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Vietnam vets using Patriots Point exhibit to treat PTSD

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Vietnam veteran Dennis Young and Ashley Hatton, a psychologist at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston, tour the new Vietnam Experience Exhibit at Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant. Young left the military in 1967 and received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder about two years ago. (Photo/Ashley Heffernan)Vietnam veteran Dennis Young and Ashley Hatton, a psychologist at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston, tour the new Vietnam Experience Exhibit at Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant. Young left the military in 1967 and received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder about two years ago. (Photo/Ashley Heffernan)

By Ashley Heffernan
aheffernan@scbiznews.com
Published Dec. 1, 2015
From the Nov. 16, 2015, print issue

Dennis Young left Vietnam nearly 50 years ago, but he still vividly remembers seeing Vietnamese women holding their infants in one hand and grenades in the other, ready to sacrifice their lives to take those of U.S. soldiers.

It’s not a topic he openly discusses. But over the past two years, he’s finally learned healthy ways to cope with the post-traumatic stress of his experiences during the Vietnam War.

Dennis Young, a Vietnam veteran, and his psychologist Ashley Hatton walk inside the CH-46 Sea Knight transport helicopter on display at the Vietnam Experience Exhibit at Patriots Point. (Photo/Ashley Heffernan)Dennis Young, a Vietnam veteran, and his psychologist Ashley Hatton walk inside the CH-46 Sea Knight transport helicopter on display at the Vietnam Experience Exhibit at Patriots Point. (Photo/Ashley Heffernan)
Walking through a new exhibit at Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum in Mount Pleasant — a step in his prolonged exposure therapy — has helped Young combat post-traumatic stress disorder.

Young, who grew up in Detroit, volunteered for the Air Force in March 1959.

“I couldn’t wait to go in,” he said.

Young spent 18 months in the Philippines and just over a year in Vietnam. As a member of the military police, he was a K-9 trainer whose main responsibility was to protect Marines. Many nights in Vietnam, Young and his dog, Dewitt, left the Marines sleeping in their bunker to go patrol outside a protection wire.

If Dewitt heard or saw something, Young was expected to issue a flare and run back to the bunker to alert the Marines of a possible attack.

“They hit us that night, and I was outside the wire, coming through the wire,” he said.

The Marines didn’t want Dewitt, who was frequently fed gunpowder to “make him crazy,” inside the bunker so they banned the pair from entering.

“There were bombs dropping everywhere,” he said. “I’d never leave my dog, and my dog never left me.”

He sat outside the bunker all night with Dewitt, whom he called his weapon.

“Our dogs were smart; they were good; they were faithful; you could trust them. The time he bit me, I stepped on his foot. Every time he bit me, it wasn’t his fault,” Young said, adding that the dog saved many Marines during the war.

Dogs were used often in Vietnam because the Viet Cong, a term used during the war to refer to Vietnamese Communists, were afraid they would go to hell if they got bit, Young said.

“They were afraid,” he said. “On occasions, they had us go into the POWs where they had some of the Viet Cong and wanted us to turn our dogs loose on them to make them talk. I couldn’t do it.”

Young left the military in December 1967. Dewitt was euthanized.

“I got off the plane in California. I had tomatoes, anything you can think of, thrown at me, spit on me. They hated us, and I was ashamed of my uniform,” he said. “I couldn’t wait to get it off.”

He and his wife, Judy, have made a life in the Lowcountry. Young has worked as a truck inspector at Force Protection, retired as a nuclear inspector from the Charleston Navy Yard in 1991 and made furniture in his backyard woodshop in his spare time, something he still does now that he’s in his 70s.

Anger and memories from the war were constantly an issue though.

“Anytime I go anywhere, I look around, make sure I have an exit or I can get away if I have to,” he said.

While working in his woodshop, Young carried a pistol and had alarms set up, shades over the windows and locks on the doors. He said he once punched a person who walked up behind him while he was working.

Veteran Dennis Young and Ashley Hatton look at the M42 “Duster” at the Vietnam Experience Exhibit at Patriots Point. (Photo/Ashley Heffernan)Veteran Dennis Young looks at the M42 “Duster” at the Vietnam Experience Exhibit with Ashley Hatton at Patriots Point. (Photo/Ashley Heffernan)
Ashley Hatton, a psychologist at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center who has been working with Young for two years on his PTSD, said a strong startle reaction is a common symptom.

“After people go through a traumatic event, very often, their views of the world change. They see the world very negatively; they don’t trust people anymore; they never feel safe,” Hatton said. “So with Mr. Young’s experience, it’s totally reasonable to understand how he got to that point. Being in a combat zone, where you have to be on guard constantly, you never know where your enemy is, you never know exactly who you can trust — that sticks with you. For a lot of our veterans, they bring that belief system home with them.”

People with PTSD typically try to avoid things that remind them of the traumatic event, Hatton said. Restaurants that serve Asian food or dark, loud movie theaters might be a trigger for Vietnam veterans.

“All of a sudden, what happens is people with PTSD, their lives become really small. They stop doing all these things that they used to really enjoy, and that feels really depressing,” Hatton said.

The treatment comes in the form of exposure. So Young started small — visiting an empty restaurant. Then he worked his way up to a restaurant with a few patrons, followed by a packed restaurant, and finally he sat in a full restaurant with his back to the door.

“If you think about it, sitting with your back to the door means you’re vulnerable because you don’t know who is going to come in,” Hatton said.

He visited a butcher shop to see blood again and forced himself to sit on the front row at his grandson’s graduation from The Citadel. Young said his biggest challenge was visiting Patriots Point’s Vietnam Experience Exhibit, which simulates life on a Brown Water Navy support base and a Marine Corps artillery fire base during the Vietnam War.

The exhibit includes three helicopters — including a CH-46 Sea Knight, the same kind Young traveled in — along with a fire control bunker, mess hall and an MK1 River Patrol Boat. Speakers throughout the exhibit blast the sounds of helicopters flying overhead.

Mac Burdette, executive director of Patriots Point, said the exhibit’s sounds take veterans back to the war more than any other aspect.

“Whether it’s the sound of the helicopters or the explosions or when you go inside the barracks and you hear the music from Armed Forces Radio from 1967, that’s what I think is the most important aspect of it,” Burdette said.

When veterans started using the exhibit to “face the devil,” he said it became a source of pride for everyone involved.

“If we can somehow or another realize that we’re helping a veteran live a better life because of something we’ve done here, it just takes it to a different level,” Burdette said.

The first time Young visited, he went with a group of veterans and said it was a terrible, traumatic experience. He’s visited close to a dozen times since and is more comfortable. But he still refuses to walk inside the exhibit’s simulation room where Marine holograms discuss the 1968 Battle of Khe Sanh.

“I got out of there. I won’t go in there,” Young said. “I didn’t like seeing stuff like that.”

Young said watching the entire 3-D production is his final goal at Patriots Point.

“It may be 10 years from now, but I’ll try it,” he said.

Reach staff writer Ashley Heffernan at 843-849-3144 or @AshleyBHeff on Twitter.

Editor’s note: The version of this story that appeared in the Nov. 16 print issue misstated the length of Dennis Young’s time in Vietnam. He spent 30 days in Vietnam in addition to a one-year tour.

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