The other day I submitted a new Vietnam story on Facebook. Someone close to me called and said she didn’t like my story. She said it was too depressing, violent, and traumatic. I was taken aback by her comments. I really didn’t know how to respond. She told me that I needed to write something happy about my time in Vietnam and not so much of the gloom and doom “stuff.” Her remarks were almost laughable, and yet, so sad. Do people laugh in Hell? I am certain they do not. She just didn’t have a clue about what really happened there.
She also informed me that since I spent thirteen months in Vietnam, I should “write about some of the happy times.” I started to think about that statement several days later, and I could remember very few events during my tour of duty that might be considered happy. One was when I went on R & R to Taipei, Taiwan, but it was mainly “happy” because it got me out of a war zone for five days.
The truth is that while I was in Vietnam, happiness was not a part of my life. I was pretty much a loner. I chose not to get close to any of the Marines because I didn’t want to lose a good friend. We lost Marines daily, and I didn’t need the added torment. The only recreation we had was a horseshoe pit and a deck of cards. We didn’t have electricity or running water, and there were only a couple of transistor radios on the entire compound.
I did remember one day, however, that brought a smile to my face and put a little joy in my heart. It was on my birthday: February 25, 1967. I was eating my lunch at the CP, and I mentioned to a few Marines that it was my 20th birthday. I happened to notice the date on the C-Ration can. It was 1944. The food was processed the same year I was born! I thought that was pretty special! I kept the box of rations, but over the years have misplaced it.
Later that day, a Marine came up to me and told me to get my first aid bag and come to his grass hut, where he and five others lived. I rushed to get my Unit One bag and met him at the hut. When I walked in, there were several Marines standing, and they started to sing a happy birthday song to me! On a wooden ammo crate, in the center of the room, there was a C-Ration pound cake with chocolate icing made from a melted chocolate candy disk. They also had one lit candle on the cake!
It was a very emotional event for me because I had been feeling very melancholy. I had been missing my family terribly. I’d also been thinking about my Mom making her usual birthday cake for me and my twin brother. I didn’t think I would get a cake that year. Looking back now, I wish I had a picture of that surprise birthday party. It was so special. Such an act of kindness from my fellow Marines was overwhelming. I felt so grateful, and I was proud to be a member of the Marine Corps that day!
Later that evening, I was getting ready for a night ambush when the CO informed me that, since it was my birthday, I had the evening off. I went back to my room in the first aid area, lit the candle that was on my birthday cake, and lay on my bunk reminiscing about my family back home. I thanked God for the many blessings he had bestowed upon me! Even on the battlefield, I guess we can find some joy.
For the most part, however, Vietnam was not a happy place. I can’t remember laughing very much during my time there. I’m sure I did, but I really can recall only one particular time. After four months in country, I received my first Purple Heart. I wrote home and mentioned to my parents that I was receiving the medal. A few weeks later, I received a letter from them. My Mom wrote in the letter: “Congratulations on winning the purple heart medal. Keep up the good work.” It was at that moment that I realized neither Dad nor Mom knew why you received the Purple Heart. I laughed so hard I had tears in my eyes. I showed the letter to some of my fellow Marines, and they also had a good laugh.
Other than that letter, I can’t remember another time I laughed in Vietnam. I’m sure I did, but so much of what we did happened without thinking—without focusing too much on what we were doing. For example, I also know I relieved myself thousands of times in the field, but I literally can’t think of one urination. We did so many things without thinking. It was like we were on automatic pilot. Everything just seemed like normal events that we had done all of our lives. Life in Vietnam could get that way. We took so much for granted, and most of it we didn’t want to remember. If there was something happy that happened, we didn’t remember it because we were in a war zone. Laughter had no place here. We told our brain to delete the laughter and replace it with anxiety and depression. We felt we were not worthy enough to be happy.
When I was told to write about the happy times, I had to think about what she was asking. I ended up telling her that I write for therapy, not to please people. Her comments confirmed my suspicions that my writing was not for everyone.
After our conversation, I wondered how many people felt the same way. Were others just too nice to mention it to me? In mental health sessions, we are told to write about our trauma. Writing is a healing mechanism. You look at your trauma on paper, and it helps you to process it. I know my stories are not for everyone, and I mentioned that maybe she shouldn’t read any more of them.
I remember the traumatic events of Vietnam because I relive them daily. Ordinary life was too mundane, and those memories were lost over time. Living in a war zone is like living in Hell itself. It is beyond depressing. You fear for your life daily, and the uncertainty of the future weighs on your mind. The only thing to look forward to is trying to live another day.
When you live with fear for close to 400 days, it becomes part of you. Fear brings on other emotions like panic, anxiety, depression, loneliness, low self-esteem, and defeatism. It produces so much negativity, and it becomes part of the warrior. It is inevitable.
These emotions have become part of who I am. Unfortunately, many of these feelings happen at the same time! Young soldiers like me, only eighteen to twenty-one years old, found it difficult to process the life-threatening situations we encountered daily. Vietnam, for many of us, was life changing. We had to adapt to survive. Over time, the emotions we experienced became part of us. We didn’t have time to think about them. They just happened.
Looking back on my short conversation with her, I can see how it would be hard for a person who has never experienced war trauma in their life to understand.
I did not even mention any of my Vietnam history to my wife or children until the last few years. It was something I just kept to myself. I had been traumatized too many times, and I knew it had changed me. I wanted to shelter my family and protect them from my dark side. I didn’t want to expose them to my demons. Unfortunately, by isolating myself, I also lived in a different world and in a different time from them. I felt I needed to keep myself separate.
After my treatment at the VA medical facility for PTSD in Topeka, Kansas, however, I decided to share my stories. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy writing about my past trauma and how cathartic it is for me. After more than forty years of suppressing these memories, I am now able to organize my traumatic experiences and deal with them in a logical pattern. For me, my writing is healing.
Now, I try to convince other veterans to write their stories. I tell them to let others know what they did and what they went through. They will be sharing an important part of history, and they may find it healing, too.
Happiness and joy were alien to me in Vietnam. They had no place on the battlefield. Positive situations, like my surprise birthday cake and my humorous letter, were far and few between. I’ll be the first to admit that most of my stories are not about happy times. Instead, my writings often describe chaos, trauma, despair, and depression. I cannot help it because that is how Vietnam was for me.