Many of you are probably asking yourself, Why would he subject himself to this? The answer is twofold.
The first reason is that writing my stories down has helped me cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I dealt with trauma almost daily in Vietnam. I have learned that writing down my trauma, looking at it on paper or a computer screen, helps me visualize it, and that, in turn, helps me deal with it, which brings on healing. I can now separate my trauma and deal with it, a little at a time. Before I started writing, my Vietnam trauma was one big mess. All the events were interconnected. I could not separate one from another.
During my thirteen month tour, I ran over 300 day and night patrols and treated over 200 casualties. I did not keep a diary, but the events are imprinted in my mind. What happened to us in Vietnam changed us, absolutely and completely. There was no therapy that could cure us. That wall was built and nothing could tear it down. I still remember things that happened on the battlefield like it was yesterday. I remember the sounds, the smells, and the sights. I hear Marines yelling for help, helicopters whirring, and the rat-a-tat-tat of M-16s. I smell the blood of the open wounds, the smoke in the air during battles, and bodies being burned to a crisp. I see Marines, Vietcong and carnage beyond belief. For me, “Then is Now.” Time is of no relevance. Dealing with PTSD is “the gift that keeps on giving.”There are many silent casualties among us.
The second reason I chose to write my stories was that I wanted my family and friends to read know them so they would never go unnoticed. Why go through all this and keep it to myself, I wanted my family to know that I fought for them and our country. A friend of mine said that my story needs to be told, because it’s Vietnam history. He was right.
It was in the fall of 1966. I was on a search and destroy mission in South Vietnam, and the clouds were forming once again for another muddy monsoon downpour. We were already sweating from the heat and humidity. The days were long and depressing.
I was attached to the Second Battalion, First Marine Division, Hotel Company. We were a rifle platoon who consisted of 43 Marines, a second lieutenant, a platoon sergeant and a radio operator. I was an 8404 field corpsman. We were stretched out twenty feet apart. We were a sight; muddy, wet and dragging. But when the action started, adrenaline trumped exhaustion.
We were walking through the rice paddies, listening for that first bullet or explosion; no one was talking. The only sound was the suction of our combat boots lifting our feet from the mud. The sound seemed to intensify. Half of me was excited to get the chance to save lives, and the other half was absolutely terrified. I kept asking myself, Can I do this again? How long will my luck last? What Marine will be shot first? Will I be able to save them? I kept running scenario after scenario through my mind making sure I could remember what to do with each injury. However, in reality that was impossible; there were too many variables.
We were hypersensitive to noises. Being alert was once a valuable tool to help you stay alive but it had now become an anxious habit. We had to adapt to our surroundings, knowing what was bound to happen, regardless of how alert we were. We were totally exposed to the enemy. An unknown, unheard signal spurred the VC to jump up from their hiding place, screaming and firing at the platoon from all sides. We sustained several casualties. Hell had opened a vein and Marine Corps blood ran.
The true story I have just related describe events that nightmares are built on. It is very typical of hundreds of patrols I participated in. I remember the events, the smells, and the trauma like they happened yesterday. That’s why “Then is Now,” is so relevant to me. The PTSD the war left me with is unending. The tragedy of war for those who have fought it is that it never ends. I found that the stress reactions we endured do not go away if you merely leave them alone. They hide like snipers in the deep crevasses of our souls, and show up when least expected.
Thirteen months of “bagging-and-tagging” bodies during the Vietnam War took a toll on my life. At first I felt like it was my patriotic duty to serve my country but in time my philosophy changed; I felt our government was selling us out. I was a Marine corpsman who wanted to heal, not kill, but I did both to save lives. The job of a corpsman was to be at the center of the battle, but we were not doctors. It was mostly on-the-job training on how to treat our Marines; we did the best we could. Many times there were horrific casualties, and the deaths of both American and Vietcong are vivid in my mind. So are the human moments.
Once we surrounded a village which had several Vietcong in its perimeter. We were sustaining a lot of injuries. The CO finally said enough is enough and called in an air strike. That village was soon decimated. When the smoke cleared we entered the area; it was chaos beyond description. I didn’t mind the Vietcong being killed but the civilian deaths of family members was heartbreaking, especially the children.
Every battle I participated in and every death I witnessed drew me farther away from home. America was beyond my reach like it was only a dream. However, we constantly thought of “home,” and it became a revered memory. Thinking of home and anticipating a safe place to return to created a type of solace that was critical in the mental well-being for those of us 10,000 miles away. We had to have an escape from the trauma. Living and thinking of home gave hope and eventually a way out and something to look forward to.
Several months into my combat tour, home became an icon of hope and almost a mythical concept that lost more of its reality the longer I was exposed to the horrors of war. In order to imagine what life would be like when returning, I resorted to idealizing what awaited me on the home front. I wanted desperately to get back to my family and friends; I wanted to reclaim my life as it was before this Hell I was living in.
The days seemed to drag. My psyche had been seared beyond a point of no return. The ravages of the war had set me on a lonely journey--one that I would never be able to share with those for whom I was fighting. For over forty years I didn’t tell anyone of the trauma I endured in Vietnam. It wasn’t until the last few years I began telling my stories.
I’ll be the first to admit that many died under my care. Many times I wondered if I was a good corpsman. Was I really the green angel the Marines called us?
There are two phrases that apply to my story: “Then is Now,” which I’ve already mentioned, and “Groundhog Days.” The phrases are synonymous. For those who do not know what ground hog days are, let me explain. Groundhog Day is a1993 firm starring Bill Murray. Bill is caught in a time loop repeating the same day again and again. The term “Groundhog Day” can represent a situation that seems to repeat itself over and over, and that’s what happened to me after I came home. Basically, my mind was stuck in a time warp. Those of us with PTSD re-live the trauma we experienced over and over in our minds. All of our senses are very clear; the sights, sounds, and smells on the battlefield stay with us forever. The brain captures these moments and imbeds them deep in our brain, forever to be remembered.
The stories I have written all have to do with PTSD. Almost three million soldiers served in Vietnam, and 58,267 were killed by enemy forces. Sixty-one percent of those killed were twenty-one years old or younger. Only one-third of our Vietnam veterans are alive today. It is estimated that by 2025 only a few will still be alive. Over 170,000 Vietnam veterans have committed suicide since the war. Twenty-two per day are adding to that figure. Not all fought on the front lines, but those who did suffer different levels of PTSD. I understand that it takes twenty-six soldiers to support one warrior on the front lines. 33,100 of those killed or of those who served in Vietnam were eighteen years old, just out of high school!
We were always short of 8404 field corpsmen. Each Marine company was allotted six corpsmen, but we never had more than three. That’s why we ran so many patrols. 2,012 corpsmen were killed in Vietnam, and 4,565 received purple hearts, an honor that only 7/10 of one percent of those who served in Vietnam were awarded.