Today is Memorial Day, a holiday I usually shun…it’s been too painful in the past years and while I know the intent and the history of Memorial Day, it’s a day I have never wanted to think about…for many reasons, mostly based on emotions that I simply didn’t want to look at.
Tomorrow, however, is different and I only realized this a few days ago when I finished a poem I titled “A Mother’s Anguish”. It’s a poem that addressed something that happened to me many, many years ago…the gist of which, my friend died in Vietnam and I came home much to the anguish, anger, dismay, and fury of his mother. There was nothing I could have done, he was in the Marine Corps and I the army; he was stationed in the northern part of South Vietnam and I further south. I had no idea he had joined and I had no idea he had been killed while on patrol. His mother came to my house a short while after I returned to welcome me home and as she left, she simply said “Frank died in that awful place”. Her words were seared in my memory and has haunted me over the years.
It wasn’t until sometime last week that the poem of Frank’s death and his mother’s fury that I had returned and not him surfaced in my mind and finally, after all these years, I was able to go back to that time when i visited his mother and was able to face what she said to me.
I have PTSD…it’s sounds so easy to say now but for many years, 43 to be exact, it wasn’t easy, neither for myself nor my family. My wife told me recently that the family didn’t know “which Tom was going to walk through the door” on any given evening. I made life for my family hard, uneasy, unsure of who would be present that day or what to say or do if the “angry”, “tense”, “silent” version of Tom walked in. They didn’t know and the worse part, neither did I.
I didn’t drink excessively, I didn’t gamble, nor get physical with my family. I did spend way to much money, I lived on the edge way too long, I didn’t communicate what I was thinking or how I was feeling. In many ways, my brand of PTSD was the worst kind – it was insidious, it lurked within me and to most people who didn’t know me, I was a “good” man. In reality, I was an enemy to myself, and to my family. My wife and children kept out of my way, I lost out on what was going on in the family, I didn’t participate in important events, holidays, or outings because work was too “important” and I couldn’t take time off, or if I did, I was there in body only…my mind was somewhere else. I lost track of my friends, not because they didn’t try to keep in touch, they did and I didn’t. In many ways it would have been simpler if I was an alcoholic, a gambler, an addict of some sort – those symptoms were known and treatment programs were available. Me, on the other hand, I buried everything and while the world saw a successful man who retired honorably from the military and had full time employment in a good company, my family didn’t know who I was, nor who would come in the door that night.
Please don’t think I’m feeling sorry for myself, I’m not…I’m being brutally honest of who I was, perhaps more honestly, who I still am. And, to say this about myself knowing I will publish this today is a difficult thing to do. I’m doing this as I hope if I tell my story, it will help someone else in similar straights.
My VA counselor has diagnosed me as a “highly functional” PTSD victim…in short form, it means I was very effective at work and nowhere else, including with my family and friends. As I mentioned before, while my wife knew almost from the beginning of our marriage that I had PTSD (she learned the symptoms when she trained to become a Hot Line counselor), I completely denied that PTSD was affecting me. I had rejoined the military before we were married and I associated with other Vietnam vets and we all seemed perfectly normal to each other. Even that statement is a lie…we all knew we had things in our background, just nobody talked about it.
My wife and I were married in 1976 and it wasn’t until 2012 when I had my first flashback while driving to work that I realized that PTSD was alive and thriving within me. Yet my wife had known from about 1980 on that I was suffering from PTSD. I am amazed that she stayed with me all those years, even knowing this and I am ashamed that I put her, and our children, in tough times.
I have been in counseling since August or so of 2012 at the VA Hospital in Lakewood, WA, and it is because of this counseling that I have the strength and confidence to write what I’m writing for the world to see. As I have mentioned before (in this letter as well as in previous blogs), by me “coming out” so to speak, I hope others who are in similar circumstances will have the courage to do the same if they’ve been suffering all these years.
It is because of the counseling that I have a better understanding of what is inside my mind and how my actions have affected my family and others in the past 37 or more years. Though counseling I have been encouraged to write, to journal by my wife and my counselor. Writing about my feelings, emotions, and experiences is a most difficult thing to do, to blog even harder for I believe putting thoughts on paper is real, they are permanent, you can’t tell yourself that you imagined it, or it’s not real. Journalling is a difficult process and through it, I’m able to bring to light those demons that have been with me since I left Vietnam in 1968.
Before I bring these two poems, please allow me to tell you a little of myself in those war years. I was in the Army Security Agency (ASA), a Morse Code operator and in the Vietnam war, the ASA wasn’t officially in Vietnam and it wan’t until some years later that it was acknowledged that the ASA was in Vietnam.
My first months were spent in Davis Station on Tan Son Knut, Saigon, South Vietnam. My application for paratrooper training was approved and after graduation from “jump” training with the 1st Special Forces Group Airborne (SFGA), I returned to Davis Station, volunteered for a field unit and was reassigned to the 406th Radio Research Unit (RRU), 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division sometime in the summer of 1967 and remained with the 101st until I left in May, 1968.
I was a Morse code operator, not a combat arms soldier. However, as the next 20 some months played out, my duties as an operator exposed me to the combat arms and I and my buddy, spent time looking for low level morse code communications in many different locations with any US military unit that was located in an area for us to do our job. We spent time with the infantry, artillery, armored units…we were out in remote locations, in Tactical Operation Centers (TOCs), and we learned so many things that people in the ASA were never taught before we deployed to Vietnam. When we were with a unit in the field, we stood guard with them, we had our own sectors on the perimeter, I learned how to use an M60 machine gun, what a “field of fire” was, we were shot at, ambushed, mortared, rocketed, and one occasion when my buddy and I were at a 155mm battery, we were on the receiving end of friendly artillery fire…”short rounds” as the artillery men said that night. I saw men die and I fired rounds in anger. I don’t know if my weapons fire killed, but I do know that what my buddy and I did, caused men to die. And I know my team’s actions from Thailand caused a great deal of death and destruction.
