As Frank L. Davis watched the movie Saving Private Ryan, he felt the pain of 54 years being peeled from his life.Suddenly he was 21 again, a sergeant in the 101st Airborne dodging bullets near Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The first time around, he had been too busy fighting to absorb the horrors of battle or to let terror grip him. The reliving was, in its way, worse.
Virtually from the film's start, the bloody panorama of the Normandy invasion produced ``one hell of a tightening in my chest, and I couldn't breathe and I shed a lot of tears,'' said a shaken Davis, of Stanton, Del. ``It felt like I was right there again. . . . It was so damned real.''
Steven Spielberg's Private Ryan has been praised by critics for its unflinchingly accurate depiction of the confusion and carnage of war. But that very authenticity, experts have warned, has the potential to trigger long-buried memories in those who have endured combat, be it World War II or Vietnam.
Consequently, during the last two weekends, the Department of Veterans Affairs has staffed a nationwide toll-free hotline (1-800-827-1000) for veterans or their families upset by the film's grisly scenes. More than 170 calls have come in since the movie opened on July 24, according to a VA official.
In addition, on the department's Web site, www.va.gov/va.htm, visitors now find this question: ``Disturbed by What You Saw in the Film Saving Private Ryan or Know Someone Who Is? VA Can Help.'' The posting directs veterans to the nearest VA facility, as well as to sources of information on post-traumatic stress disorder.
``Seeing the movie opens up the floodgates of emotions for many veterans,'' said William Weitz, a clinical psychologist at the West Palm Beach, Fla., VA center. ``The screen becomes an emotional experience. They don't just see it; they feel it.''
Weitz spent one weekend answering veterans' calls to the hotline, ``trying to reassure them with the idea they are not crazy or insane.''
Last week, the Camden County Office of Veterans Affairs also opened a hotline for veterans (1-800-464-VETS for New Jersey calls; 609-374-6380 for out-of-state). The service was prompted by calls from wives and children of veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, fearing a relapse and asking what to do.
Frank Patrick's wife did not want him to see Private Ryan, for fear of its effect on the 79-year-old D-Day veteran.
She was right.
Like Frank Davis, Patrick found himself transported back to the Normandy beach, flattening himself behind a mound of sand and hearing rounds from German machine guns hitting all around him.
``It struck me at the very beginning of the movie when I saw some soldiers behind a little sand mound,'' said Patrick, of Northeast Philadelphia. ``I was there at that mound. It saved my life.''
Also like Davis, Patrick began crying.
``During the movie, I was lying there on the beach hoping I wouldn't get shot or killed,'' he said. ``I was in the theater, but mentally I was on the beach with that little mound of sand.''
Warren Rangnow, 76, assured a concerned friend that the movie would not bother him. ``But man,'' he said, it ``hit me like an artillery shell in the belly.''
Even though the film had no smell, it brought one vividly - too vividly - to his mind.
``There was always the smell of death,'' said Rangnow, of Cheltenham, Montgomery County. ``There were a lot of dead soldiers, and one of the worse smells were the dead cows. That whole ordeal came back to me: the fear, the smells, the anguish of losing close buddies. It was hard to sit through it.''
One of his good friends, William Levis, was killed at Normandy, and in 1994, Rangnow went back, to a cemetery above the beach. Finding his buddy's grave, he saluted and placed a small bouquet on it.
``It was almost the same way the movie began and ended,'' Rangnow said, ``and that's what really knocked me for a loop. . . . It's the only movie I've ever gone to when, after the show, people just got up and left and said not a word to anyone.''
Some VA counselors have found themselves tending to the rattled psyches of combat veterans in theater lobbies.
VA spokesman Kenneth McKinnon recalled an incident just after the movie opened in which a department employee went to see Private Ryan and wound up sitting near two men who were obviously distressed.
``They told her they couldn't watch that long Omaha Beach scene at the beginning,'' McKinnon said. ``She took them into the lobby and told them they didn't have to watch it. After they talked awhile, they decided not to see the movie.''
Dr. Kenneth Reinhard, a clinical psychologist specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder at the VA's medical center in Montrose, N.Y., said he saw the movie recently and, when it was over, also found two distraught men, their eyes puffy and teary, just outside the door.
``I asked them if they were World War II vets and they started crying again,'' said Reinhard. After introducing himself, he listened to one of them ``talk about his own guilt and that he didn't know why he survived and others didn't, and I did some triage work in the lobby.''
Reinhard's advice for veterans who want to see the movie: ``Understand the first half hour will be very relentless in the details of Omaha Beach, but it's a good story, and if you have any thoughts or feelings afterward, talk to a friend or partner about it.''
One veteran being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder at the Montrose center is Richard Travali, who saw combat not in Europe but in the Philippines, with the 32d Infantry Division. He also served in the Korean War.
Private Ryan overwhelmed him, Travali said - particularly its cemetery scenes with hundreds of white crosses, each representing an American killed in battle.
``It reminds me of the people I was with and the complete waste of life,'' said Travali, of Fishkill, N.Y.
After Frank Davis, the Stanton, Del., veteran, saw the movie, he was emotionally exhausted. Yet that night, he could not sleep.
Davis did not call the VA hotline. For the last two years, he has been talking to a psychologist at the VA's Wilmington medical center about the post-traumatic stress disorder that hit him hard about four years ago.
Still, he recommends that veterans see the movie.
``It will bring back a lot of memories, but in a lot of cases the vets are hiding their feelings,'' he said. ``Some vets are reluctant to go for help. It does a hell of a lot of good to talk about it.''