Sound-Off Letter of the month
By John E. Hamilton
Originally published in Leatherneck Magazine, April, 2014
I was contacted recently by the Marine son of a Marine Vietnam veteran with whom I had served. The son had recently lost his father, and he was trying to understand more of what had shaped his father’s life and personality. This young man, a veteran of the Gulf War and Somalia, was wondering what his father could have experienced in Vietnam that was so horrible as to cause the withdrawn person with few friends and several of the other problems (drink, divorce, etc.) of the stereotypical Vietnam veteran. It prompted me to put some painful feelings into words:
Your letter sounds so familiar, I wonder how many of our sons and daughters feel as you do? I’ll use a collective “we” here, knowing that not all things happened to all people, and not all things affect everyone the same, but you may see some connection to your dad.
“We” were young; we volunteered to serve our country, not all for the same reasons, but mostly because we thought it was the “right” thing to do. We were abused in a system designed by well-intentioned, but misled leaders that rotated men into and out of units with no thought to unit integrity, or the bonds of men placed in harsh circumstances. You can fill in many reasons, including drawdowns, cutbacks and good intentions.
So, we were new guys with no friends. Acceptance had to be earned. If we lived, learned and were accepted, we bonded with those who befriended us and then watched them die or get maimed and no one cared because “It don’t mean nothin’,” which was the mindset we earned by bleeding and dying for unnamed hills and paddies and giving them back the next day. We did not bond again; it hurt too much. So, we read the papers, we heard the news, our politicians held peace talks, the public demonstrated against us, we waded paddies, sweated and bled in the rain and tried to understand how it all seemed to be so wrong.
We felt betrayed by our government, and we were betrayed by those we thought to be our friends back home. So we decided not to have friends, and we decided not to trust. We came home to women whom we had married in what seemed to be a previous life and found we were unable to trust even them. We became loners, as we were separated from anyone who had served with us; we could not talk as our fathers did when they returned home victorious.
As we returned by ourselves to our interrupted lives, we heard that we were not the best and brightest, that we were somehow not honorable, that our sacrifice was not worthwhile. We could not share our stories, bond, or make friends. Oh, we could make acquaintances. We might find a new wife, but we had trouble sharing, trusting, committing. We built an invisible wall between our inner person and the one we shared with others. Society taunted, tormented, ridiculed with print and picture, totaled our sacrifices with glee, granted amnesty to those who ran, and finally just ignored us.
So we learned to ignore society. We learned to ignore a media which valued a dollar more than our lives or the lives of our children—a media whose cartoons cause hurt instead of smiles, who will plant a camera at a known improvised explosive device site to capture your sacrifice to sell. We saw it (the media) for what it is—a business which generates controversy to sell its wares, nothing more. So we became even more reclusive and bitter.
“We” have one more fight which we must win for you. We must stay informed and be vigilant in our choices of leaders to ensure that if and when our sons and daughters are called to serve, that once called, no politician be forgiven if he or she abuses our children’s service for political gain or to ensure reelection.
No, I don’t believe that what your father endured in Vietnam did the damage. You have served and I know you are proud. Your dad was proud also until he came home. Please join a veterans group, talk to your fellow veterans, know that we care.
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A marine combat veteran, ah shah valley didn’t think I an Army medic deserved to have a larger pension 100% than he had and filed a false police report saying I had an AK47, a saw off shotgun, a short barreled rifle, and that I made fire bombs for sales and distribution…I did none of those things. But they put you in jail set a high bond and make you cop a plea to get time served and pay the fine. fuck them all but 9, 6 pallbearers, 2 road guards and 1 to count cadence.
After reading this article, I can say, “yes” I felt the same, I had similar experiences.
The only things I found ‘missing’ were the reasons for the alcohol and drug abuses made by veterans. Mostly, it was an escape from the reality of life back in the states. Nam vets almost always had a distorted view of the ‘world’…i.e., the USA they’d left a year earlier. But we’d changed. Yes, the America we’d left had changed as well, but OUR change was even more dramatic! We (not all, but a great many) were ‘numb’. We’d clamped down those feelings humans experience daily in order to make it through another day. We became emotionless robots, doing our job the best way we knew how and didn’t want the pain of bonding with someone who could die tomorrow.
Some of us, whether through the constant state of alertness, or fear, or whatever…became victims of Post-Traumatic Stress. We didn’t know it at the time, though. When we got home, we wondered why people were concerned with silly stuff like money, careers, cars, etc. What was important to me, at least, was my neighbor…was he doing okay? Was he eating right? Was he in any danger? I sensed that no one had deep feelings for their ‘buddies’ and that no one seemed to care if those they knew lived or died. My feelings had started to return after numbing myself for so long a time. I couldn’t truly ‘love’ my neighbor. I became a loner. I had nightmares–not of something I’d experienced, but rather what my mind conjured up…guard duty no less. I didn’t understand it, but it was a recurring dream.
