The old adage, “What a difference a day makes,” definitely applies to my life. One day I was in high school and 800 days later, I was on the front lines in Vietnam, living in Hell itself. What happened was like a horror story or a bad nightmare, and it was hard to comprehend. I was too young to vote, but old enough to die for my country. What had I gotten myself into? I kept thinking to myself, would someone please shake me and wake me up?.
My first exposure to trauma 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 veterans who had lost their arms and legs from the war in Vietnam. They also fitted prostheses for these veterans. Many of the guys were my age, and I immediately saw their lives were changed forever. Other military hospitals treated burns, blindness, loss of hearing, disfigurement, paraplegics and quadriplegics – but I’m sure you get the idea. I saw firsthand how these soldiers experienced the psychological, physical and emotional trauma they encountered in a war zone.
Seeing these wounded soldiers made me realize the seriousness and tragedies of this war. I knew that within a few months I would be leaving for Vietnam; corpsmen were in high demand. The recruiter didn’t tell me the pitfalls of my enlistment. For several months at the hospital I pondered the situation I was about to encounter. I didn’t want to be one of the casualties! I felt fear, apprehension, and loneliness – my whole life seemed out of control. It’s weird, but the thought of dying didn’t bother me as much as losing a limb or becoming disfigured.
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 in the jungles of Vietnam, 10,000 miles from home and a whole world away from the life I’d known in Joplin, Missouri.
On September 19, 1966, we were overrun by the Vietcong. Many were engaged in hand-to-hand combat. Everywhere I looked I saw killed and wounded Marines and Vietcong. The operation started with around 90 Marines; only 26 of us walked out. I did a lot of triage that day. I received a Silver Star for that operation. A few weeks later I received the Bronze Star with a combat “V.” I only mention this to confirm the trauma that we encountered.
It is hard to believe that this all happened 50 years ago! I was faced with death on a daily basis, for 13 months. I was attached to the First Marine Division, Second Battalion, Hotel Company. As an 8404 field corpsman, I endured trauma at its most intense and fullest. I have suffered Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Agent Orange for all these years. I mentioned that this happened 50years go, but that statement is very misleading. When one talks of PTSD, time is a misnomer: it has no relevance.
The last thing I want is for people to feel sorry for me. This story is not only about me, but about the thousands of veterans who came back to the civilian world and endured the same mental trauma I still endure to this day. At age 19 I witnessed atrocities that no one should witness at any age. It was a gruesome and horrifying experience. Emotionally, I was wounded for life. I re-experience distressing moments over and over. You don’t 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. You know that your death could be seconds away. For 13 months, I wondered if each day would be my last day on earth.
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.
I can still smell burned bodies, blood flowing from wounds, grass huts burning, the stench of the rice paddies, the smoke from the weapons, bombs, grenades, diesel fuel, Vietnamese people, latrines…the list goes on.
I can still see Marines and Viet Cong being killed and wounded daily, Vietnamese being killed standing in front of me and Marines being killed or wounded standing next to me or from a short distance. I see helicopters transporting troops or coming in for a Medevac to pick up Marines that were wounded or killed in action. I see jets flying over and bombing an entire village. I see Marines who have stepped on land mines, changing their lives forever. Many were killed instantly. I see the pain of a Marine who landed in a pit filled with sharpened bamboo spikes (punji stakes). I think you get the idea about what I witnessed and how it has stayed with me! I can still see the ashen color of a Marine’s face who was about to die. His eyes showed terror, fear and shock. These are memories that will haunt me forever.
I can still hear the sound of a wounded Marine yelling in pain from wounds inflicted by the enemy. The terror of a dying man’s voice or the last words of a Marine who knows he is going to die or who wants to die is beyond words.
A corpsman or a medic’s job was one of the most dangerous in Vietnam. When a soldier was wounded, it was our job to administer first aid, no matter where on the field he was hit. If a Marine was in the middle of a rice paddy, it made no difference. This is why so many corpsmen and medics were either killed or wounded in action.
Many people have experienced PTSD, but most have not experienced it to the extent of a war veteran. Sometimes we have flashbacks from bad experiences we haven’t thought of for many years. 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.
Before each patrol, the commanding officer told us where we were going and what we could expect. Often I would look around at the Marines, wondering who would not return. In my 13 months in Vietnam, I treated over 200 Marines, so I knew we were going to lose many of them. I made it a habit not to get close to any of them, because I didn’t want to lose a good friend. The only problem is that this attitude stayed with me throughout my life. I have never wanted to get close to anyone!
When I returned to the United States, I was a different person. The old friends were now mere acquaintances. I felt like an outsider, or a visitor from another planet. I still find myself alone in a crowd. Most civilians do not understand the warrior. They have never danced with death.
After several years as a county clerk, I was forced to retire due to stress and other health problems. I never won the battle against the demons. A few weeks after retirement, I was admitted to the VA Medical facility in Topeka, Kansas. This was a seven week in-house treatment facility for PTSD. I was to the point in my life that I prayed to God that I would have a heart attack and go away! For five years, I have attended walk-in sessions at the Mt. Vernon VA facility, because doing so 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. The dirty little secret is that many veterans come home unable to actually feel their feelings. We had to numb up and shut down our fear. The problem is that we became so numb that we cannot feel much of anything. We became “battle hardened” and we don’t feel soft, tender feelings. That is bad news for our loved ones.
Many of us who were in combat have purple hearts, but not all wounds are visible! There are NO unwounded soldiers in war, we all suffer from PTSD. Never were Shakespearean words truer than, “He who sheds his blood with me this day is my brother” God Bless You All!
Semper Frater (Always Brothers)
USNR Retired 31 years