When I left my home in Joplin, Missouri, the airlines were on strike. I was forced to take a bus to Camp Pendleton, California. It was three days of traveling, and I don’t mind saying, I was grieving a lot. Not only was I leaving my family and friends, but I was also leaving my girlfriend, and we were engaged to be married when I returned from the war. This initial grief was compounded three months later when I received a “Dear John” letter. A few days after the letter, I received my first Purple Heart. Subconsciously, I think I was hoping for the million-dollar wound so I could go home.
My thirteen months living in Vietnam were the worst days of my life. I was an 8404 field corpsman attached to the Second Battalion First Marines Hotel Company. I witnessed carnage and butchery that was unbelievable. I saw hundreds of marines being wounded and killed, along with Vietcong and North Vietnamese soldiers. It was a terrible existence. The days seemed to drag by so slowly. The end of my tour seemed to be a millennium away.
The grief that a warrior experiences when he loses a buddy is intense because you know that his family’s and friend’s lives will be changed forever. Eventually, such grief takes its toll. We become battle hardened. I believe such an attitude is necessary in order to survive. It was not uncommon after a battle that we soldiers would talk among ourselves, and it might appear as if nothing had happened. The camaraderie would be mixed with laughter and casual conversation. The loss of marines would not be mentioned. This is an attitude and focus that cannot be taught. It is learned on the battlefield. We had to accept life as it was presented to us.
I ran hundreds of patrols, including both day and night ambushes. Each time I was scared beyond belief. No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear. Often I wondered if this would be my last day on earth. Every day was like the movie Groundhog Day with more and more killing each day. I had a gutted feeling all the time; I just functioned. Grief has no end there. It changes over time, but does not end. It is very difficult to accept, but that is the bottom line. Grieving is such a personal process—what helps one may not help another. Prolonged grief can trigger anxiety and depression in our troops; it also causes difficulty in completing daily tasks.
Daily, I witnessed marines completing their tour or going home in body bags. Some left for a few days of R & R only to return. Many new marines reported for duty. It was a constant rotation. When marines were medevacked to a battalion aid station (B.A.S.) or wherever, we never saw them again. If they died later, we were never informed of their status. It was an empty and endless cycle.
War definitely plays on our emotions, and these emotions can overwhelm us with grief, despair and depression. Subconsciously, I had to create a mental barrier that allowed me to isolate my emotions from the reality of battle. I fought my grief because I wanted to survive, but it always persisted. Grief is the deepest sadness a person can feel. Do you know what it is like to live with no hope for the present or the future? I reached a state where I thought it would be best if I was killed in action. This is what depression does to warriors.
I remember one marine who was killed on his first patrol. I read that 997 soldiers were killed in Vietnam on their first patrol. I have also read that 1,448 marines were killed on their last patrol before being rotated back to the states. I often wondered who the lucky ones were: the marines who were killed on their first patrol or the marines who were killed on their last patrol. I frequently concluded the latter marines were the unluckiest because they had to live through hell for thirteen months before their deaths.
As a field corpsman, I had many duties. One of these duties was counseling the troops. We did not have a chaplain assigned to our unit. Little did our marines know, but I was hurting as much as they were. I remember two marines enlisted on the buddy system. In other words, wherever one marine went, the other would go with him. We were on a search and destroy mission, and one of the buddies was killed in action. The other marine was overcome with grief. He became so angry that he stormed the enemy in a violent rage. I saw other marines that couldn’t stop crying. Still others went into depression and isolation. Some became so numb that they took the “it don’t matter” attitude.
Many of us learned to place “the bad stuff” to the back of our minds because you couldn’t dwell on it. That is how I handled my grief. I became a robot. I just did my duty, day after day, month after month. I lived somewhere in that dark dimension between hell and earth. When I look back on it now, it doesn’t even seem real to me. Only in the darkness can we see the stars.
I felt grief during my entire tour. At times, the emotion was overwhelming. I felt hollow inside. Depression and despair can overshadow everything. I could not cry, and I wondered where the torrent of tears had gone. It took twenty years for me to learn to cry again. The first time was two decades after the war when my dad died.
Experiencing extremes of emotion is difficult for humans to process and assimilate. I don’t think the human brain was meant to process prolonged trauma like we endured. We were kids, just barely out of high school, and so unprepared. As teenagers, we tried to survive in a man’s world, but the prolonged trauma and overwhelming grief took a toll. It left many of us unable to forget and unable to overcome our experiences. William Shakespeare wrote: “Well, everyone can master a grief but he that has it.”
Living through war and witnessing the death of comrades give you cause to evaluate your own feelings of mortality. During my introspection, a common thread emerged. I felt as long as there is life, there is hope—and as long as there is hope, there is life.
Something to keep in mind: Many of us have Purple Hearts, but not all wounds are visible! There are no unwounded soldiers in war. Never were Shakespearean words truer than these: “He who sheds his blood with me this day is my brother.”