For as many years as I have been writing, I never once thought I would write about my own Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Hell, I wouldn’t even discuss PTSD with the several counselors or shrinks I had seen over the years since my return from Vietnam. I didn’t even talk about PTSD in AA meetings. Not until I was diagnosed with emphysema in 2005 and after 3 years of serious depression, I sought out a shrink through the VA to help me battle my thoughts of dying, maybe by suicide. Even then, I found it very difficult to talk about PTSD or whether I might be experiencing it. And I have never applied for PTSD related financial assistance, although I did start the process of filling out the forms twice. Both times I stopped the process because I couldn’t write about the experiences I had.
I volunteered to go to Vietnam. Some may think that a brave or courageous thing to do, but it had nothing at all to do with bravery or courage. I just wanted to see my father, whom I hadn’t seen since he left the family when I was in the 3rd grade. He was some big shot civilian working for Pacific Architects & Engineers in Vietnam. So, I didn’t think much beyond the idea of spending a little bit of time with my dad.
The US Army doesn’t always give you what you want. When I first joined, I wanted to be a truck driver. That’s what I signed up to do. But when that part of my training came, they told me I would be going to Field Wireman School. I didn’t particularly like the climbing telephone poles part – got too many slivers in my chest sliding down – but I adapted and I think I even did pretty well. They wouldn’t send me to Vietnam yet because I was only 17, so off to Germany I went. But since I had taken a year of typing in the 9th grade, they made me a personnel specialist. Luckily (I thought at the time), six months later, I finally got my orders for Vietnam.
I volunteered for Vietnam, not PTSD
My first day in Vietnam, I really thought it was all gonna turn around for me. I saw how fast & loose they were with handing out jobs, so I actually thought I had a chance to finally be a truck driver. I knew from my former job as a personnel records specialist, that guy had the power to make it happen. But I guess I forgot there were other personnel records specialists that were a lot like me. I had 9th grade typing AND previous experience as a personnel records specialist and that’s what they wanted me to be. I don’t know why I thought it was a good idea to argue with the Spec4 who had the power to assign me to a unit.
The next day, I was in a convoy headed to Lai Khe, assigned to the First Infantry Division, 8/6 Artillery, as a lineman in their communications company. I got to enjoy filling sandbags those first days, along with other odd jobs, until I was assigned to a squad that mostly did telephone line and cable repairs. At night, we ran back and forth from the hooch to the bunkers for incoming rockets and mortars. Sleeping for 6-hours straight was rare. The reminder of how close we were to being shredded was in the rain dripping on us from the shrapnel tears in the hooch’s canvas roof while we slept. To this day, I never understood why they didn’t just let us sleep in bunkers, with steel and sandbags surrounding us.
Then one day, I heard they needed someone who could type to work in the crypto center. The crypto center was practically a bunker – surrounded on all sides by sandbags, but it had a canvas roof. The job required a lot of night hours – incoming rounds prime time. Without thinking too much more about it and certainly not asking enough questions, I volunteered for the job and got it. It took about a month to get the security clearance, so I wasn’t allowed into the crypto center to learn how things work until about 3 days before the guy I was replacing went home.
True, part of the job required typing, but there was also a lot of note-taking from telephone and radio calls. But the best part is when they gave me the first Jeep I ever drove. I had to deliver classified documents to and from various locations, oftentimes to different bases. I had to be alone in my Jeep, carrying only a canvas map bag and a 45 caliber sidearm. I had this big white and red sign across the front of my Jeep, ostensibly to hasten my journey. I don’t know why they didn’t think that made a pretty good target out of me on a lonely dirt road between bases in hostile territory.
I’m not saying that this one night was the root of my PTSD, but it sure preys on my mind a lot these days. I can’t remember if it was a delivery to or from another base, but it was a moonless night. In a war zone at night, you drive with blackout lights. These were one candle power fixtures mounted on the fender and on the average night you could see 20 or 30 feet in front of you. That’s not much when you are driving 10 or 15 mph. On a cloudless night, I could see even less. The only good thing was my big white and red sign didn’t show up very well when it was that dark. Well, maybe it did if you were used to looking and listening for someone fool enough to drive through enemy territory that late at night.
Is this what induced my PTSD?
Fear already had my adrenaline flowing. All those nights of incoming rockets & mortars while trying to sleep in the hooch had made me a little scared of the dark. Course, I would never admit to it, but I felt the fear making my body tremble while driving down that dirt road. I kept my speed slower than usual because it was so hard to see, but then I heard what sounded like the pop of a rifle round being fired. It could have been something else, but all I could think about was wondering if I would actually hear a bullet before it hit me. I sped up, of course. I realized I was going faster than I could see the road in front of me, but apparently that slow flow of adrenaline had turned into a raging river.
I don’t know how far I had driven before I began to wonder if it was “Charlie” firing at me, or maybe it was just one of those weird sounds you hear in the night. I was beginning to think I should slow down. That was about the time I slid into the nearly 6′ deep trench dug along the road for Monsoon rain runoff. It was like slow motion and I could taste the dust and dirt filling my mouth as my Jeep came to rest on its side in that dry drainage ditch. I guess I open my mouth pretty wide during an accident.
While spitting that dirt out, I realized the Jeep’s engine was still running, laying there at a 45° angle, the drivers side fully in contact with the side of the ditch. I actually thought I could drive out of it, even though I couldn’t see anything now because the blackout light was either obstructed or broken. But no, the Jeep was going nowhere. I was making far too much noise, I thought, so I abandoned the Jeep and started walking down the ditch, satchel over my shoulder and wondering if I should hold my sidearm, or leave it holstered. I kept stumbling and falling, so that kinda answered that question…
Well, I did it again. I skipped over a big part of why I decided to write this in the first place. I’m sure part of my PTSD has its roots in what happened right after I crashed. So, let me back up a bit.
