Post-Traumatic Stress Injury — Learning to Cope

I’ve been living with Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) since I left Viet Nam in 1967. I wasn’t diagnosed with it until many years after I came home, but its roots date back to my combat.

Every American who has served his country in combat knows all too well the emotional wounds that the battlefield inflicts, but many who fought in Viet Nam never heard of PTSI. We didn’t have a name for it back then.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, Unabridged defines Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as “a psychological reaction that occurs after a highly stressing event (as wartime combat, physical violence, or a natural disaster) and is usually characterized by depression, anxiety, flashbacks, recurrent nightmares, and avoidance of reminders of the event.”

But I don’t call it a “disorder.” It’s not the mind internally going awry. It’s an externally inflicted wound to the soul, so I call it an injury.

My experience
I served as a U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman-Field Medical Service Technician with Charlie Company, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division in combat in 1967 in the Chu Lai area of South Viet Nam. Wounded twice, I received a Purple Heart, a Gold Star (for the second wounding), and a Bronze Star with “V” for valor.

The U.S. Marines don’t have medical technicians attached to their combat units. The Navy supplies corpsmen to do that job. So even though I was technically a sailor, my job was to go into combat with the Marines and attend to their wounds. The Marines called me “Doc.”

I had no idea that the trauma I once faced and experienced in Viet Nam would have such lingering effects on me so many years later.

I was discharged from the Navy in 1967 and less than two months after my last patrol, I was sitting in the living room of my father’s house, as though I had never left. There was no cooling off period, chitchat time, or program to help me readjust to the community after I left Viet Nam. The Navy offered no training or treatment to help me deal with the trauma of the killing fields. I was left to confront the damage to my soul on my own. And no one warned me about what I was going to go through.

I was 19 years old when I stepped off the C-130 transport plane in Chu Lai, South Viet Nam in 1966 and my life changed the day I was assigned to 1st Reconnaissance Battalion as one of their medics. I was new, but I realized that the medical training the Navy put me through was about to be put to the test.

After my first patrol, I appreciated what those who had been there a while had to say, but my new platoon knew nothing about me. They had no idea how I would react under fire. I wanted them to know that they could count on me. I worried about their expectations of me, but only time would tell.

Surrounded by death
Before it was over, I lived through multiple combat patrols and two helicopter crashes. My memories will never fade. My last patrol involved an ambush. I was wounded, and two of my friends were killed. As I was being evacuated, I looked out the helicopter window and saw the blades strike a tree. Chunks of rotor blade broke off and shot out everywhere. The helicopter seemed to just hang mid-air for a brief second then tumble to the ground. The only thought I had was: “I’m going to die.” I hung on to anything I could to keep from getting tossed about and crushed under tons of metal as we hit the ground.

Dazed, I heard the whirring of the massive engine as fuel leaked everywhere. I struggled to get out. The shrillness of the engine was deafening. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught movement. The helicopter crew chief was screaming at me to free him from the rubble that had him pinned. I grabbed him, but I couldn’t move him. He continued to yell at me. Then the whirring stopped, and the engine died. We both survived.

The night before our patrols, we all gathered for a briefing by the unit’s commanding officer. It was mainly held for the Marines, but I would sit in and listen attentively. He would tell us where we were headed and what we might expect once our boots were on the ground. There was a seriousness concerning the next day’s patrol. I would be anxious and wonder what we might be getting into. I always kept an eye on the weather. It determined if we would get evacuated at our scheduled time. I never wanted to spend any more nights than I had to in the bush.

Viet Nam was unbearably hot in the summer and miserably wet during the monsoons. No one back home would have ever believed that in a tropical climate we could experience such extremes in weather. The summer temperatures would soar to triple digits. Then, during the monsoon season, it would rain for days at a time, so that when we went on patrol we would be constantly wet. At night, the rain would be so intense we couldn’t keep warm or dry. During watch, we would sit back-to-back trying to generate body heat to keep warm.

