Now we come to the very reason that veterans get PTSD. More than likely, there was a traumatic experience or experiences that, you might say, overwhelmed them.
Now that I have been through it, I believe that the whole Post Traumatic Stress Program at the Tomah VA Medical Center was designed around the trauma group. Everything we did there — the relaxation class, the dream workshops, assertiveness training, the journal, even the set-up with a small intimate group of fellow Vietnam vets — was designed to get us focused on that trauma or those traumas that had taken over our lives since we left the war. Getting the things we had kept secret in our minds out in the open where we could look at them and getting feedback from a group of our peers was supposed to help us.
It is hard for me now to remember the first trauma group meetings, but I do remember that we had that group more often than any other class. I think we started by reading something out of our journals about Vietnam. And it wasn’t long before we all knew what kind of unit each guy had been in, where in Vietnam he had been stationed, and what years he had been there. We learned about each others’ jobs, and we talked about the good times and the bad.
As the weeks went by, we explored more and more of what was really the problem with each man. It didn’t take me long to figure out that, like me, each of those guys had something that sounded pretty bad, but they could talk about it. For me, it was like a cover story. I could talk to the doctor about it; heck, I could use it myself to keep what was really bothering me hidden in the back of my mind. So everybody would tell his “cover story,” thinking that it would be good enough, so that he didn’t have to tell everyone that secret thing in the back of his mind, that thing that was so horrible that he didn’t even want to let it out for him to look at.
Some guys’ cover stories were pretty horrible, and if it wasn’t for having something that hurt them more, that cover story could have been the thing that they were keeping hidden. When we went to group, we agreed that what was said in that room stayed in that room, so I won’t be repeating what the guys I was with were saying; but here is what I talked about when I had to come out with something that was on my mind all the time.
The woman in the cage
I was taking some radios from Signal Hill, above LZ Stud which was down Highway Nine past the Rock Pile. I hitchhiked a ride on an H-37 helicopter to Dong Ha, took an H-46 to Phu Bi, and from there I got a ride on a Huey helicopter to Da Nang, where our repair facility was. It was hard getting from the airfield to where I needed to go, with the radios weighing more than 50 lbs. each; and I had all my other gear, flak jacket, rifle, helmet, pack, ammo, and probably some C-rations. I finally found the place and turned in the radios and they gave me two new ones to take back.
It was late, and I made my way back to the field, knowing that I wouldn’t get out until morning, so I walked around looking for a place to sleep. I was walking around an area that was a staging area for supplies, and I found a place between two conex boxes that wasn’t all that far from a head, and there was a bunker nearby that I could go to if there were incoming rounds. I should explain. Conex boxes are big green metal boxes that supplies are shipped in. They are about 8 feet by 8 feet by 8 feet and have skids under them so that a fork lift can move them.
After I got situated, I walked around having a smoke, and as I came around one conex box, I saw that there was a wire mesh screen attached to it that formed a cage. There was a Vietnamese woman in that cage with her young child. I guess the child was about three or four. The woman was tall and at one time she had been pretty, but right then she was exhausted and she was begging me for water. The child was lying at her feet, alive, but not moving. I got out my canteen and was about to give her some water, when an American army major came running up and yelled at me, “What the hell do you think you are doing?” I said I was giving the woman something to drink, and he put his hand on his .45 and told me to walk away, which I did.
The next morning I had to take a look and see what was up with this woman. She and her child were both lying in that cage dead. I believe that they died of thirst. A metal conex box sitting in the sun would bake anyone and the inside of that box was the only shade they would have had.
I don’t know what that woman had done. I don’t know what information she might have had that that major wanted, but I do know that we, the United States of America, murdered her and her child, and it bothers me today just as it bothered me back then. It is one of those things “I could’ve, should’ve” done something about; but I was a Marine sergeant who had been through the brainwashing boot camp all enlisted Marines go through, and when a major tells a Marine to walk away, he walks away. I pay for that almost every day.
That is the thing that I would use to hide what was really sticking in my craw, and it worked for a lot of years, until I got to Tomah. Here is the goal that they told me I was working for: Things about my time in Vietnam were constantly on my mind, and they were really affecting my life. The doctors at Tomah said that they couldn’t make those things go away, but they might be able to get me to the point that I could have those thoughts and memories in a special place from which I could retrieve them whenever I wanted; but I could also put them away, so they were not right out in front always trying to jump out at me.
