By JOHN PURCELL
Recorder News Staff
A local Vietnam veteran will be featured in WMHT’s 30-minute documentary highlighting stories from area residents who were affected by the Vietnam War.
Dr. Gus Kappler, of Amsterdam, is one of three area residents featured in WMHT’s “The Wounds We Feel at Home,” which premiere Monday,
Sept. 18, at 7:30 p.m. on the regional PBS member station. Kappler is interviewed in the documentary, along with a Gold Star mother and a homefront psychotherapist treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
“The Wounds We Feel at Home” will be re-aired Tuesday, Sept. 19, at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, Sept. 24, at 11 a.m.; and Sunday, Oct. 1, at 10 a.m. The documentary can also be viewed online now at www.wmht.org.
Kappler’s drive to participate in the documentary was to advocate for preventive measures the military could use to address post-traumatic stress before it develops into post-traumatic stress disorder.
He said post traumatic-stress is an “understandable human response” for service members.
“You go in the military, everybody suffers PTS to some degree,” Kappler said. “Some people won’t admit it, but they’re all changed.”
WMHT’s documentary coincides with the release of “The Vietnam War,” a new 10-part, 18-hour documentary film series directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, which premieres on PBS stations nationwide Sunday.
The initial five episodes of “The Vietnam War” will air nightly from Sunday, Sept. 17, through Thursday, Sept. 21. The final half will air nightly from Sunday, Sept. 24, through Thursday, Sept. 28. Each episode will premiere at 8 p.m. The series is also available to stream online through PBS.
Sharing his experience in Vietnam is something new for Kappler, because he has presented throughout the region about his service as trauma surgeon at the 85th Evacuation Hospital in the hamlet of Phu Bai during the Vietnam War from 1970-71.
Kappler also self-published a book, “Welcome Home From Vietnam, Finally: A Vietnam Trauma Surgeon’s Memoir,” documenting his remembrance of activities at the military hospital. He released a revised edition of his memoir in June, which included the addition of the fifth appendix, “The Prominent Role of the Autonomic Nervous System in PTS(D) and Suicide Prevention: How It may Work.”
The book consists of short, concise chapters recreating scenes, but there are also more than 90 photos included, with most taken by Kappler. He said some photos are “quite graphic” images of injuries he treated. The book can be purchased through Amazon.com as hardcover, paperback or e-book.
Kappler said his interview for the WMHT documentary was based on writing in his book.
In July 1972, Kappler moved to Amsterdam with his family after leaving Fort Carson, Colo. He opened his own practice where he performed surgeries until around the end of 1999. He then taught at Weill Cornell Medical College, where he volunteered for 15 years as a facilitator in Problem-Based Learning: Human Structure and Function.
One of the most powerful experiences for Kappler occurred in 2013 when a Vietnamese native, Mytrang, was one member of a 10-student group attending the course he facilitated at Weill Cornell. While Kappler’s military tour ended more than 40 years ago, this was his first encounter with a Vietnamese native since he returned home.
“This was the first time I heard English with a Vietnamese accent since I left Vietnam and it stirred up a lot,” Kappler said.
While stationed in the Vietnam War, Kappler said he had a “total disregard” for the Vietnamese. He said the guerrilla warfare made determining who was an ally or enemy difficult even with the South Vietnamese wearing a uniform.
“When she entered the room … I guess I said to myself ‘now is the time’ and I engaged her,” Kappler said. “As time went by we became close friends.”
Mytrang is engaged to marry a classmate, Anfei, she sat next to in Kappler’s class at the college. Kappler said he and his wife, Robin, will attend Mytrang’s wedding in November.
Kappler devotes his time to advocate for preventative measures to be implemented to address post-traumatic stress in members of the military before they return home.
He proposes a “therapeutic time out” for a military unit in a safe environment without record keeping, while being free from their commanding officer’s influence and offering total anonymity.
“You isolate that unit in a safe space prior to discharge without fear of being stigmatized to learn that post-traumatic stress is expected, to reconcile their actions and experiences, to verbalize anxieties and fears, to express guilt, to regain their harmony and humanity and to learn coping skills,” Kappler said.
The U.S. Air Force has successfully implemented a similar measure at the Deployment Transition Center in Ramstein, Germany, which has resulted in a 40 percent reduction in veterans with PTSD, according to Kappler.
“I’m pro-military and they do a great job to develop excellent fighters,” he said. “But they do nothing to turn it off.”
A recent study has also shown positive results to disrupt recurrent intrusive memories that lead to PTSD through timely engagement in cognitive tasks, such as playing “Tetris”, according to Kappler. He said the high visuospatial demands selectively disrupt visual memories from the trauma.
Kappler will discuss his book and answer questions during a book signing event 3 p.m. Saturday at the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, 1475 Western Ave., Albany. Anyone interested in attending is asked email an RSVP to [email protected]
“The Vietnam War,” 10 years in the making, brings the “war and the chaotic epoch it encompassed viscerally to life,” according to PBS. The documentary series features rarely seen, digitally remastered archival footage from sources around the globe, photographs from celebrated photojournalists, historic television broadcasts and audio recordings from inside the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations.
“We are all searching for some meaning in this terrible tragedy,” Novick said in a press release. “Ken and I have tried to shed new light on the war by looking at it from the bottom up, the top down and from all sides.
“In addition to dozens of Americans who shared their stories, we interviewed many Vietnamese on both the winning and losing sides, and were surprised to learn that the war remains as painful and unresolved for them as it is for us. Within this almost incomprehensibly destructive event, we discovered profound, universal human truths, as well as uncanny resonances with recent events.”