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Atomic veterans share their stories with Drexel students and find healing in the process

Frank Russo is among the last walking atomic vets. Their mission was classified for 45 years. Last month, Russo finally told his story for the Library of Congress Veterans History Project through a Drexel University project.

Atomic Vet Frank Russo tells his story on video to Drexel student Rachel Bliss in the Drexel Information Technology Department on June 3 for the Library of Congress Veterans History Project.
Atomic Vet Frank Russo tells his story on video to Drexel student Rachel Bliss in the Drexel Information Technology Department on June 3 for the Library of Congress Veterans History Project.Read moreLarissa Mogano

When Frank Russo reported as a paratrooper to Camp Desert Rock in Yucca Flats, Nev., during the Korean War, he had no idea he would be watching an atomic bomb detonate less than 10 miles away.

“The only way I could describe it is you were seeing God,” Russo said. “When the bomb went off, you thought you were going to leave [the Earth]. When the heat went over, you thought you were going to leave again.

“There were animals out there. … Some of them they were just bones, half bones. The bomb just evaporated them,” he said.

After the detonation, Russo and the other paratroopers were ordered to march through the radioactive waste. “That was the whole thing: to see if we could get together after an atomic explosion and fight as a unit.”

Russo is among the last walking atomic vets, which the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs defines as someone who, as a part of military service, participated in an above-ground nuclear test between 1945 and 1962, or who was part of occupation forces in or around Hiroshima or Nagasaki, or who was held as a prisoner of war in those areas. Their mission was classified for 45 years.

Last month, Russo finally told his story for the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project through a Drexel University project. He was paired with Drexel student Rachel Bliss as part of an English class, during which students learn listening and interviewing techniques. The culminating assignment is a 40-minute taping of the veterans’ stories through video collaboration and production at Drexel’s information technology team.

The goal of the project, said Karen Nulton, associate professor of English at Drexel, is not only to document veterans’ stories for posterity, but also to foster a sense of empathy in the students, and an appreciation for what veterans have suffered. The experience can be eye-opening for the students and healing for the veterans, said Nulton.

The veterans "feel like someone in this community cares about them, not despite their story, but in full awareness of their story,” Nulton said. “They get to see in someone else’s eyes the sympathy for the hurt that was done to them while they were hurting other people.”

In addition, veterans can gain a better understanding of their own story, Nulton said.

‘Making the memories more manageable’

Psychologist Peter Yeomans, program director for the outpatient PTSD clinic at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center, said that making meaning of traumatic experiences is a common goal in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) therapy, one the project helps veterans accomplish.

“These are somewhat sacred stories,” Yeomans said. “Having to wrestle with good and evil and responsibility” is part of why it hurts, he added. “These are stories to hear and also for the public to wrestle with.”

Seth J. Gillihan, clinical assistant professor of psychology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, said that most of the effective treatments for PTSD involve “some form of revisiting the traumatic memory, either telling it to someone or writing it down.” That process of retelling “tends to put a frame around [the memories]. Then that helps to make the memories more manageable.”

The mind stores traumatic memories in fragments, and those fragments can act as triggers, Gillihan said. “Recounting what happened, it causes the person to locate those snippets within a narrative, and it becomes like a book. A book has a beginning, a middle, and an end,” he said.

In Gillihan’s work with PTSD patients, an early step includes having patients tell their story in whatever way they feel comfortable. “I was always amazed by how much it helped. … When they got to the end, there was often a shift in their beliefs in a very helpful way.

“It’s the least we can do as citizens is to hear these stories, and to hold them and to show that we can contain them,” Gillihan added.

A long-lasting friendship

But for nearly half a century, Russo lived with his secrets and his PTSD.

Through the project, Bliss learned that Russo lost three of his six children and one granddaughter to leukemia, and blamed himself for “passing” cancer on to them – even though he never has had cancer.

Military officials “didn’t tell us a thing. That’s why when I went to my first doctor [for PTSD], I was emotional because I said, ‘I killed my children.’ He said, ‘You didn’t kill your children. The government killed your children. Don’t you ever come into my office and say you killed your children.’ That’s when I started to get better.”

Bliss bonded with Russo also because she was adopted, and Russo’s grandparents raised him, though he did not want to say why his parents could not.

“I expected to form a friendship with my vet,” Bliss said. “I didn’t know it would be long-lasting, so I’m very lucky that it is.”

‘Coming back to life’

Another student, Wesley Tanner, 30, a vet who served as a sensor operator on a surveillance aircraft, was deployed three times, once to Southeast Asia and twice to the Middle East. He often flew 10- to 14-hour missions, five days a week. Sometimes things went badly wrong, such as an engine fire in midair off the coast of Hawaii.

“There was the potential that propellers were going to go through our airplane,” Tanner recalled. “The pilot saved our butts. He really didn’t think we were going to go home that night.”

Tanner said he does not have PTSD, but he has his struggles, and that helped him connect with Vietnam veteran Eugene Morrison, 72, who was drafted when he was 18. He volunteered to be a paratrooper, in part thinking it would help him escape the racism he experienced as the son of black and Native American parents from North Carolina.

“I wondered if I had done the right thing, or if I had committed suicide without knowing it,” Morrison said. “By me wanting to be a paratrooper, I was going to be right in the mix of it.”

Morrison said he was judged by his skills, not his race. “I got that the whole time that I was in the military,” he said.

During a 1968 ambush, Morrison was wounded in a grenade explosion, suffering a traumatic brain injury and losing hearing in one ear. “I never got over it,” Morrison said.

At the time, less was known about traumatic brain injuries. Morrison spent the rest of his duty in base camp, which was raided nearly every night. When his time was up, the service wouldn’t let Morrison re-enlist. He was homeless for 17 years, and suffers from severe PTSD.

“I walked out on my family when my kids were only about 5 or 6 years old, and never could get myself straight enough where I could take that on,” raising a family, being a husband and father, Morrison said.

Telling his story to Tanner for the Library of Congress has been healing, however.

“It helped me because it was a way that my daughter, my son, they will be able to take and read that and maybe get more from it,” Morrison said. “They hated me so bad because I did leave them. They never let me try to explain because they were so mad.”

With the Library of Congress recording, “they can take the tape and plug it in without the emotions becoming involved, and stop it and do it again later.”

Morrison found out about a month ago that he has early-onset dementia and wanted to tell his story now.

“This was like a miracle to me to sit with him,” Morrison said about doing the project with Tanner.

Tanner said it was healing for him, too.

“I’ve struggled with my own emptiness from the military,” Tanner said. “Through [Morrison] I’ve also seen that it doesn’t end — that emptiness — and finding unhealthy ways to cope with it is never a good idea."

“He has showed me the best way to get through this stuff is to talk to someone about it rather than keep it inside. I’ve learned to open up more about my experiences, and as well as being OK to say that I’m damaged from my experiences,” Tanner said.

Russo also said that telling his story to his doctors and to Bliss has been cathartic.

My first couple of appointments, oh, they had to pull the shades down,” Russo said about seeing a psychiatrist at the VA after his son-in-law discovered in 2017 that they were looking for atomic vets. “It was tough to talk about, and you’re emotional because there’s a lot of people behind you and a lot of things happened. You don’t know why these things were happening. And after each session, it felt like you were coming back to life.”