The war that won't end
By Ford Turner | Reading Eagle, Pa. | Published: November 12, 2012
READING, Pa. — The ongoing tragedy, in one sense, has little to do with Ken Wunder.
He is a retired railroad track-welding foreman with flinty blue eyes and a sturdy build, devoted to Marcella, his wife of 44 years, fond of his grandchildren, and grateful for the quiet farmland near his Windsor Township home.
In another sense, though, the tragedy is right there with him.
Military veterans are killing themselves at a shocking rate.
One government estimate put it as high as one suicide every 80 minutes. The government also estimates that 15 percent to 20 percent of returning veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Wunder retains disturbing memories of combat in Vietnam and Cambodia.
Men, splattered with aviation fuel, burning alive. Bodies and parts of bodies flying through the air.
Wunder, 64, believes such memories must be handled correctly. A veteran must acquire tools to square them away.
Otherwise, life can unravel.
"All the bogeymen come out," he said. "Your heart races. Your mind races. You want to kill yourself."
When he returned from combat, Wunder reached out to others. He founded Berks County Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 131, an organization that has helped many Berks Vietnam veterans heal.
Fellow Vietnam combat veteran Andy Lewandowski of Lower Alsace Township took a similar path.
Lewandowski, a 68-year-old grandfather of five who worked as a Reading Eagle press operator for 29 years, led the move to build the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in City Park.
Focusing on missions like the memorial and like working with his wife, Yuko, to make sure their children got the best possible education helped tamp down the psychological aftereffects of combat.
"Post-traumatic stress is something that builds up," Lewandowski said. "You cover it up when you're in combat. Seeing the dead bodies and seeing things destroyed, you just say, 'I'll deal with that later.' "
The nearly 7 million men and women who served in the Vietnam War era constitute the largest group of living military veterans.
Like veterans of other wars, many remain psychologically scarred. But their lifelong healing process got off to a uniquely bad start; many civilians hated the Vietnam War and disrespected those who fought it.
When they came home, some Vietnam vets were spit at. They were called "baby killers."
Lewandowski came home from Vietnam to Berks County in 1969.
"The biggest thing that shocked me was that no one seemed to care," he said.
He had graduated from Reading High School in 1961 and joined the Marines at age 17. His duty took him to a base in Japan. When he took a pair of shoes to a base cobbler's shop, he met a young woman, Yuko, who worked there. The two were married in a church near Tsuruma, Japan, in 1965.
Lewandowski was ordered to Vietnam in early 1968. When he went into combat, he kept a photo of Yuko and their first child, Maria, tucked in his helmet.
The first man killed in his unit was torn open by a mortar round. Bleeding from many holes, he cried out for his mother as he died.
After he returned to Berks there was little regard for the fact that Lewandowski had endured such trauma.
At Albright College, there was a big anti-war demonstration.
"You go over there with a lot of notions about the military and the U.S. and being patriotic, and all that crap," Lewandowski said. "We learned we weren't fighting for anyone."
It was decades later, when his children were raised and the Vietnam memorial finished, that Lewandowski felt most disabled by his wartime experiences.
He spent three months in a Veterans Affairs hospital dealing with post-combat issues.
"When you sit and you don't have anything to do and you are looking out the window, that is when things start to come back," he said.
Coming to terms
Wunder was drafted into the Army in January 1968.
He was two years out of Oley Valley High School. Only a month earlier, he had married Marcella Davis, whom he had met on a blind date.
After training as an infantryman and paratrooper, he was put into combat in Vietnam and Cambodia.
At one point, Wunder watched U.S. soldiers boarding a helicopter. It was struck by enemy fire.
Torn men were hurled skyward, above treetop level. Others, doused with aviation fuel, burned with the wreckage.
After he returned to Berks in January 1970, he was startled by how civilians seemed oblivious to the horrors endured by U.S. soldiers.
"We had people getting torn to pieces every day, and here, their big thing was going to see a car show or something," he said. "It all seemed shallow."
He began inviting veterans to get together and talk. Eventually, he started Chapter 131. The first meeting was held at his house.
His wife, he said, gathered information about the psychological effects of combat and distributed it to local veterans.
Wunder knew Vietnam vets who succumbed to dark thoughts.
One veteran killed his wife with a 12-gauge shotgun and then turned the weapon on himself. Another, Wunder said, burned himself alive in a mobile home. Another hanged himself in prison soon before his scheduled release.
Wunder's own struggle to come to terms with his experiences lasted for decades.
He felt guilty about the war. He felt despair. Normal feelings, like love, seemed to be trapped inside him.
For years, he went untreated. Then, he said, he was given improper medication that led him to the verge of suicide.
The combat memories, he said, were like bogeymen kept behind locked doors in his mind. The medicine, he said, removed the locks.
His ability to handle his own memories improved through years of visiting a psychiatrist.
"PTSD never goes away," he said. "Like a carpenter, one has to obtain the tools to understand and live with it."
Shaped by tragedy
The effects of Vietnam have stayed with Berks veteran Ken Marks Jr. of Bern Township.
The most consequential one happened about 15 years ago. Marks was a manager in a local retail store when a district manager began to bad-mouth Marks' employees.
Marks started shouting at him and threw his keys.
"It was a deep-rooted anger coming out," he said. "I almost went nuts."
Marks lost his job.
Thirty years earlier, as a carpenter in a rapid-deployment engineers unit in Vietnam, Marks had supervised a team of Vietnamese civilians in the building of a chapel at Da Nang Air Force Base. Midway through construction, Marks said, someone who outranked him ordered changes to the structure.
Marks objected because he felt the proposed changes were improper. He was overruled. The changes were made when he was not at the site, Marks said, and when he returned he saw that the project had collapsed, killing some of the civilian workers.
Now 67, Marks sees that the construction tragedy, as well as other wartime experiences, including a rocket attack on his base, helped shape the pattern of his life in later years.
"I have carried that forever," he said. "I try to treat people who work for me like I want to be treated."
Veterans need veterans
Those who did not serve in the Vietnam era cannot understand.
That, said David Varone, is the main reason many Vietnam War veterans, like veterans of other conflicts, seek each other's company.
"We feel relaxed, safer," said Varone, who served in Vietnam in 1970-71 and is vice president of Chapter 131. "Other people can't relate to what we did."
Judy Hoffmeister of Robeson Township joined the Women's Army Corp in 1970. Two decades later, after many years of civilian life, she joined the Army Reserve and ultimately was deployed to Kuwait.
"The country was much more patriotic in 1991 than it was in 1970 and 1971," she said.
Veterans advocate Diane Price, whose own military service came after the Vietnam era, said, "Vietnam veterans were whitewashed with the thought that they were unemployable or not good to work with."
The country, she said, should not do the same thing to veterans of more recent conflicts.
Bernie Bingham, president of Chapter 131, said the surge in suicides is a crisis for all veterans.
Those who are in danger are the veterans themselves.
"What we need to do is to get them to talk about it," he said. "Get them around guys who want to help."