Vietnam: The Never Ending Tour

August 5, 1964-May 7, 1975

Posted In:   From Issue 812   By: Kimberly Sawatzki

02nd July, 2015     0

Editor’s Note: The Michigan Vietnam Veteran Traveling Memorial will be coming to Saginaw on July 19th beginning with a Staging for Escort at New Life Christian Fellowship, 6115 Shattuck and non-denominational service happening at 10:00 AM, followed by an Escort Route to Dynamic Corvette at 308 N. Hamilton, where the Vietnam Veterans Wall will be on display at the Old Town Motorfest from 12:00 noon until 4:00 PM.  The Traveling Memorial Wall is courtesy of Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 154. For more information you can contact Cindy Thompson at 989-792-1369.

To commemorate the significance of this memorial along with this 40th Anniversary year commemorating the end of the Vietnam War, we present this following piece that outlines the impact and toll of the war upon veterans of the Vietnam War, as well as the fabric of our country. Most important, we present the many programs and resources available through the Veterans Administration for veterans still coping and grappling with the ramifications of that war in its aftermath.

For some, the recent 40th anniversary commemorating the end of the Vietnam War passed unnoticed - mountains and sand on the evening news have long replaced jungles and rice paddies. For many, the Vietnam War seems long ago and far away; a brief lesson assigned in high school or a documentary seen on the History Channel.

For others, the images of Vietnam are inescapable; activated by a seemingly innocuous daily life. The Veteran is ambushed by the faint smell of diesel fuel, a baby’s cry, the backfire of a vehicle, a vintage song, or the family plans for the Fourth of July. 

The Veteran wonders if he’s crazy, especially at night. This warrior, protector of country, home and family can’t stop himself from checking and rechecking the locked windows and doors. He frequently loses the battle for sleep, lying awake for hours as he listens intently for a stealthy step, the telltale rustle of leaves or the warning snap of a twig. With nobody to relieve his watch, he often retreats to his Lazy-boy where he spends most of the night on guard. When he finally surrenders to exhaustion, he prepares a bedtime snack of alcohol or prescription medication to rock himself to sleep.

Even this brief truce is short lived as the ghosts of his past conspire to take him hostage. Fitful sleep and restless legs give way to flailing and fighting, leaving his spouse bruised and terrified. Hypnopompic hallucinations (waking nightmares) transport him back to the battlefield. He hears the thwop, thwop, thwop of rotors and suddenly the shadows cast by the bedroom ceiling fan morph into chopper blades. He screams; “Get DOWN! GET DOWN! INCOMING!” before wrenching free from the covers, leaping out of bed and crouching on the floor. Bathed in adrenaline and cortisol, coiled and poised for fight or flight, he wakes; heart pounding, terrified, angry, and later…embarrassed and ashamed.

He thinks he is alone, unaware that other Vietnam Vets also awaken to broken lamps, broken fingers, broken dreams and soon to be broken marriages. He thinks he is alone because he doesn’t talk.  His wife is frustrated because he doesn’t talk. All she knows is the Vet who loved ball games, dancing and rock concerts before the war now avoids large crowds at all costs. She knows he’s irritable and will outright refuse or start a fight with her to avoid attending a family reunion, wedding or holiday gathering. She feels abandoned as he buries himself in his work and isolates when he comes home. He retreats to the television, the garage or the basement or deploys to hunt or fish rather than interacting with family.

Fiercely protective of his loved ones, he hardly knows them. His kids tip toe around him when he’s having a “bad day” and everybody avoids him when he’s “fixing” something. The same guy who has nothing to say to his family has plenty to say about every driver on the road, his battle cry a string of expletives as he threatens to “run these ### idiots back in a ditch where they belong”. His wife thinks he has road rage and worries about his blood pressure.

She makes excuses for him when he is noticeably absent from events. She eventually stops asking him to take her dancing or shopping at the mall. She’s just glad he’s not as bad as her brother in law, who went from Vietnam to vodka, diving straight into a bottle soon after he came home. Unable to stay in one place, he poured himself into and out of jobs, fought in bars and ended up behind them. He took hostages who thought they were wives, had children he didn’t know how to love and each ensuing divorce liquefied his assets as his life went up in smoke.   Her husband wants nothing to do with his longhaired, camouflage-wearing brother who “uses the war as an excuse not to grow up”.

She wonders what happened to both of them over there. She wants to understand…but her husband doesn’t talk. He bristles and becomes irritated if she suggests he might need help.

 

Well, come on all of you, big strong men,
Uncle Sam needs your help again.
He's got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in Vietnam
So put down your books and pick up a gun,
We're gonna have a whole lotta fun.

And it's one, two, three,
What are we fighting for?

Don't ask me, I don't give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam;
And it's five, six, seven,
Open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain't no time to wonder why,
Whoopee! We’re all gonna die. 

