I have suffered from PTSD for many years. It got so bad that I had to quit my job as a county clerk in Jasper County in the southwest part of Missouri. Soon after retirement, I was admitted in a PTSD treatment facility in Topeka, Kansas, for seven weeks.
One of the things they stressed to us was to write down the trauma that we endured in Vietnam. My response was, “What? I never talk about that stuff to anybody. Combat is a warrior’s private world! I want that to stay dormant at the back of my mind!” This was the last thing I wanted to do! To possess emotions is one thing; to make them more real by putting them on paper is quite another task. The unwritten policy was, if you were in a war, you have the “I do not talk about it” attitude. However, I gave in and let the demons out of their bag. A lot of tears later, I started feeling better about myself.
For the past five years I have attended a PTSD drop-in group in Mt Vernon, Missouri. There are 15 to 20 Vietnam veterans that attend every other week, I enjoy the camaraderie. We also support one another when the going gets tough. As an outpatient, I am eligible to participate in the National Veterans Creative Arts Program through the Veterans Health Care System. I have also submitted a few stories to, “Veterans’ Voices.” I have found that writing about my trauma helps me to release my demons.
The past few days I have been thinking about writing another story, but everything I have come up with sounds too much like one of the other stories I have written. I do not want to be redundant. I only write about what I have personally experienced.
I thought this time I would write about something entirely different. It’s something that all battlefield grunts experience. That is the emotions that we encountered on the battlefield.
Before I get started, let me say that I am not a psychologist or a sociologist; I’m just an ordinary guy like any of you. I don’t claim to have any expertise in any of the topics I am about to write. I’m just going to tell what I saw and my personal experience as an 8404 field corpsman.
I would like to take one day in Vietnam and elaborate on some of the emotions that I encountered on the front lines. During my 13 month tour, I constantly ran countless patrols and treated over 200 casualties; each one of them has a story. I will try to highlight all the emotions.
MY EMOTIONAL STORY
On 19 September, 1966, around 0600, we were eating our C-ration breakfast and getting ready for a company-size search and destroy operation. I was also loading my unit-one bag with battle dressings, morphine, ointments, scissors, ace wraps, casualty cards, etc. I was making sure the Marines also carried battle dressings in their pockets. At this point, I felt very apprehensive. A short time later we had a company meeting with the team leaders, informing us where we were going and what they expected. A high number of Vietcong and North Vietnamese were moving into our area. Our mission was to encounter the enemy, estimate their strength, and report the data back to headquarters. My anxiety level was going up! During the meeting, I was looking at some of the Marines knowing that this would probably be their last day on earth; others, due to injuries, would see their lives change forever. Now I was feeling sad, anticipatory grief and many other emotions. I learned early not to make close friends, as I didn’t want to be hurt if one of them were killed or wounded; so alienation became one of my demons.
The next words I heard were “Saddle up, choppers will be landing in five minutes!” I heard the distant whop-whop-whop sound from the CH-53 Sea Stallion transport helicopters landing, and we proceeded to boarding. The noise from the choppers and the Marines yelling orders caused a lot of confusion, and the anxiety of the unknown was overwhelming! When we boarded the choppers, we were elbow to elbow. It became claustrophobic, and this also meant that if Charlie shot at us, more than likely a marine would be hit. We were in the air for 15 to 20 minutes before we made our LZ. There were tense moments. At this stage we were hyper alert and knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that war would start at any time. We were anticipating the inevitable. We were going to Satan’s playground, and he was ready for us! My anxiety level was running very high, and my heart was pumping so fast that I thought I would start hyperventilating at any time!
As we jumped out of the helicopters, the point man started leading the way and the other Marines fell in behind him. We were spacing ourselves out about 15 to 20 yards from each other. We did this for two reasons. We were less of a target for the enemy; and if someone stepped on a land mind, fewer guys would be injured. I was following the radio operator. That way if one of the other platoons needed a corpsman, I’d be easier to find. We were broken up into three separate platoons. I was attached to the second, and the other corpsman was attached to the third platoon. We only had two corpsmen on this operation; so consequently, the first platoon did not have a corpsman with them! The Marine Corps was in short supply of corpsman; too many of us were either getting killed or wounded to keep up with the numbers. As we were walking, we remained vigilant for an ambush or booby traps.
A short time later we heard some small arms fire coming from the west of our position. Of course we all hit the ground! Now the fear began, and we felt helpless as we were caught in the rice paddy without any protection or cover. A few minutes later the dreaded call was made: “Corpsman Up!” The Marines would repeat this message down the ranks until one of us corpsmen got the message. My adrenaline rush was running off the scale. We were crossing a rice paddy when a Marine was wounded; the Marines gave me fire support when I ran to that wounded soldier. Not only was I scared for my life, but I was also very concerned about the condition of the Marine. I was hoping that I could help him. I quickly evaluated his life threatening conditions. I then placed a battle dressing on him, dragged him to the dike, made out a causality card and prepared him for a medevac to the BAS.
