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Hanoi Military Hospital

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Patient and Dr Nguyen Phung at 103 Military Hospital, 1991

Another Reuters story of the month winner: I wrote this one during a month in Hanoi shortly after Reuters had established a bureau there (I seem to remember incurring the wrath of the incumbent for killing her plants while I was there.) I really felt for these guys; I heard from a Vietnamese friend that there were many untreated vets with PTSD, and wanted to find out more. I was told I was the first Westerner allowed into this hospital — the result of great effort on the part of my assistant correspondent. The story has been done a few times since, but at the time I wasn’t sure how, or even if, to write it. It was a pitiful sight. War veterans in Vietnam have their own demons to fight

9 January 1991

HANOI – They are a far cry from the national anguish of America’s Vietnam veterans, but the mental scars nursed at this run-down hospital run as deep as those portrayed in the films The Deerhunter or Born on the Fourth of July.

In a backyard of Hanoi’s 103 Military Hospital, servicemen driven insane during decades of war against the United States, Cambodia or China wander among the flowerbeds, dressed in dirty white uniforms.

“I feel like I’m with a family here,” says Mr Nguyen Xuan Thanh, who has not slept or eaten properly since he was wounded in the head in Cambodia in 1984. “When I sleep, I dream I’m in Cambodia, back in the fighting.”

The hospital is quiet, clean and bare. There are no screams, just the occasional shout or the sound of a rich baritone voice bursting into spontaneous song.

Vietnam has had more than its fair share of wars. A brief lull after the communist victory in South Vietnam in 1975 was shattered three years later by conflict with the Khmer Rouge. The Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1978 removed Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge from power but started a guerilla war which is still going on. Vietnam formally withdrew its forces in 1989.

Few relatives of soldiers who were unable to re-adapt to civilian life talk about the problems. One said her brother-in-law had been thrown out of his home by a family unable to live with his violent outbursts and paranoia.

The last she heard of him was that he had built a six-foot wall around his shack and would refuse all visitors.

Dr Nguyen Phung, who has worked at 103’s mental ward for 20 years, said there were no statistics covering treated or untreated patients, but he said there are many clinically ill men wandering free.
“We cannot hope to treat them all,” he said. “We still have those patients whom we cannot cure. We can do nothing for them.”

No humanitarian organisations fund the hospital, Vietnam’s largest mental home for servicemen. Treatment is thus kept simple. Dr Phung emphasises natural treatment like reflexology and acupuncture alongside simple group therapy techniques. Few patients are sedated, he said. But patients’ nightmares echo those of their former American foes.

“War is war. Vietnamese soldiers may have a slightly different mental approach because they won the war but there are still those who cannot recover from what they have seen or done,” he said.

Amid the quiet whitewashed verandahs of the hospital, Mr Le Xuan Duc speaks through his tears about the experience 23 years ago which destroyed his life.

On Christmas Day, 1967, working as a border guard in his village in Thanh Hoa, he emerged from his house to go fishing. Moments later US planes bombed the village, killing his family and leaving him a mental wreck. “The Americans are normal people like everyone else. Vietnam made them crazy,” he said.

There are only 60 beds in the hospital, hard iron frames softened by a thin layer of foam rubber. Patients are usually discharged after two months. Three hundred patients are treated a year. Amid the country’s poverty and diplomatic isolation, few people can afford sympathy for sufferers of an illness they do not understand.

“They are not outcasts here. But our budget is small. We cannot afford to be too kind,” said hospital vice-director Dr Thai Hong Quang. “Please explain to the world that we need help.”

As the afternoon shadows grow, the ward settles after the excitement of its first visit by a Western journalist. Among the patients who sing, do exercises or learn English, weave straw mats or sleep, there is only a hint of the trauma underneath. One patient sits shuddering. Another, liable to attack others or attempt suicide, is kept under permanent watch.

In the courtyard outside, a youth agitated by the presence of a foreigner walks up and down quickly, yelling out: “American! Go home!”

(c) Reuters 1991

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