- Country Joe McDonald, 1965

 

For What It’s Worth - The Stats

There are 9,087,000 active duty personnel. Within the borders of Vietnam, 2,594,000 serve “In Country” where about half face enemy fire. The average age of the Vietnam soldier is 22 years old, and 61% of those KIA (killed in action) are 21 or younger (the youngest KIA, a Marine, is only 15 years old). Although a draft is enacted, 2/3 of those who serve in the Vietnam War are volunteers. With the addition of the helicopter, the average “grunt” or infantryman sees 240 days of active combat in one year. In contrast, 2/3 of the soldiers in WWII were drafted, and the average infantryman saw only about 40 days of active combat in 4 years.

 

When Johnny Met Charlie

Barely out of high school, the boy she loves who is not yet adept at handling a razor, is given a weapon and thrust into an alien world where on foot, he must navigate through 12’ tall elephant grass and bamboo thickets. The feeling of her arms around his neck is forgotten as he is accosted by prehensile jungle vines grabbing at his throat and arms, and clutching at his ankles; all while he endures temperatures of 120 degrees at 95% humidity. Feet that used to guide her on the dance floor are slogging up and down through patchwork rice paddies; perpetually wet, they develop jungle rot. He ties shoelaces around his pants to keep the leeches from crawling up his legs…or worse. He sees his friends suffer heat stroke, malaria, dysentery, ringworm and other fungal infections while sitting in the wet jungle swamps.

The VC, or “Charlie” (Viet Cong-the enemy) aren’t the only dangers hidden in the foliage. Mosquitoes, red ants, bamboo fleas, 4” long cockroaches and a vast number of poisonous vipers, spiders and other insects and lizards are also lurking there. Every step is perilous as he travels above tens of thousands of miles of underground tunnels Charlie created to move enemy troops and supplies and to deliver surprise attacks. Tunnels link enemy support bases from the outskirts of Saigon to the Cambodian border, over 150 miles. Those of his friends who are smaller are often required to become “tunnel rats” wriggling through the dangerous dark passages to detect booby traps and enemy troops.

Above the tunnel route, he sees friends injured and killed when they trip wires, setting off grenades. Other trip wires cause boxes of scorpions or poisonous snakes to drop on their heads as they move through the dense jungle. The earth suddenly swallows his friend walking several yards in front of him. Muffled screams come from the pit where his legs are speared by a common trap fashioned of bamboo spikes called punji sticks; needle sharp, fire hardened and often dipped in feces or poison to cause infection. Primitive and effective, he knows his unit will be further weakened as two others will need to carry the injured and his equipment.  There are no roads here. He hopes for a clearing up ahead where he might get his bleeding friend on a chopper. He fears a clearing up ahead where he is exposed, a target for enemy fire. 

As bad as it is in the field, he knows his brother in the Brown Water Navy fares no better. Fired upon from unseen enemies on banks flanked by dense jungle, navigating waterways littered with explosives, he knows his brother’s PBR (Patrol Boat, River) will log some 70,000 patrol hours and engage in approximately 80 firefights this month. He knows that during the course of a year’s tour, 3 out of 4 PBR sailors are injured or killed. He wonders if his brother will be one of them.

He begins to close the door on dreams of the future, abandoning long-term plans. His thoughts are as rapid and clipped as the staccato bursts of gunfire.  He is forever changed by the death and the killing. He has abandoned the fantasy of the war hero laden with medals and he is not sure he will live to return to the girl whose photo is still tucked inside his helmet. He is no longer driven by the military idea of winning this war and he is unconcerned with the complicated politics that drive this machine. He has been stripped down to a primitive state of mind: survival- kill or be killed.

The Vietnam War was arguably the most traumatic experience for the United States in the twentieth century. That is indeed a grim distinction in a span that included two world wars, the assassinations of two presidents and the resignation of another, the Great Depression, the Cold War, racial unrest, and the drug and crime waves.

 

                                                - DONALD M. GOLDSTEIN, introduction, The Vietnam War

 

The Homecoming

According to The Vietnam Veterans of America, personnel “were individually assigned as green newcomers to units in the field from Replacement Battalions. After surviving their year’s tour of duty, they were sent home alone on a commercial airliner, often wearing jungle fatigues freshly covered with mud. Literally, within a brief 24-36-hour period, a combat soldier could be plucked away from his buddies in the middle of a firefight and deposited into the chaos of an urban traffic jam with no accommodations for jet-lag, much less for the culture-shock of readjustment to American life.”

He envisions coming home to his proud family, chest covered with medals. He smiles as he fantasizes coming back to his small town like one of the WWII Vets returning to ticker tape parades and swooning women. He knows he too, did exactly what his country asked of him; he risked his life and watched his buddies die. 

The Vietnam Vet has carried his rucksack, his weapon and his buddies, both wounded and dead, on his back as he bore the weight of a conflict that sure as hell felt like a war to him. He never expected to be the target of society’s resentment toward an unpopular war. Everywhere he goes there are protesters, screaming at him, calling him names, acting as if he chose his assignment. He endures verbal and sometimes physical assault and public humiliation by anti-war protestors. He discards his uniforms and any memento of military service. He buries his experiences, telling no one that he served. He tries to find a job and attempts to create some semblance of a normal life doing whatever is necessary to bury the ghosts of Vietnam. The treatment he received, or didn’t receive…contributes to his ability to cope or adds to the severity of his symptoms.

