We were at the point of adolescence, just out of high school. We were put into ranks and remolded; we were made over; we were made to “about face” the naïve or simplistic life we lived.
(“About face” is a military term which is the act of turning to face in the opposite direction, or it could also mean a complete change of attitude or opinion.) We stood shoulder to shoulder, and through mass psychology we were entirely changed. They used us for a couple of years and trained us to think nothing at all of killing or of being killed. Then suddenly, we were discharged, and we were told to make another “about face.” This time we had to do our own readjusting without mass psychology, without officers’ aid and advice, without any psychological help whatsoever. The military did not need us anymore; we were pawns that served them no more. We were scattered throughout the country without any welcome ceremonies or parades. Many of our young boys were destroyed mentally, because they could not make that final “about face’ alone. I remember the day I was released from the Marine Corps in Camp Pendleton, California. We were told not to wear our uniforms and just go home and forget the war; we’d just left Vietnam three days ago! Outside the main gate protesters were yelling and throwing trash at us.
History proves the effect the war had on us. We were destroyed mentally, because we could not make that final “about face” alone. My life was permanently changed; my safe world became transformed into a threatening expedition in my journey from warrior to civilian. It has taken me years to get to where I am today. After many years attending PTSD sessions with the VA system, I have finally completed my “about face.” Instead of walking toward the dark side of my life, I am now walking toward the light. That is not to say that my PTSD is behind me. I still face my demons daily. Many of the warriors I know are still living subconsciously in Vietnam; they cannot hear or comprehend the command, “Halt, ‘about face,’ forward march!” Many of our combatants have suffered from some of the “worse-case scenarios.” I know. Why else are we losing over 22 veteran suicides per day? We lost over 58,000 soldiers in Vietnam; however, we have lost over 170,000 Vietnam soldiers due to suicides since the end of the war to this date!
It has been close to fifty years since we left Vietnam, but as I said earlier, many of our veterans are subconsciously still in Vietnam. We are now in our seventies and getting forgetful in our old age, but, we still remember different operations, events and horrific situations we were part of. We remember those events like they happened last week. We can still hear the shells flying, bombs exploding and soldiers yelling in pain. We can still smell the rice paddies, smoke of grass huts burning and the smell of blood.
How can we explain to someone who has never been in combat what it is like? How to convey all the ways soldiers change in the course of surviving a war remains a mystery to every combatant who returns home. We lost warriors daily, but we had to survive. We finally convinced ourselves, “It don’t mean nothin.” This was a common phrase we used every day almost like a mantra. Oh, it meant a lot, but we had tell ourselves it didn’t mean anything when something bad happened, but it always hurt just the same. We had to give up our emotions to accomplish our mission. I hardly ever saw a Marine cry or show grief or our vulnerability. That showed weakness and we had to succeed. I suppose we had to do this to survive, this was all OJT (on the job training). The mantra had a numbing effect to help us cope with the situation. However, it brought on separation, isolation and alienation. At this point we have gone too far. There is no “about face.” It’s only onward soldiers.
I remember one specific operation. We were on a search and destroy mission south of Da Nang, Vietnam. It was a dreary day and we were walking on a dike between the rice paddies. We were spaced about 15 to 20 feet apart, the only sound was that of boots sloshing in the mud. Suddenly we heard an M-79 explode, and we witnessed a water buffalo being blown to bits. A Marine got bored and wanted some excitement. When the other Marines witnessed the event, they started laughing, enjoying the excitement. Personally, l too accepted it as part of the war, I felt unfazed, it don’t mean nothin. The Marine killed the water buffalo felt no remorse, it was no different than killing a Vietcong. Minutes later some Vietnamese people came out from the village yelling vocabulary that we could not understand, but we had an idea. Some kids also followed, many were crying from the loss of their loving animal. Water buffalo were very special to the villages and their greatest capital assets. They symbolized family wealth, economic and financial stability. They were pets and workers in the rice paddies, and they helped till the rice fields. They are often referred to as “the living tractor of the East.” The water buffalo was very sacred to the Vietnamese people.
Marines were trained to kill, maim and destroy. They showed no remorse, and the Marine who shot the water buffalo needed a fix of high adrenaline level in order to feel alive and at the top of his game. The high keeps them from fixation on the boredom that they were experiencing. He and the other Marines had no regard for the consequences of the heinous act that occurred. You must remember, we were playing on Satan’s playground. There were no boundaries, no rules and no thought of an “about face.” I would like to take a moment and talk about adrenaline, as it relates to soldiers and Vietnam soldiers in particular. Adrenaline is another aspect of permanency of how the strain of war affects human biology. In our design and makeup, humans are geared for survival. The urge to survive is placed above all human instincts. In order to accommodate the impulse to live, we have been equipped with two small glands located on the top of each kidney. These tiny glands are stimulated by our nervous system, and when we get upset or frightened, they secrete survival hormones. These chemical pour into the bloodstream giving us new energy and strength to overcome the perceived danger. This sudden flow of hormones makes us stronger, and more alert. They protect us from blood loss, increase our lung capacity, sharpen our vision, and direct blood flow away from unnecessary organ functions to the large muscles of the body. These are known as adrenal glands.
While this system keeps us alive in the face of extraordinary danger, it does have one major flaw. The reactive portion of the human brain cannot differentiate between a real threat and an imagined one! The brain does not notice or even care if it has encountered something real or a memory stimulated from something in the environment. Determined to keep us safe, it simply sends out the urgent signal to react. The adrenaline flows, and we function with automatic responses.
Adrenaline was designed to help us survive dangers, but to have it flowing from false alarm can be dangerous to our own health. Not only does adrenaline put extra stress on critical body organs like the heart and circulatory system – but the constant presence of adrenaline can be addictive- nearly as addictive as an illegal drug. You have most likely heard the expression “That was a rush.” This, of course, refers to the effects of our adrenaline surges.
Many of our Marines were addicted to the rush; they enjoyed the high of the excitement and the danger. Many Marines spent several tours in Vietnam because they didn’t like the boredom back in the world. The Marine who shot the buffalo was bored and needed a fix, even if he had to create his own.
When I returned to the world, I reenlisted in the Naval Reserves; I needed to be close to the troops. There were a few Vietnam veterans, but most had served on ships. They could not understand where I was coming from. However, I needed the camaraderie of someone in uniform. After 31 years I retired as an E-9 Master Chief Corpsman, of which I was very proud. During all those years I hardly ever mentioned the trauma I endured in Vietnam. I even kept it from my family. This was common among most warriors; our attitude was that civilians could not comprehend the trauma we experienced. Besides, we chose to keep it bottled up and not dwell upon it.
For several years I was the Jasper County coroner and dealt with murder cases, suicides, car wrecks and the list goes on. Again, I dealt with trauma like that of Vietnam. The situation was different, but trauma is trauma. During this time I attended paramedic classes and learned some procedures that I could have used in Vietnam. More lives could have been saved. While in Vietnam, I felt that if I was a better corpsman I could have saved more lives. However, I did the best I could at the time.
After a while my PTSD was getting the best of me. I was dealing with low-self-esteem, depression, isolation, anger management, stress, thoughts of suicide and the list went on. I was at the point in my life that I knew I needed help. I contacted our local VA, and they enrolled me into the mental health clinic. I was then admitted into a 7-week PTSD medical facility in Topeka, Kansas. The rest is history.
“I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear….What do they expect of us if a time ever comes when the war is over? Through the years our business has been killing; - it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what shall come out of us?” –Erich Maria Remarque “All Quiet on the Western Front”
USNR Retired 31 years