It wasn’t because I came under fire, or heard enemy soldiers, or even that I was injured in the accident. It was fear that overcame me. I ended up in this ditch because I thought I had been shot at (maybe). Now I was somewhere between 2 bases and I was suddenly more afraid than I had ever been. I felt that the enemy was going to find me and either kill me or make me live in tortured hell. I was blinded by not just all the dirt that flew, but the fear that put my body into convulsions. I cried, yet tried hard not to cry out. I was muffling myself with my hands, turning my tears and blubbering and all that dirt in my face to mud. I don’t know how long that lasted; too many long seconds, I’m sure. But I also realized I needed to get back to the base; to get back to relative safety. Even the usual incoming rounds would be more welcome than what I was going through at that moment.
Jesus, I didn’t know this was going to be so difficult to write.
So, I got past the crying and found myself climbing up out of the ditch to walk along the road. The fear was still there. I was hyper-alert, probably darting my head all around, but not able to see very well. I didn’t know how far away the base was. One mile more? Two, maybe? I’m sure I tried to figure it out, based on how far away the base I came from was and how far I traveled at 5mph, then 10 or 15 or faster. I know I wasn’t thinking straight and I guess I will never know how far I walked before I finally saw what I thought was the base just ahead of me.
What a relief I felt, I’m sure. I can’t remember all the details of that night, but I know there was one soldier there breaking a very important rule: never light a match that can be seen by the enemy. I’m walking down this road when I saw that familiar flash of light and the familiar glow of a US soldiers face under a helmet. Safety was just 60 or 80 yards away, my pace quickened. What I wasn’t thinking about was what might be going through the mind of the soldier I was walking toward. Maybe he just realized why he had been told over and over not to light a cigarette in the open at night – Charlie will kill you. I wasn’t thinking he was having as much trouble seeing me as I was seeing him in the dark.
Now I was 40 or 50 yards away from the front gate of Lai Khe Army base. I still needed to be quiet because I was still afraid the enemy was close by. Fifty yards might as well be 50 miles. It was the soldier who spoke first. He yelled something at me. I don’t know what he said, but almost immediately I saw a flash much larger than a match being lit, a millisecond later I heard the pop sound of his rifle, then more yelling. I started yelling back. Oh man, I really didn’t want to see another one of those rifle flashes. That guy was almost as scared as I was though, which made him a terrible shot. He finally realized I was not the enemy and I was finally on base and safe.
Nothing happened that night the way it should have. If I hadn’t let fear take over my driving, I would not have ended up in a ditch. If I hadn’t mixed my tears and snot with dirt and rubbed it all over my face, the soldier that shot at me might have seen my pale skin. If the soldier had used SOP and yelled, “HALT! Who goes there?” we might have exchanged passwords and I wouldn’t have been shot at. And I’m not sure I would be reliving that night so often now, almost 50 years later.
How has PTSD affected me now? Well, nothing happened suddenly; it was gradual, creeping into my life over many years. Sometimes it’s more intense than others and I never know what will trigger an episode. I have occasional fits of intense anger, sometimes at the most innocuous things – a broken shoelace, bumping my leg on the edge of the bed, some guy parking his truck on the sidewalk (I use a mobility aide). The anger may go away quickly, or it might linger dangerously enough for me to confront someone, like I confronted that soldier for almost killing me. Although I am acutely aware of sounds that are similar to gunfire, it doesn’t seem to bother me nearly as much as explosive sounds similar to incoming rounds (being on an artillery base, I know the difference between cannon fire and incoming rounds).
There are other symptoms too, but the ones that seem to be the most troubling for me the last year or two are these: I’m afraid of the dark and I am afraid to go to sleep. I know I’m not in Vietnam anymore and I am relatively safe living where I do. There are no incoming rounds to worry about (at least not yet) and I haven’t had a gun pointed at me since 1972 (I got mugged in Pittsburg, CA). But all the truly frightening things happened in the dark and most of the people I have known or seen die, died in their sleep in Vietnam.
Lack of quality sleep can have a profound affect on many things in life. I feel depressed far more often, my temper is quick and unreasonable and my health deteriorates. I spend less and less time with other people because I don’t trust myself – and maybe I don’t trust them as much as I should. It has had an impact on my creativity too; I haven’t shot a photo in months, or done any of the other creative things I am capable of. Writing this is probably the most use of one of my skills I have had lately and I’m not all that confident it’s good work.
I’m glad to have been able to relate my PTSD experience. It’s just one, there are others, but this was difficult enough. Maybe I am more aware of it because it happened in a Jeep and now I am driving another Jeep. I do drive my Jeep at night, but only on highways. I have tried taking it on some old logging roads for some sunset photography outings, but the darker it gets, the more afraid I become. And don’t think this isn’t hard to admit for this 68 year old man; I’m not thrilled that the people who know me, who might be reading this will see me as somehow cowardly, or a crybaby. This experience doesn’t seem to rack up very high in the combat Vietnam veteran category. I was never in the heat of battle – never had to use my sidearm or a weapon to defend myself in a firefight; I didn’t crawl or trudge through jungle or rice paddies. I’m not sure I explain or can excuse the causes of my PTSD enough to suit others. All I know is how PTSD has affected me in my daily life struggles. Maybe, somehow, it will help another vet with PTSD they are ashamed to admit to.
Talk to someone about your PTSD
Are you a military veteran who has symptoms that may be attributed to a traumatic incident; or are you the family member or friend of a military veteran in crisis? The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has resources that may be able to help. Visit VeteransCrisisLine.net or call 1-800-273-8255 (Press 1), or send a text to 838255. You might also visit your local Veterans Administration office, or visit a VA clinic near you. Do not delay.