 

The Spoils of War

Gruesome and unimaginable to the outsider, the psychological toll of battle is compounded by physiological arousal, fear and physical deprivation. The psychological effects of trauma have been recognized since ancient times, clearly described by writers such as Homer and Shakespeare.  Soldier’s Heart, Shell Shock, Battle Fatigue and Combat Stress Reaction were names for the psychological injury suffered by those who experienced the trauma of war.

PTSD was added to the DSM-Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980 based on research involving returning Vietnam Vets, Holocaust survivors and sexual trauma victims; all who exhibit similar symptoms.

“Surviving a war requires increased alertness, numbed emotions and black-and-white thinking in order to carry out missions and to survive for a sustained period of time…It doesn’t matter if the soldier was in the bush or if he was a cook-the necessary sustained vigilance causes the brain to reprogram itself for survival in a dangerous situation”, says Mary Tendall, MA LMFT from THIS IS VIETNOW, a Veterans-helping-Veterans website.

Although the National Vietnam Veterans’ Readjustment Study found that most adjusted well, it also revealed that a number of Vietnam Veterans experience psychological problems, life adjustment difficulties, marital problems and work difficulties. Frequent and exhausting nightmares, depression, anxiety and alcohol problems are also prevalent.  Alcohol and PTSD can be a lethal combination.

Says Regina Bahten, DO (Southern Nevada VA), “He may not know how to feel about what he’s seen or done, and he may not expect his feelings to change over time. Warriors can experiences moments of profound guilt, shame, and self-hatred. He may have experienced a momentary elation at “scoring one for the good guys,” then been horrified that he celebrated killing a human being. He is afraid to get attached to anyone because he has learned that the people you love get killed. He may have been only nineteen when he first had to make a life and death decision for someone else. What kind of skills does a nineteen-year-old have to deal with that kind of responsibility?”

 

Who’ll Stop the Rain?

The majority of Vietnam Vets are now between 60-70 years old according to data from the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics. The lack of structure in retirement combined with the health challenges of aging often brings repressed psychological difficulties to the surface. Often, the Vet may think something is wrong, but he doesn’t know what it is. He still doesn’t talk. His wife and family know something is wrong. They know he needs help.

The National Center for PTSD works to educate Veterans and the public about symptoms and treatments for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. They recommend families get involved in care by educating themselves, being positive about treatment and supporting the Veteran in his efforts to get well. Education includes learning about the appropriate available treatments for service related health care and more importantly, knowing which agencies will be competent to address these needs.

The Rand Corporation, a respected non-profit research and analysis institution found that “civilian mental health care specialists sorely lack an understanding of military culture and appropriate treatments for service-related health care needs”. The Rand Corporation survey included psychiatrists, psychologists and licensed clinical social workers in the civilian sector. They found that “only 13% met criteria for cultural competency - meaning they understood military language and background and the expected military mores, and delivered the appropriate care for illnesses unique to military personnel such as combat related post-traumatic stress disorder”. 

Rand researcher Terri Tanielian tells The Military Times, “The results are important because insensitivity and unfamiliarity with proven treatments may keep troops and veterans from getting quality care…. when service members seek care from providers not affiliated with the Defense Department or Veterans Affairs, they may encounter providers who are not as well prepared to deliver culturally sensitive care.” The study also showed that for registered Tricare providers, only about 25% scored well, and among those not working directly with troops or veterans, only 8% scored as culturally competent.

 

Fortunate Son

The first step is becoming willing to get help. The Veteran fears and avoids the “unknown” treatment, and even when he agrees to attend, he doesn’t want to talk. Fortunately, the VA can provide education and information that doesn’t require the Veteran to talk initially. It takes time to gain trust, time for him to realize that he is not alone. He doesn’t want to pick the scabs of war, but he knows that he slapped a band-aid on a gunshot wound decades ago, and now he must extricate the bullet to truly heal, which he fears will be painful and messy. Nobody wants to volunteer for that; he surely doesn’t want to volunteer to fight yet another war. But he’s tired. And he thinks maybe now, he’s ready to talk.

The Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs provide comprehensive care for the wounds of war. The VA National Center for PTSD has a wealth of information available for Veterans and families and provides a range of treatments as stated on their website; “No matter where you live, PTSD treatment in the Department of Veterans Affairs is available.

Each medical center within VA has PTSD specialists who provide treatment for Veterans with PTSD and there are nearly 200 specialized treatment programs throughout the country. Every VA Medical Center has providers that have been trained to offer PTSD treatment. Some VA medical centers are now offering walk-in clinics. By walking into the primary care clinic, a Veteran can usually be seen that day by a mental health provider.

Other VA treatment locations where a Veteran can get PTSD treatment include: 

Community Based Outpatient Clinics (CBOC) Vet Centers- operated by VA's Readjustment Counseling Service. Call: 877-WAR-VETS (927-8387).

Veterans Press 1 - The Veterans Crisis Line connects Veterans in crisis and their families and friends with qualified, caring Department of Veterans Affairs responders through a confidential toll-free hotline, online chat, or text. Veterans and their loved ones can call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, chat online, or send a text message to 838255 to receive confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Support for deaf and hard of hearing individuals is available.

 

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