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Beightol retiring from VA hospital

September 23, 2000

Beightol retiring from VA hospital



By DAVE McMILLION / Staff Writer


MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - For more than 25 years, Jerry Beightol has been helping U.S. war veterans deal with the trauma of their combat experiences.

He knows exactly what they have faced.

Beightol's own participation in the fighting in Vietnam allowed him to see firsthand the behavior of men in combat and its effect on them. That, along with the turmoil of a divided nation at home, was an experience Beightol never forgot.

Beightol has put his experience to good use as a counselor with the Veterans Administration. Since 1992, he has been a clinical social worker for the Post Traumatic Stress Residential Rehabilitation Center at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center along W.Va. 9 near Martinsburg.

The program, the first of its kind among the VA's 171 hospitals in the country, teaches veterans anger management and other relationship skills, Beightol said. He said the program combines "mind, body and spirit" to achieve its results, and has been widely popular.

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"This is the finest thing I have ever done as far as feeling fulfilled," said Beightol, a familiar face at the VA who has also been active in organizing Prisoner of War and Missing In Action recognition programs at the hospital.

Now, at 53, Beightol has decided to retire from the VA to pursue a consulting career in social work and to run a computer business.

His war experience began when he decided to sit out a semester at Jamestown College in Jamestown, N.D., and was drafted into the Army.

In late 1967, Beightol was put on a troop carrier for the 16-day journey across the Pacific Ocean to Vietnam. He was one of 4,000 troops on the ship.

Once they were in Vietnam, the troops were sent to Beinhoa to receive their orders. Beightol was trained to be a ground infantryman using an M-16 rifle.

Beightol found himself fighting in jungles where the temperature reached 100 degrees, an experience so intense it affected some of the soldiers psychologically, he said.

It was a scene of mass destruction, and some men became immersed in the mission of killing, Beightol said. Men cut off body parts of dead enemy soldiers and wore them around their neck until they rotted, Beightol said.

"You're not right at that point. I say, 'Shame on America for letting that happen,' " Beightol said.

Killing was the only way to survive in Vietnam, Beightol said.

The Viet Cong would often rig themselves with grenades so they could get behind enemy lines with explosives, Beightol said. One day a Vietnamese kid walked into a U.S. troop compound, and soldiers began yelling that the youth had a grenade and that someone should "take him out."

Beightol did.

"I feel that every day," Beightol.

Such experiences shaped Beightol's compassion toward his fellow soldiers.

Beightol left the Army in 1969. At home, he found rioting over the war and civil rights.

"I had a lot of changing to do," he said.

Unlike many of his friends, Beightol had a supportive family. He believes the absence of such support contributed to many veterans' combat-related stress.

Beightol attended Salem College in Salem, W.Va., and graduated with a degree in business and psychology. He took a job as a psychological technician at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Clarksburg, W.Va.

Among his duties was teaching veterans deep muscle relaxation techniques to control high blood pressure, much of which was service-connected, Beightol said.

That was before the condition of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome was identified, and Vietnam veterans were not getting sympathy for what they were experiencing, Beightol said.

A common perception at the time was that soldiers' post-war experiences were related to drugs they used while in Vietnam, Beightol said.

Other events caused doctors to begin studying what can happen to people when they are faced with traumatic events.

After witnessing what happened after 125 people were killed in the Buffalo Creek Flood in West Virginia in 1972 and seeing other signs of stress in people such as those who survived Nazi concentration camps, Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome became a recognized medical condition, Beightol said.

After his work in Clarksburg, Beightol went to West Virginia University to get a graduate degree in social work. Since then, he has helped run veteran treatment centers in Morgantown and Martinsburg and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center near Martinsburg.

Now he is ready for a change.

Beightol may retire as early as Friday if he does not get a contract extension to December.

In the meantime, he has been telling his patients he has "considered it an absolute honor and blessing" to serve them.

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