, Randy said he was depressed and nearly canceled. We asked him how he felt once it was done. He told us "I feel alive again." He felt like a weight had been lifted from his shoulders just to tell someone about his experience.