I am not bragging…these things happened and I kept these things buried deep in my mind for 40 plus years…as I put it one of my poems:
The horror of that day quickly filed in my mind’s hip pocket
Zippered shut and tightly locked away
As I tried not to think of what was done
To young men barely older than boys
Who could have been my friends
It is though counseling and my wife’s unwavering support that I’m finally able to grapple with what went on in Vietnam.
With this in mind, I would like to offer two poems that I’ve written about events that happened so many years ago, yet has never left me. It is though my poems that allows me to address what has been carried in my hip pocket since 1968.
The first poem is titled “In Memory of the Big LT”, he was assigned to a scout platoon in the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne. We became friends over time and when we were in the Forward Operating Base (FOB) camp, he would often come to our tent with his guitar to have a few beers, play his guitar and we’d party as long as we could before we had to crash for the night. I wish I could have known him longer and I wish I knew his name for he never told us.
In Memory of the Big LT
I first met the Big LT
With laughing eyes and easy smile
On a dark rainy night
When I ducked inside a smoky tent
To see who owned the golden voice
That made me stop and tap my feet
We became friends he and I
And when he played his guitar to sign his song
He said Friend come sing harmony tho’ he knew I could not carry a tune
Then one humid night his eyes were sad
And at the end of his somber song
Turned and said
Friend I’m on patrol tomorrow
And I’ve got a bad feeling
Can I borrow your .45 as mine’s not working
Days later word arrived the Big LT and most of his patrol
Were killed early in the morn as they were returning from three days out
While crossing a river not far from his guitar
That morning I lost a friend
Though I never knew his name
Big LT was all he ever went by
I’ve often wondered who will carry his memory
When those of us who returned from a Domino war
Even if not whole
Are naught but a footnote in some dusty tome
As a man and nation who did not understand the Gulf of Tonkin
Became hell bent in quest of war against Weapon’s of Mass Destruction
Tommy (written April 18, 2014)
The second poem I’d like to share is about my friend Frank and his disconsolate mother. His father, her husband, ran out on them early in their marriage. As Frank and I became friends, I learned of the troubles they struggling with to survive in those days. His mother worked herself near to death to make sure Frank had decent cloths, wholesome food, had a place for them to live, and put money away for him to go to college. We became friends because we both were fatherless…my father died when I was not yet 14 and his father had abandoned him when he was but three or four years old. After I left high school in 1965 and joined the army, we lost touch and it wasn’t until I returned in May 1968 that I found out he’d been drafted into the Marines, went to Vietnam as a rifleman and from what his mother said when she welcomed me home, died one night on patrol. His death was a grievous blow to his mother. Frank was all she lived for. Her grief was near inconsolable and in her grief she said things to me that I’ve lived with from 1968 until this month. It is a sad, angry poem and it needs told so in hopes that it will heal others, friends and family.
A Mother’s Grief
One evening soon after my return from a troubled land
I heard a timid knock and answered the door
Frank’s mother silent on the porch
A sad anguished smile as she barely met my eyes
Her body shaking as if in pain
She lived on Kathryn Street not five houses from where we stood
Next to the black cherry tree Frank and I went many a night
Our fingers purple as we enjoyed the fruit
Laughing as we scrambled away at the sound of the neighbor’s voice
Happier days before I joined the army and left for war
I heard you were back she murmured softly welcoming me home
As she turned to leave with tears in her eyes
She stopped and said Frank died in that awful place
And walked away not caring of my shock
Or the condolences I offered
The next day I went to see her
But could not answer the questions she asked
Over and over to find out how he really died
Did I see him when he was there
Why not you were his friend didn’t you care
I felt numb from her searing pain
As she sat consumed with anger
Her once strong body frail from anguish
And she kept asking questions
I could not answer
I soon left to save my sanity
For how could I tell her there was no reason
Who came through the door or arrived wrapped in a flag
From a war ravished land unkind to all
Where all you could to do was survive one moment at a time
To think otherwise would drive you crazy
As you waited to set foot on the silver bird
Not breathing until you heard the wheels whir into place
Unaware of the lingering darkness following in your wake
That would be with you always
These thoughts and others I kept to myself
And as we met the next week or two
She became more and more agitated
Her questions angrier and angrier
Until I could take no more and said goodbye
As I walked away she screamed in rage and frustration
Why are you alive and my Frankie dead
She cried out in fury he should have come back NOT you
Her words like bullets as I heard her sobbing
There was nothing I could do or say but keep walking
Her questions I could not answer still in my mind
Tommy (written May 14, 2014)
I have come a long way in my PTSD journey and I know that it will never be behind me. The counseling has been very beneficial and when I retire this next fall, I’ll join a group session my counselor believes will be of help. I look forward to it.
I am angry at the way we go to war. I am angry that we, as a people, a nation, and a world, keep repeating the same mistakes for those who don’t understand history will be caught in an endless loop.
And I am very sad that we have gone though these wars and I cry when I think of the human costs and suffering these wars have caused, regardless of what side someone is on.
This Memorial Day I will grieve with those families who have lost loved ones and at the same time, I understand that sometimes we have to protect a way of life. But, at what cost shall we have to bear and at what cost to those who have returned knowing that history will repeat itself.
On a more positive note, both my wife and I would like to volunteer to help troubled veterans – it is the least we can do.