Like most combat veterans, Bob Hurst of Nisswa doesn't like to talk about his war experiences.
For about 50 years, Hurst never discussed his service in the Army during the Korean War with his family.
He never talked about combat fighting, about the terrifying sounds he experienced day and night during his tour of duty, the screaming, the bugles and whistles and the sounds of mortar shells and rifle fire that exploded over his head as he tried to stay alive during the cold Korean winter.
Hurst never spoke about how it was so cold in Korea that his C-rations would freeze to his gloves, his boots turned to ice, his socks weren't changed for weeks and blood remained frozen in his wounds.
Then Sept. 11, 2001, happened and changed everything.
The traumatic images of Sept. 11 -- planes crashing, victims falling to their deaths from the World Trade Center and firefighters and police officers lost while performing their jobs -- brought back a flood of memories of the Korean War for Hurst.
It brought back memories of being shot at, being hit by shrapnel and that familiar "scared as hell" feeling of intense fear that he would die just as he witnessed his friends and comrades injured and killed in front of him as a 20-year-old during the Korean War.
Hurst, 71, who had a 32-year career in education and served as Nisswa Elementary School principal before retiring from the Brainerd School District in 1992, has been choked up by emotions surrounding his war experience ever since Sept. 11, 2001.
"Whenever I think back to my days in Korea, I shake, have trouble speaking and fall asleep to nightmares," said Hurst. "I still have flashbacks and a loud bang will trigger the shakes."
Hurst discovered he was not alone.
Bob Hurst, Nisswa, was 20 when he served in the First Cavalry Division of the Army during World War II. His war experience left both physical and emotional scars.
It took him a few months, but he summoned up the courage last April to attend a veterans support group held every Thursday night at the Brainerd Regional Human Services Center for all veterans experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.
About 20-30 men attend the weekly support group in Brainerd facilitated by Jim Tuorila, a psychologist with the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in St. Cloud.
Support group members may have fought in wars on different battlefields -- World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War -- but they share the intensely personal feelings of fear and hopelessness that came from their war experiences.
Larry Bahls, a Vietnam vet from Bemidji, finally got help for his post-traumatic stress disorder after he started pacing around his house at night -- armed. He has attended the Brainerd support group for the past six years.
"In 1990, what I call the 'sleeping giant' awoke," Bahls said of his post-traumatic stress disorder. "It was scary. My wife was worried about where I was going."
Bahls said his doctors suggested electric shock therapy but he refused. Attending the Brainerd support group has helped him tremendously. He said he has learned how to trust again, and how to manage his stress.
"It gets me through another week. It gives me relief that I'm not the only one," Bahls said of the group. "We trust each other. We're beyond the friendships. We know we can trust each other, and that's the whole thing. It is hard for us to trust."
Tuorila explained that Sept. 11, 2001, was a trigger for many combat veterans. Tuorila said after the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the support group doubled in size. The same thing happened after Sept. 11.
"To me, it brought back feelings that there are heroes we've forgotten about," Tuorila said of Sept. 11. "All these people who sacrifice every day. There are heroes living among us."
Many things can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder, including personal tragedy like the death of a loved one, a car accident or even watching a war movie. Tuorila has been running the support group in Brainerd since 1986. The Department of Veterans Affairs started the group in Brainerd because officials saw how many veterans had a general mistrust of the government and didn't want to attend meetings at the V.A. medical center, said Tuorila.
Bob Hurst, Nisswa, held his appreciation medals he received from the Korean-American Cultural Foundation for his service in the Army during the Korean War. Sept. 11, 2001, brought back a flood of memories for Hurst of his Korean War days. He has since been diagnosed and is being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. (Dispatch Photo by Steve Kohls)
It took years for Mickey Larson, a Vietnam War veteran from Nisswa, to walk through the door of the support group meeting room. He said he had even stood outside the door at times and just couldn't make it into the meeting. He's now been going to the group for about 10 years. He said watching images from Sept. 11 reminded him of an actual combat situation.
"It's hard for men to come. We're too damn proud to come in," said veteran Ken Moe, Crosby.
"I was in denial that I needed help even when I walked through the door," said Gerald Pringle, Merrifield. "Now I can't wait to come on Thursdays."
Pringle, a Vietnam War veteran, started to have nightmares after he visited the traveling Vietnam War Memorial in the Twin Cities three years ago. Then the Potlatch Mill closed in May, bringing to an abrupt end his career -- and security blanket, he said -- he had for 27 years. The mill's closing also triggered his post-traumatic stress disorder. He started attending the support group meetings in June.
Tuorila said only about 10-20 percent of combat veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder have been diagnosed and are seeking treatment for it. Tuorila expects to see veterans of recent conflicts, like those who have served in Bosnia and Afghanistan, start coming to the meetings in upcoming years. They may even be Iraq War veterans if the United States decides to go to war against Iraq.
"It's an inevitable deal," said Ed Peck, a Vietnam War veteran from Lake Shore. "We just don't know how they're going to come home -- in body bags or as basket cases. It's been that way since we fell out of trees and started clubbing each other."
The support group also is a place where jokes are told and members share a sense of camaraderie. For the past 10 years they've been collecting money and food for veterans who need a little extra help during Christmas. Last year the support group raised $1,400 and helped 23 families. Not all were veterans' families.
"This group gives us strength, guidance and hope," said Hurst. "It has helped me to know more about myself and to understand the war more and to understand what the war has done to me. We don't feel way off in the woods alone somewhere. It's pulled us together. It's taught me how to deal with stress. We have to deal with it and go on with life."
Those veterans who wish to attend the Thursday group meetings will need to be diagnosed first with post-traumatic stress disorder. Call psychologist Jim Tuorila at (320) 255-6480, extension 6205 to start this process.
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