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POWs Find Freedom after Decades of Nightmares

By: Marcela Rojas

Theirs is a tragedy that spans a lifetime. More than five decades have passed, but not even the test of time can erase precise dates, names and vivid mental images. Barbed-wire fences, handcuffs, starvation, water torture, bayonet beatings and death marches are just some of the memories these men have as their legacy to share with their grandchildren.

While more than 55 years have passed since the end of World War II, many former prisoners of war have spent their lives being prisoners of their own minds. Years of nightmares, depression, anger and fear have all too often been dismissed as something their minds concocted.

For the past 17 years the Veterans Affairs Medical Center of West Los Angeles has held ceremonies in honor of these prisoners of war for National POW/MIA Recognition Day in September, while offering services to help them deal with decades of trauma.

"I didn't know I could get help for what I was feeling, the symptoms I was having," said West Los Angeles resident Harry Corre, 77, who spent two years in a prison camp in the Philippines and Japan during WWII. "I would go to the doctor and they would say there's nothing wrong with me, it's all in my head."

But what Corre didn't realize, like many former POWs, is that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, an ailment brought on by his experiences as a prisoner.

Twice a week, more than 40 ex-POWs throughout Los Angeles converge on the VA campus for group therapy, one-on-one psychoanalysis and medical examinations.

"I joined the group about a year ago, from the advice of a friend," said Monterey Park resident William Sanchez, 82, a World War II POW in Japan. "I tell you, I missed so much. I regret not coming here sooner. I could have ended all these years of nightmares. The best therapy you can get is talking with a group of people that have gone through the same experiences you've gone through. You can tell them anything."

Sanchez's positive outlook is one that officials at the VA center want the more than the 5,000 former POW's in Los Angeles to know about.

"A Lot of POWs think of the VA as an extension of the military, so they avoid it," said Dr. Charles Marshall, a physician and chairman of the VA Center's POW program. "We've pushed Recognition Day a little further to reach out to those POWs who have heard over the years that their problems are in their heads to validate to them that their symptoms are related to their POW experience. We want to let them know that there is help for them."

"What dilutes their situation and makes them fairly functional over the years is the defense mechanisms that they've built up," Marshall said, "But over time, those mechanisms start to disintegrate. They lose their wives, support structure, physical stamina, their jobs. So now, their problems begin to come out."

For years, war veterans were diagnosed with "shell shock" and their woes thus silenced said Dr. Calvin Frederick, the psychiatrist who runs the post-traumatic stress disorder program for former POWs at the VA center.

"Doctors just weren't aware of the medical and psychological problems that could occur from being in a war," Frederick said. "PTSD was not recognized until 1981. And it is not to be confused with insanity In my view, it is impossible for anyone to experience what these POWs did and not have PTSD."

It took West Hills resident Martin Christie, a former captain in the Marines, more than 40 years to get help from the VA and that was for treatment for kidney stones brought on by being almost beaten to death during the war. Now he attends weekly sessions.

"I saw six men beaten to death in eight weeks' time. I was almost beaten to death but I escaped with a loose kidney, a fractured back and neck and was left unconscious for three days," said Christie. "Most of us just lived through our depressions. We came out of the war with goals and put our experiences behind us.

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