PTSD and Me, or Staying In-Country
Three years of war and occupation has brought a lot of attention to post traumatic stress disorder. The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association is one organization working to ensure returning soldiers have access to resources needed to deal with this issue. PTSD Combat is another excellent source of information about the subject. Everything I’ve seen about combat in Iraq tells me that this generation of veterans will have to deal with its lasting impact. The war returns with the veteran in all sorts of ways. I know from experience.
Leaving Vietnam did not mean leaving the war. It came home with me. Not combat dreams or edgy paranoia, my experience was more subtle. Vietnam for me was combat of proximity and potential but almost no actual, a series of maybes that never quite happened to me, even as they happened to others all around me. An infantryman walks in suspense, trying to remain alert to everything. I did that, following the guy immediately ahead of me in the column, keeping him in view but not so close to take a hit with him. I knew that I would shoot to kill in a firefight if it came to that, hoping that it never would. It never did but the tension has been a current inserted into my life, always there. Never far out of mind.
The memory is not surprising, really. Vietnam was an intense experience, one that I am truly amazed to have survived. Even being so fortunate as to not be around when shit happened took a physical and mental toll. I somehow made it through five months of Vietnam combat patrol in 1971 before becoming a rear echelon motherfucker. Mine was not a full bore, 12 month, filled with bloody firefights tour but real enough. “This is a real gun,” Davy Jones would yell from the berm into the jungle surrounding the firebase, “These are real bullets”. And he was so right. I still remember the sound of my M-16 bolt chambering a round.
Surviving Vietnam was sheer luck but I still consider it to be a personal achievement. I’ve thought that since the day I returned. I pulled it off! But there remained the matter of serving in a war I thought wrong. That thought has lurked in my mind, leaving me unsure about my basic goodness, even though I never killed anyone. No matter, I was a working part of the killing machine. I didn’t have the courage to say no.
I don’t have the angst of a lost cause that bothers many Vietnam vets. I had no belief in the war. It was just bad luck for me. Getting killed would have just been the misfortune. The war’s end in 1975 was pretty much as I expected; all that sacrifice and effort wasted, a tragedy for both the United States and Vietnam in which I played a small part. That’s about it. But where I don’t regret a lost cause, I regret my loss of innocence, complying with orders I thought wrong. The regret saddened me, even as I should have celebrated my survival. I managed to live with the regret for 30 years, mainly by putting it aside, not thinking too deeply about it. That ended when I hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2002.
Walking the Appalachian trail for six months brought Vietnam it back to me in ways I could not ignore. I had lots of time to think and Vietnam occupied much of that time. At times the hike put me back in the jungle. I thought how easy it would be to booby trap a well-used trail. I scanned the wood line. I knew no enemy lurked there but still the part of me that will always be a soldier kept looking. If I held my hiking stick like a rifle, I saw an infantryman’s shadow. Occasionally, I imagined a file of green clad figures moving along the trail with me.
More insistent were the thoughts of my willingness to kill for a cause I did not believe. Whatever heroism my service may have entailed, it was also a reflection of moral cowardice–my acceptance of military duty over conscience. I wrestled with those thoughts every day for the first couple months of the hike, from Georgia to Virginia. Maybe being back in Virginia, my home in the years prior to and after Vietnam, helped me come to terms with my choices. That and the realization that I could do nothing about those choices seemed to take the edge off of the memories. They still haunt me a bit but since the hike those long ago events have lost much of their power.
Combat changes a person and I’m no exception. Combat destroyed my sense of personal security. Death and injury were so random and common in combat that I’ve never since accepted the idea that I am safe. Something can always happen. The idea does not paralyze me or make me unduly paranoid but I stay on guard. That’s why the 9-11 attacks were less of a shock to me than to most Americans. American soil under attack by a foreign enemy was new but the idea of attack was anything but. At one level, it was just another day on patrol where death may happen. The randomness of combat had come to America.
That’s not to say that I wasn’t horrified. I wasn’t that desensitized but being under attack was nothing new. From that point of view, 9-11 was just a very, very successful ambush. We didn’t even have the option of the classic counter ambush tactic of charging the ambushers and getting some payback. They were already dead. The many innocent victims were the unlucky ones who were in the wrong place the wrong time. I felt like I had seen it before. I hadn’t–not even close–but it sure felt familiar.
Long after a war, the consequences remain in the minds of the men and women who fought. Some consequences are more obvious than others. All are real.
Say a prayer for the common foot soldier
Spare a thought for his back breaking work
Say a prayer for his wife and his children
Who burn the fires and who still till the earth.
--The Rolling Stones
I wanted to work in a reference to John Prine's song about PTSD, "Sam Stone", written long before America recognized this legacy of the Vietnam War. It didn't quite fit my narrative but you can find the lyrics here.