I am a veteran of the Vietnam War. I was in country from March 1968 to March 1969, during the height of U.S. military presence in South Vietnam. Half a million American soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen. My job was in communications, attached to both base headquarters and field artillery units, located in the Iron Triangle, the Mekong Delta, the Parrot's Beak, and points in between. I am one of 830,000 Vietnam vets who suffer symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Like many of my generation, I returned from the war to a nation feeding on itself. Those were the days of White House enemies lists; the days of massive and often violent street protests against the war; the days of families torn between patriotic loyalty to country and conscientious loyalty to the principles on which the nation was founded; the days when returning soldiers were vilified as baby killers and slandered as murderers. Those were the days when vets like myself had no safety net, no counseling, no support groups, no preparation for being in a war zone one day, and 24 hours later undergoing culture shock as a free man back in the U.S. Those were the days of nightmares, and stuffing one's confusion and anger and fear, the days of trying to pass as normal. But we were no longer normal. Our country had seen to that.
Ten years passed before I felt sufficiently safe and centered in myself to take out those long-repressed war experiences and try to process them. Coincidentally the nation was doing the same ~ in books, in movies, in conversation. I began to learn about my war-connected feelings, and what triggered them. I discovered that the only people who really understand are other veterans. Others may try, with a good heart and good intentions, but they simply don't have the shared experience or the vocabulary. The best they can offer is unconditional listening, and caring, and support. But in those days, unconditional listening, and caring, and support were in short supply. Too many felt threatened or frightened by a veteran's struggles. Too many half-believed the horrible stereotype (perpetuated in the media) of the crazed Vietnam vet. Too few cared or understood that it was they who sent us into combat, they who reaped the benefits of our sacrifices, and they who left us hanging out to dry after it was all over.
So, for me, this is what it's like. I'm a functioning adult, an avid reader and explorer of far horizons, with a curious intellect and a tender heart. I'm also subject to struggles with agoraphobia, with my personal triggers being dense crowds or sudden loud noises. It is an unfortunate part of my reality that crowds and loud noises are the signature of one of our nation's important holidays -- Independence Day. Roughly a quarter century ago, I experienced my first full-blown panic attack at a 4th of July fireworks celebration. It caught me completely off guard. The (not-coincidentally) war-simulating nighttime flares, shell bursts, explosions, and sounds of distant helicopters combined to rip my world apart. Tunnel vision, hyperventilation, trembling, heart palpitations, feeling smothered .... I literally ran far into the desert night to escape. Minutes felt like hours. It was a long time before I could work up the courage to return to my friends, wading through a clinging knee-deep mire of mortification and shame and confusion.
Since then, I've always sought out a quiet, secluded place of safety in which to pass the hours of 4th of July explosions. Until this year. This year, I was visiting my girl friend in another city. She lives in a relatively upscale neighborhood within a resort town, a place where the fireworks start going off several nights before the actual holiday. At first the sounds were intrusive, but scattered in space and time. With each succeeding night the explosions intensified, lasted longer, and seemed to draw nearer. Americans' obsession with blowing things up takes on monumental proportions. Sleep becomes more difficult and more disturbed.
So, for me, this is what it's like. A string of popping firecrackers becomes a firefight between M-16s (friendly) and AK-47s (hostile) on full automatic. A soaring shell which terminates in a starburst becomes a parachute flare exploding, or a distant mortar round impacting. A series of deeper thuds becomes a thundering arc light strike. A screaming cherry bomb becomes an incoming rocket .... they're landing closer! They're walking them right toward us! There's no place to hide! What? I can't hear you! The ground is shaking and I can smell the cordite and I can feel a lizard run across my leg in a mad attempt to escape! The screams, someone stop the screams! Someone make it stop long enough for me to breathe!
Last night was the worst. The group of people with whom I'd been enjoying dinner and conversation seemed to gradually recede, and I had to concentrate to follow their words, their laughter. The explosions multiplied, and my heart rate amped up. The explosions grew closer, louder. At last, I said "I can't think," and without apology or thought sought out the most insulated room in the house ~ the master bathroom ~ shut the door, turned on the overhead fan, and sat there hyperventilating, sweating, trembling, and crying, crying, crying.
This is what it's like. Aw fuck, a mortar round just ripped four guys with shrapnel, and tore both of Doc's legs off. Grab one end of a stretcher, stumble through the flashing darkness toward the field where a medevac chopper will land. And when that familiar thump-thump-thump of the rotor blades tells us the chopper is approaching, the mortar rounds begin to fucking RAIN down. This is what the VC were waiting for. Random harassing rounds to injure someone, then the prize, a helicopter and everyone within fifty feet of it. Wordless, senseless yelling, blood everywhere, the wide-eyed incredulous panicked wounded. Somehow we get all four aboard, and the chopper vanishes into the night. The mortar rounds stop. Doc died en route to the hospital.
This is what it's like. What was that?? It sounded like our own M-16s, but I hear rounds snapping into the trees inside the fire base. What's going on? In the twilight, a hastily-assembled squad of MPs loosely surrounds one of the perimeter bunkers, where one of the men on guard has snapped, killed his fellow guard, and has been spraying the camp with lethal fire. No time for an attempt at wounding fire in the dying light. The man on guard is assassinated.
This is what it's like. I'm lying on my cot at another fire base, twilight, and a single shot rings out nearby. I hit the dirt, and when I hear nothing but confused voices, I walk out to learn that several GIs had been sitting around a stump playing cards. Another GI was standing watching, and his loaded weapon discharged. The head of his best friend happened to be inches away from the muzzle. The victim sat there a moment, then slowly slumped sideways, and his brains poured out of the fist-sized exit wound onto the ground. The accidental shooter had to be restrained lest he take his own life. A psych medevac chopper took him away, and we never heard from him again. When I passed the accident scene, all I saw were scattered playing cards and a mass of wet gray matter in the dust.
This is what it's like. Snakes and flies and maggots. During the monsoon, rain so thick you can't see ten paces. During the dry season, 100 degrees and 100 percent humidity. A convoy passes through a hamlet, and a father is smiling, gesturing, pimping out his own daughter. Small boys herd water buffalo a hundred times their weight. The smells of jungle and marsh and nuoc mam, decay and death and life. Napalm. White Phosphorus. Higher-up tries to dehumanize the enemy VC and NVA, calling them gooks and slants and jungle niggers. Some of us know better. Most of us don't care.
This is what it's like. We're trying to fight a guerilla war using conventional tactics and conventional units. We own the day. They own the night. Ultimately, this is a war we will lose, and lose badly. Any civilian merchant or farmer or fisherman could be the sapper who infiltrates your lines at night. Any boy or girl wandering past could be pacing of distances and directions, for later use during mortar and rocket attacks. Or perhaps not.
This is what it's like. I'm one of four classes of soldiers on whom a bounty is paid for his death ~ communications, commanders, medics, and machine gunners. More than once, I hear sniper rounds snapping through nearby trees or undergrowth. I lie in my hammock, hoping for the one with my name on it. Thankfully, this period doesn't last long.
So last night my girlfriend came and stayed with me, listening, comforting, being there. She helped me to emerge from nearly an hour of terror. The guests had departed, understanding (as well as they could), the fireworks continued for a few more hours, but dwindling. At last, sleep generously seeded with nightmares.
This is what it's like. This is what my country did to me, before throwing me to the dogs. The miracle is, I'm a reasonably whole human being. Except on the 4th of July. Except on Independence Day.