A short time later we were crossing another rice paddy into a graveyard near a village called Vinh Hoa. We were leapfrogging from one graveyard to another. Then it happened; the VC sprung their trap. They were lying on top of the graves. There were approximately 100 graves, which took up an area of two acres. Each grave was above eye level with tall grass growing on each one. They were also approximately six to eight feet in diameter. They opened fire on us at a point blank distance! The radio operator, AKA Bomar, made a call that the first platoon needed a corpsman. The CO said they needed me ASAP. The sense of urgency caused me to feel apprehensive and fearful. I began running across the rice paddy. I could hear bullets passing by me as I was trying to keep my body as low to the ground as possible.
One of the bullets came so close to my ear that, if the projectile had been one inch closer, my name would have been on the Vietnam Wall! It was the most horrifying and frightening sound I have ever heard in my life! The sound seemed to magnify and was very eerie! Another close call came right after. One of my three canteens was hit, and water started running down my leg. At first I thought it was blood, but then I saw it was water!
This was the worst day of my life, and the water running down my leg actually made me laugh momentarily about the event! It could have been due to hysteria. It was an uncontrollable response to an absurd event. Somehow I escaped death once again. Was I losing it or was I in a twilight zone? I have never been as scared in my life. As I was running toward the graves with my adrenaline running so fast and the suction from the mud wearing me out, it seemed I was running in slow motion. When I got to the first grave, I fell down and tried to catch my breath. I was really worn out. At this moment I was having a fight-or-flight reaction. I was terrified and thought this could very likely be the last day of my life! (Despair) This suicidal waltz is known as “doing your duty.” This day alone, I could have been killed several times. Only God knows why that did not happen.
There were a lot of weapons firing and grenades exploding. I could hear Marines yelling and moaning due to their wounds. As I went around the graves looking for wounded Marines, what I saw was overwhelming! There were bodies everywhere; not only Marines but Viet Cong as well. At this point I was really confused and in a panic! Who am I going to treat first? Where was the other corpsman? Now I was getting mad. I needed help! I also needed to watch for the Viet Cong, as they were everywhere. At his point I was overwhelmed! I tried to use triage as much as possible, but with so many Marines needing help, I just had to do the best I could. I ran out of battle dressings and used the Marines’ dressings when they had them in their pockets. I also ran out of morphine, which caused more hardship on the Marines. Due to my nervousness, it was hard writing on casualty cards what first aid I performed. I couldn’t even read my own writing!
I witnessed carnage beyond belief; the emotions were many, such as disbelief, fatigue, and numbness to name a few. I saw Marines lying in pain, shock, and despair, with no hope. They knew they were going to die or lose a limb or live with a disfigured body. My story is about emotions, but subconsciously I created a mental barrier that allowed me to isolate my emotions from the reality of battle. We had to put aside our emotions in order to survive.
Later that day I started thinking that if only I were a better corpsman, I could probably have saved some more lives. I felt unworthy and inadequate to be called a corpsman; at this point I started to feel very melancholy; I had let the Marines down. I learned in later years that this was a common thought among other corpsmen or medics. I do know that I did the best I could.
We started with about 90 Marines and only 26 of us walked out without an injury. This was the only operation where our troops encountered the enemy inhand to hand combat during my thirteen months in country. The plan was very well executed by the VC. Usually the Viet Cong were not that brave or experienced. It was later learned that these combatants could have been North Vietnamese.
Experiencing emotions like these is difficult for a brain to assimilate. I don’t think that the brain can process the prolonged trauma that we endured. We were teenagers in a man’s world. We were barely out of high school. Keep in mind, the event that I just described happened in one day! What about the other months that followed? Day after day we were confronted with these emotions, and it took its toll. No wonder we had battle fatigue. We couldn’t help that our brain and body were affected. I will guarantee you that every marine in the battle that I just mentioned has PTSD/battle fatigue and still has it to this day! By the way, I was awarded the Silver Star for that operation; I was much honored to accept that medal.
This day was full of trauma; emotions were at their highest level. However, I only touch the surface of the emotions that we encountered. For the sake of redundancy, I chose to limit them. Actually, there are so many emotions, that many were overlapping at the same time.
My whole tour in Vietnam yielded a constant flow of emotions, ie. Fear, nervousness, scared, sadness, venerable, anxious, grief, anger, depression, discouraged, helpless, unfeeling, if only, inadequate, melancholy, sadness, unhappy, wounded, panic, vulnerable and the list goes on. I have witnessed wounded Marines on the battlefield who could not deal with emotions, it was too overpowering for them to assimilate and many actually passed out due to the shock and overload. It is my desire that this tortured writing, despite its many emotions, provides some tiny sliver of understanding.
The emotions we endured were horrific to say the least. It is well to remember that, “Yesterday’s the past, tomorrow’s the future, but today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.” If you are still having PTSD/battle fatigue problems, contact the mental health provider at your local VA facility and get help. This is all caused from doing our duty. Now it is the VA’s turn to do their duty.
Something to keep in mind—many of us have purple hearts, but not all wounds are visible! There are NO unwounded soldiers in war. No Shakespearean words are truer than,
“He who sheds his blood with me this day is my Brother”.
HMCM Ronald C. Mosbaugh
USNR Retired (31 Years)