May 2, 2012: Blackberry Sentinels – A Flashback in Time

I would like to preface this article.

Yesterday morning, out of the blue, over 45 years after I left Vietnam, I had my first flashback to that war.  It was disturbing, I couldn’t stop it, it affected me, and I wrote a poem, “Sentinels of The Highway”, about it  yesterday morning – it was the only way I could I could describe what I was feeling, come to grips of a sort with what I was feeling, the emotional state I was in.  The words flowed like tears from my mind to paper and I could not stop until it was completed.  It is a very intense poem and there are some graphically visual scenes within.

PTSD is rough, it affects everyone, yourself, your family, your friends, how you fit in with society.

I told a friend at work of what happened and she suggested that I write about this, that I post the poem as it might be of help to someone else.

The poem is at the end of the article below.

I am now seeking help.

This morning while driving in to work, the sun just breaking the horizon, a little ground fog here and there, and lush vegetation, trees and the ever present blackberry vines that can stretch forever in this part of western Washington.  As I began passing the blackberry brambles I suddenly thought of them as the “Sentinels of The Highway”.  Why I named them this I have no idea – it just seemed right at the time.  As soon as I labeled the brambles as “Sentinels” my mind immediately flashed to various scenes in Vietnam.  It was immediate, I couldn’t stop it, and it now haunts me that this happened to me after over 45 years after I left that war.

When I left Vietnam on April 1, 1968 and returned home, my mother told me I was different than when I left for there in January 1966.  My brother also spent a year there with the Military Police.  While it also affected him as well, my mother told me a few years after we had both returned that of the two, I was the most tense, that Vietnam had a far greater impact on me than my brother.  She said I was affected the most.  That should of been my first clue that I was not dealing with what happened during my time there.

I left the service in March 1969, took various jobs, went to the university for a semester and in July 1970 rejoined the service as I knew I was drifting, had a hard time fitting in, had lost two of my three jobs when a tornado ripped through the town I lived in.  I quit my third job – I was an ambulance attendent and when I saw one of the victims, a truck driver who had died when his truck cab was twisted like a soda pop can by the force of the tornado.  His was a violent death and when I saw him I was immediately reminded of my time in Vietnam.  I couldn’t deal with it so I quit on the spot.

In retrospect, I rejoined because, with no jobs, I needed money, I wasn’t going to move back home under any circumstances, and, in all honesty, I knew I wasn’t fitting in with society.  I didn’t understand the people that were around me and they didn’t understand me.  In many ways, rejoining masked all the PTSD symptoms I was having but didn’t realise it.  When I went back in the service I immediately felt like I back in a family of others who had shared common experiences.  So, for the next 20 or so years I thought less and less of those years in Vietnam and when I, or others, did drift back in time, we told “war stories” to release the tension.  The stories we told were not of the grim times we went through, they were more of the “there I was in the middle of 30,000 Viet Cong and all I had was my trusty P38 (a can opener)”, more of the humorous events that occurred but never of the grim stuff.  You could tell when that line was being approached as whoever was talking would grow quiet and sit there silent with his head down, tears almost welling.  When this happened, we would be quiet in respect of what they had gone through.

My wife has told me for years that I had PTSD but I always told myself that I had dealt with it – and, if I had dealt with it, I could not have it.  Twisted paradox, isn’t it!  It was after the motorcycle accident in May 2011 that the PTSD symptoms began in ernest and over the past two years they’ve gotten worse.  And, to top things of, my youngest son has just been deployed to Afghanistan for a second tour.

Thus, the very second I identified the blackberry brambles as the “Sentinels of the Highway” was the “perfect storm moment” that kickstarted the flashback.

May 2, 2013

“Sentinels of The Highway” 

 This morning while driving in

The sun just breaking dawn

Low patches of ground fog nestled gently here and there

MIles and miles of blackberry on my right

Sentinels of the highway

When my mind suddenly unexpectedly morphed back in time

To the dense jungle around me to my left and to my right on another early morn

The sun rising a cool gentle mist in the air

As I slowly methodically walked the dirt road

A steady whine in my ear from the mine sweeper I was working

When suddenly I felt the shock waves from a different place in time

Roll through my mind my body as the concussion

From the 175s and 8 inchers backhanded me

The ground quaking beneath where I walked

Transporting me to another cool early predawn morn

When the 122 rockets and mortars began slamming in

On my last day in the field

As I felt myself flying landing on my back

The cordite thick in the air

Heard men screaming as the cry’s for MEDIC MEDIC I’M HIT

Hoarsely rang through the air all around me

As I scrambled to my feet to go underground

My pants leg strangely coloured as I watched my blood drip seep into the ground

Lurching to my feet and limped towards the aid station

Turning around as my wound was but a mere scratch 

To the man I saw staring in disbelief at his intestines 

Dangling from his hands as he silently slowly sank to the ground

The sudden jarring ALL CLEAR rang out loud clearly

Repeated by those near as they relayed it to ensure everyone heard

The smoke from incoming outgoing dissipating slowly drifting away

The morning now strangely silent as I heard other men

Quietly moving in the stillness to see who was OK

Help those who were not if they could

Muffled clanks from canteens been emptied

As I stopped the flow from my leg

Not realizing the infection had already set in

While I packed my gear to ride the Huey to base camp

This was my last day in the field after over two years in-country

Before boarding for stateside

My time in ‘Nam done

The wound festering as I waited for the silver 707

Before I finally sought aid to fight the swelling

That kept me in-country an extra week

As I turned 21 in TET 68

An attack on the berm at 0200 hours as I woke

Struggled to my position and watched heard heavy weapons

The rat tat tat of small arms fire up and down the line

Red Green tracers racing through the thick night air

The area around me in front and on each side strangely quiet

The next day on the bus ride to the airport 

I looked to my right and

Saw a woman three small children 

200 meters away on the crest of a low hill

and began calculating how many rounds

Before I caught myself in horror at what I had just done

Their image forever burned in my mind

As the wheels of the Silver 707 whined into their metal jacket

Restless sleep at 30,000 feet

Landing stateside where normal was strange

Difficult to cope with as I tried to forget what was in my mind

For the next forty or so years 

The silent Blackberry Sentinels on this cool sunny morn reminding me how I failed

Will it never end

Tommy

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One Response to May 2, 2012: Blackberry Sentinels – A Flashback in Time

  1. Pingback: May 26, 2014: Memorial Day Thoughts | The Pickled Photographer's Blog

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