A Tale of Two Wars: Vietnam Vet Charles Figley Helps to Heal Russia's Traumatized Afgantsy

updated 10/24/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/24/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Psychologist Charles Figley had never traveled quite so far from home to make a diagnosis, but he recognized the symptoms immediately. Back in the U.S., the Purdue University professor had counseled hundreds of fellow Vietnam veterans still tormented by a war they could not forget. These cases of posttraumatic stress appeared to be a peculiarly American disorder, the nation's bitter legacy of an unpopular war in a faraway place. But while trading war stories with several young Soviet soldiers at an informal gathering in Moscow, Figley saw a familiar haunted look in the eyes of one newfound friend who was recalling his homecoming after two years as an Afgantsy—a combat soldier in Afghanistan.

Alexander Lavrov, 22, described his tour of duty as an experience that "affected my soul. When I returned home, nobody needed me. I wanted to kill all those people who didn't understand." Figley, 44, patted the hulking young Russian on the back and assured him that many Vietnam vets had known a similar rage. Grateful to learn that he was not the only one in the world to feel such pain, Lavrov suddenly locked his arms around Figley and lifted him off his feet. "Vietnam vets know!" Lavrov shouted. "They understand."

As a striking consequence of the new, Gorbachev-inspired openness toward the West, Figley and 19 other U.S. experts on the counseling and treatment of veterans were invited to the Soviet Union last month to assist in the rehabilitation of troubled Afgantsy. The delegation, organized by the Seattle-based peace group Earth Stewards Network, presented suitcases of documents on new developments in artificial limbs, transportation for the disabled and recent research on posttraumatic stress disorder. But for Figley, one of eight Vietnam veterans in the delegation, the real highlight of the trip was the opportunity to talk directly with dozens of Afgantsy.

"Our feet may be in the Soviet Union, but our hearts are in Afghanistan," combat veteran Andrei Larin, 24, told Figley during one session. Larin's eyelids twitched nervously as he talked about the awful feeling of responsibility he felt toward Afghan civilians who suffered in the war. Figley, in turn, gently sought to assuage such feelings. "It was our duty. We were expected to go—to Afghanistan, to Vietnam," said Figley. "We went. We survived. Now we all want to fight for peace."

Suspicious of these fraternal feelings, a participant in a Radio Moscow current affairs program asked how Americans, whom he described as hired killers in Vietnam, could ever teach anything to "our heroes from Afghanistan." But among the Soviet veterans, Figley found little such chauvinism—and a lot of similarities to veterans of Vietnam. "Both wars were controversial and part-time wars," he says. "Thus only the poor and unconnected served. The end of both wars was negotiated mostly on the enemy's terms. And veterans returned to experience downright hatred from citizens who opposed the wars."

Once a "typical badass Marine," Figley volunteered for duty in Vietnam in 1965, not long after graduating from high school in Springboro, Ohio. He participated in numerous search-and-destroy missions during a one-year tour and led a charmed life until his last month in the country. "Then I had nightmares that someone was tapping me on the shoulder and saying, 'You can't go home yet.' I began to realize that war was not so clear-cut and I was not invincible." Returning home disillusioned, he found his peacetime calling in 1971, while marching in Washington, D.C., with Vietnam Veterans Against the War. "I started meeting a lot of guys who were traumatized," Figley says. "There was a huge iceberg out there—a lot of pain, suffering, divorce, and vets hated by everybody at home."

After earning his Ph.D. in psychology from Penn State in 1974, Figley pioneered research on the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder. He has trained hundreds of American counselors in "memory management," a technique for working with disturbed veterans. "The key is to get the vets not to blame themselves for their trauma," Figley told Soviet psychologists. "Even though they may experience symptoms that are at odds with their macho image—nightmares, bed-wetting, self-mutilation—it doesn't mean they are losers."

At a picnic outing in Moscow with a group of Afgantsy, Gregori, 24, shared with Figley his guilt at having killed a 10-year-old boy in Afghanistan. "When I probed for details, I learned the boy had already shot two of Gregori's buddies and was ready to shoot him," says Figley. "I tried to persuade him that the responsibility for the tragedy was not his alone, that since his own life had been in danger, he was wrong to think of himself as a murderer." After the picnic Gregori motioned for Figley to sit next to him on the tour bus. "He put his hand on mine. It was ice cold, and his whole body began to tremble," says Figley. "I asked for the lights to be turned off on the bus and held him close."

—David Grogan; Kanta Stanchina in Moscow and Toni Schlesinger in Indianapolis

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