Would I make it home? On patrols, there were just too many variables to contend with: weather, helicopters, ambushes, artillery, bombs being dropped, accidents from friendly fire, capture….

And there was always the threat of heat exhaustion. I carried a rucksack full of needed supplies. It weighed 80 to 100 pounds, depending on where we might be headed or the time of year. I always carried 8 to 10 canteens of water, enough rations to last at least a week, a change of clothes, about 300 rounds of ammo, 12 fully-loaded clips, a poncho, six grenades, my M-14 rifle, a .45-caliber pistol, and my medical bag containing first-aid supplies. Sometimes I lugged a 100-round bandolier for the M-60 gunner.

All this gear was very heavy but necessary. Try jumping out of a helicopter carrying that weight on your back, praying that you don’t experience heat exhaustion and have to be medevaced by helicopter, compromising the patrol.

I was young and impressionable, and I believed what my superiors told me. If they said they had my back, I believed them. But there was nothing ever said about helping me when I returned home.

After a few months in the bush, my confidence began to develop cracks. The laughing and joking ended. This was for keeps. You could very well be alive one day and the next, lying in a casket draped with an American flag.

Gruesome images of death during combat are burned into my soul. I watched friends cut down in the prime of their lives. They died grisly deaths. Those images will never fade.

When I finally returned home, I thought I had the support of Americans; that I would be hailed as a returning hero. It didn’t happen.

One day, I was reading the local newspaper, and there appeared an article in the “Letter to the Editor” section. The page jumped out at me. Someone had written a letter about me, criticizing my service and labeling me a “baby killer.” The writer didn’t mention that I had risked my life so that he could have the right to express his opinion. To him and others like him, Viet Nam was somewhere we didn’t need to be. In short, my service to my country made me a murderer.

Fifty years later, my memories of combat still occupy space in my head. The helicopter crashes and the ambushes have never left me. I attempt to release myself from them, but I can’t.

At night, I see shadows of dead Americans and Viet Cong. The Viet Cong were so young. They looked like children, younger than my friends who died. What kind of principles were they fighting for? Why were they there?

I recall a flight I took from New York City to Charlotte, NC, some years ago. The weather that night included heavy storms and tornadoes and we flew right into the turbulence. I was a wreck. The plane hit air pockets, causing it to rise and fall like a spinning top. I looked around the cabin, but I was the only one who seemed alarmed. I went from empty window seat to empty window seat looking for a break in the clouds so that I could reassure myself that there was ground below.

The person I was flying with snickered and kept telling me to calm down, but I didn’t hear a word she said. I was sure we were going to crash. Only when I heard the landing gear unlock did I begin to settle down. I didn’t think any part of it was funny.

War in my mind
When I returned from Viet Nam in 1967, it had been more than a year since I had been able to lie down in a bed. I was concerned for the friends I left behind who were still chasing demons in the rice paddies. I wondered, as I lay in my comfortable bed, what were they doing? Did they need me? I thought about Sergeant Rosas and PFC Liggett, killed by my side. As I dozed off, I could hear their voices. I opened my eyes and saw nothing. I listened again and could hear Liggett’s voice calling me for help, “Doc, where are you?”

For years after my tour ended, the only thing that seemed to relieve my depression and help me forget were the drugs. They made me euphoric. They gave me comfort. I fooled my friends and family into thinking I was all right when, in reality, I was torn up inside, hiding behind a mask, not coming to grips with my sickness.

Today, I keep hoping that the memories of Viet Nam will end one day, and the burning fire I can’t extinguish will finally be quenched. I still cringe at sudden loud noises like a car backfiring or sharp sounds from behind me. I still have nightmares and panic attacks.

I am a work in progress. I’m still hurting, unable to suppress the past, but I know I can only deal with these problems by confronting them head on, bringing them into my conscious mind. Every day is a new beginning, as I try to move forward and let the endless tide wash over me.

Every combat veteran has a mountain to climb. We have an obligation to help one another. Coming together acts as a catharsis for our injury. Maybe one day there will be a genuine treatment that we may all benefit from.

Until then, we have to help each other.