In 1963, I was a senior in high school and president of my class. I was also an all-state basketball player, ran track, and played football. Like thousands of other kids across the country, I was active in my school, church, and community. We knew our neighbors, and they knew us. Our houses and cars were never locked. In short, life was good. We lived in a state of innocence - completely unaware of how drastically and quickly things could change.
One day I was in high school, and then 800 days later, I was on the front lines in Vietnam. What a change! I quickly realized that I was too young to vote, but old enough to die for my country. I kept wondering what I had gotten myself into, and I kept telling myself that I would wake up soon from this nightmare.
My recruiter did not tell me the hazards and risks of enlistment. He did not prepare me at all for what I was to experience. At age 19, I witnessed atrocities no one should witness at any age.
My first traumatic exposure happened when I graduated from Corpsman School in Great Lakes, Illinois. I was transferred to Oakland Naval Hospital, which was also called “Oak Knoll.” It was a facility that treated Vietnam veterans who had been wounded and had lost their arms and legs. Many of the guys were my age, and I saw firsthand the physical, psychological, and emotional trauma they suffered. I saw how their lives would be changed forever. Seeing these wounded soldiers made me realize the grave and far-reaching consequences of war.
I left Oakland Naval Hospital in May of 1966 and attended a five-week Field Medical school training in Camp Pendleton, California. By early July, I was attached to the Marine Corps as an 8404 corpsman. Suddenly, I was ten thousand miles from home and a world away from the reassuring routines and ordered life I had known in Joplin, Missouri.
In Vietnam, being a corpsman or medic was one of the most dangerous jobs, and many men who held this position were wounded or killed. Before each patrol, the commanding officer would tell us where we were going and what we could expect, but when a soldier was wounded, no matter where on the field he was hit, it was our job to administer first aid. For thirteen months, I faced death on a daily basis as I tried to provide care for wounded soldiers. During this time, I treated over 200 Marines, and I knew many of them would not survive.
On September 19, 1966, during one of these patrols, we were overrun by the Vietcong. Hand-to-hand combat ensued, and it was bloody and terrible. You don’t really know what fear is until you look into the eyes of the enemy standing 20 feet away from you with a gun in his hand. Everywhere I looked that day; there were wounded and dead Marines and Vietcong. Our patrol started with around 90 Marines, but only 26 of us walked out.
In Vietnam, I made it a habit not to get too close to any of my fellow soldiers because I didn’t want to lose a friend. No matter how you look at it, Vietnam was a gruesome and horrifying experience. Each day, I wondered if it would be my last.
The horrific part is that the trauma continues. I re-experience distressing moments from this war over and over. Even after all these years, I can still see Marines and Vietcong being wounded and killed. I still see helicopters transporting troops or coming in for a Medevac pick up to take a Marine that was wounded or killed in action. I still see villages that were completely destroyed by bombs. I can still smell the stench of the rice patties and the smoke from weapons, bombs, grenades, and diesel fuel. I see grass huts burning and blood flowing from wounds. The look and smell of burnt bodies is not easy to forget. I still see the ashen color of a Marine’s face who was about to die. His eyes showed his terror, fear, and shock. I still hear the shouting of Marines yelling in pain from their wounds. I hear the cries of another Marine who landed in a pit filled with sharpened bamboo spikes (punji stakes). The terror in a dying man’s voice or the last words of a Marine who knows he is going to die cannot easily be forgotten. These memories go on and on. It is all still there.
Fifty years later, I still live Vietnam on a daily basis. The thoughts never leave me. All I have to do is close my eyes and I’m back on the front lines. Thousands of veterans, just like me, came back to the civilian world, but they continue to live daily with the mental trauma of war.
I have suffered Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Agent Orange all these years. Many people experience PTSD, but a war veteran often experiences it in different ways and to a different extent. Sometimes we have flashbacks from horrific experiences we haven’t even thought of for years. Other times, we relive one event over and over. Different triggers precipitate different memories. Once a person has PTSD, he or she will have it for the rest of their lives. It can be treated, but it never totally goes away.
When I returned to the United States, I was a different person. My old friends were now mere acquaintances. I felt like an outsider or a visitor from another planet. I did not want to get close to anyone. I still find myself alone in a crowd. I discovered that most civilians do not understand veterans. If you have not been in a war, it is hard to explain daily dancing with death.
I never won the PTSD battle. I still fight my demons. Although I have held various jobs, including county coroner and county clerk, I was forced to retire due to stress and other health problems. Eventually, I was admitted to the VA Medical facility in Topeka, Kansas for a seven-week, in-house treatment program for PTSD. I was at a point in my life, where things were so bad, that I prayed to God that I would have a heart attack and just go away. But I didn’t. In the program, I learned to write about my problems and to share my stories with other veterans.
For five years, I have also attended walk-in sessions at the Mt. Vernon VA facility. Every session reminds me that I’m not the only one who experiences the emotions I feel. I can talk about any problem and the other veterans understand.
It is difficult for us to share feelings because in Vietnam we had to numb up and shut down our emotions. We became “battle hardened.” The problem is that we became so numb, we returned home not feeling much of anything—which was bad news for our loved ones. It takes time and effort, but we can learn how to share our feelings again.
In war, they give Purple Hearts to soldiers wounded in action, but not all combat wounds are visible. There are no unwounded soldiers in war. Many veterans return home suffering with PTSD. It’s not something you cure; you just learn to live with it. With PTSD, time has no relevance. The trauma is always just a heartbeat away.
Semper Fratres (Always Brothers)
HMCM Ronald C. Mosbaugh
USNR Retired 31 years