Did it work? Kind of, sort of. Like I said, the story about the woman in the cage was horrible, but I had already dealt with it and its guilt. Now I used the thought of that woman and her child to hide some things much worse than that. I was hiding those things from myself. I knew about them, but I didn’t want to ever think about them again. So when Vietnam would overwhelm me, I would go through the story of that woman again and that kept everything else at bay, but the other things were always trying to come out.
That is why they have the trauma group at Tomah. They told me that I had to get those things out in the open before I could get better. Here is something strange. A lot of the guys’ horrible, terrible experiences, the ones that were driving them nuts, didn’t seem to me and many in the group as traumatic as other things that happened to them. It was the time, the place, and the way our minds saw things. What was horrible, terrible for one, might not really be that bad for another.
Some of the things the corpsmen and medics went through, I think would give me a lifetime of bad dreams; but out of all of the wounded and dying men they had to deal with, somehow, one of those was the memory that they couldn’t shake. I don’t know why it is that way, but it is.
By the time I left Tomah there were many memories of my time in Vietnam that had surfaced there that I hadn’t dealt with before. I don’t know whether I was better or not, but the program gave me some tools to work with, and I got a lot of things out in the open so I could look at them. They were and are sometimes overwhelming, but at least now I know what I am dealing with, and sometimes I can put them away and live my life; but then again there are things that will pop them out, like the sound of a helicopter going over, or a little kid screaming at play, or the flashes of sunlight through the trees.
The pain of PTSD
Yes, post-traumatic stress is scary stuff. It is scary for the veteran who has it, and it is scary for the veteran’s loved ones. On top of that, it is also embarrassing.
The reason I say that post-traumatic stress is embarrassing is that it is. A man gets home from the war, and he wants to forget about what he saw and what he did, but he can’t. Many veterans want to avoid being around those close to them because they don’t want their loved ones to know that they are having problems.
The whole reason that I wrote this series is that there are tens of thousands of veterans returning from George Bush’s wars, who are now having psychological problems, and there will be many thousands more who will develop traumatic stress later on. Dr. Michael G. Rayel, writing for AboutMental Health.com at http:// mentalhealth.about.com/od/ traumaptsd/a/ptsdrayel.htm says,
PTSD is a psychiatric disorder characterized by avoidance, hypervigilance, emotional difficulties, and recall behavior such as flashbacks and nightmares after a traumatic event such as rape, war, vehicular accident, or natural disasters. Recent researches have shown that after a trauma, biochemical changes develop in the brain that can result in psychological signs as shown above.
If untreated, some people develop emotional difficulties such as depression associated with inability to concentrate, sleep, or eat. Occasionally, they also become hopeless to the point that they want to die.
There have already been reports of returning veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who have committed suicide, and I expect that will continue because it can now take many months to start getting help through an already-overwhelmed VA system.
I can still remember thinking that I had better “suck it up” and blow off the thoughts I was having. I was thinking, Marines don’t do things like I was doing. I kept telling myself that I was one of the “few, one of the proud.” As we said in Nam, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I am the baddest #%@*$% in the valley.” When I finally did go for help, it was an incredible relief to find many other Marines going through the same things I was.
I have to tell you that even though I went through the VA’s program at Tomah, the stress didn’t magically go away; neither did the intrusive thoughts of Vietnam. They don’t have a special stress pill to give us. I did get some tools to use to make the whole thing a bit more bearable. I know some of the guys in my group have done well, but others, from my point of view, are in worse shape after going through the program.
The program opens up a whole new can of worms by getting vets to confront everything that happened to them in a combat zone. For some guys that was a relief, but for others it was too much for them to handle.
Now with these new veterans coming into the system, everything at the VA will be a little bit slower for those veterans already in the system. There are still World War II vets, Korean War vets, Vietnam vets, and Desert Storm vets making their initial visits to the VA asking for help with the problems they are still having from their time in combat.
I have met veterans who have thought that post-traumatic stress was just a bunch of hooey. That is, they thought that until one day everything about their war experience came crashing down on them, and they didn’t know what to do.
I was always told, if you are at a VFW or American Legion bar and there is some guy bragging to everyone how he won the war at one end, and there is another guy sitting at the other end not talking to anyone, put your money on the quiet guy as really having been in the thick of things.
I believe that to be true, and we are going to have a lot of soldiers and Marines coming home now, who are not going to talk about their time in combat, and they are going to try to work things out on their own as long as they can.
This article originally appeared in the March 2008 edition of Freedom Daily.