I had VERY low self-esteem. I was VERY lonely. I married a divorced woman who (it turns out) was unfaithful constantly…and I was unaware until years later. I didn’t know, for example, that waking from a nightmare smelling Vietnam and struggling for my life and screaming in my sleep were ‘normal’ reactions for the ‘new’ me.
It literally took years to recognize that I had PTS. I began writing about my experiences many years later as a form of self-therapy. Fortunately, I never did drugs though I sometimes drank heavily, and changing to beer helped me a lot, I could only drink a few until I was peeing every three minutes…that’ll keep you from downing another, believe me.
I (eventually) met a good woman and settled down. I hope my kids understand that I did the best I could under the circumstances. My wife understands and I still have some bouts of PTS that is stressful on our relationship. I can’t tolerate Fourth of July odors of fireworks and helicopter sounds are always distressing.
I managed to keep a job all those years, and have trusted a VERY few friends since my time overseas. I go to reunions (these past nine years) and that too helps. We understand each other. Our wives understand each other and what they have to go through.
I have my full range of emotions once again. But I also realize that PTS is with me to stay…I’ve learned to cope. I walk away from fools. I don’t watch TV or listen to news and don’t subscribe to newsprint. It is all biased anyway
I’m proud of my service and wear my Vietnam Veteran cap a lot. For years, I didn’t, but now I feel I can. I also don’t give a rip for anyone’s controversial attitudes. I’ve forgiven the person who spat on me (though I don’t know who that person is) and I’ve forgiven the gal who dissed me at the LA airport and the San Francisco bus driver who closed the door on my arm and later on my spit-shined shoes. I am at peace, and I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
You see them occasionally out in public. The Vietnam Vet’s who still wear the embroidered ball caps declaring their unquestionable valor and courageousness as young men. The young men who never quite came all the way home after losing so much of themselves. The ‘haunted ones’. When I came home I was one of the ‘haunted ones’. When I came home nothing much had changed around me. The local McDonald’s had sold another three billion hamburgers. The family were much the same except for their tender curiosity about my experiences. Experiences I had no wish to share with anyone. Nothing of my former civilian life fit right. I was anxious and restless. I got rid of all semblance of a past military life, even the uniforms. I’d cut off the buttons and polish the car with them. I was home but it was no longer ‘home’ to me. I was the one who’d changed. My family tried hard to put me in the place where I once was, not understanding anything of whom I had become. It took many years to try to ‘normalize’ myself. I never talked about Vietnam. People were very surprised to learn that I was once a combat veteran after knowing me for years. I was good at dodging comments and sidestepping questions. Some would say it wasn’t mentally healthy to erase so much of my life, that I was somehow in denial. All I can say is that it was my choice to deal with it all in my own way. Others dealt with it as best they could in their own way. Some turned to booze, some turned to drugs, some even turned to God. More than enough of them chose to end their lives. Too many of them really. Then there’s the guys who never quite came all the way back home. I decided that I would come home, and to leave the war where it was. I joined no associations, not even the VFW.
I ‘ve never stepped into a VA hospital nor taken advantage of any government programs for vets with educational resources or bank loans. I can look back now and it’s more and more like it all happened to someone else, a long time ago in another life. That’s how I prefer to see it.
I never wanted to be drafted, I never liked anything about the army from my first day until my last. They gave me medals and I have no idea where they ended up. I realize I am probably in a very tiny minority. If I had my time over, I’d definitely find a way to avoid being drafted.
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Mr. Grey, I’m sorry you feel the way you do, but I can also understand why. You are in the tiny minority but are also missing out on the many benefits you have earned and are entitled to. Please reconsider and stop by one of the many Veteran Group centers. It isn’t necessary to join any veteran organizations but a visit and meeting with one of the councilors may be eye-opening. Thank you for your service Aaron! I am proud of your achievements! Welcome Home, brother!
My father,Jerry D. Richards, was a Korean and Vietnam Vet. USMC Master Gunnery Sargeant. Served 22 years+ He never doubted what he did for his country, he did his job proudly. Yes , he had some issues but never let it effect his family life,he was a great and loving father. He passed away over 20 years ago. He is the best man I’ve ever known. Don’t let the problems your Dad may have had cloud the love you that you have for him. He deserves all the respect and love you have to give.
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Larry, I sympathize with you. After ending my service obligation, my application to join the VFW was rejected by their membership. Seems like the WWII vets didn’t think we were qualified. Funny how things changed over the years…seems that most if not all VFW posts are now run by Vietnam Vets. I was thoroughly overjoyed when I joined the Vietnam Veterans of American in 1986…but that was 15 yrs. later. Really sad back then! Welcome home Brother!
Thanks my friend.
This is a great article. It sums up in short the inner most feelings of the majority of veterans in my opinion.
One of the most horrific experiences I encountered after returning from Nam was a fourth of July parade held in my home town.
As a veteran and a business owner, I was ask by our downtown business association to provide a vehicle and pull a float in the parade. Naturally I was happy to assist in whatever manner I possibly could. I took one of my company trucks, spent several hours cleaning and detailing, to
include doing the same with a tag along trailer. In addition I borrowed some metal bleachers from a local school and fastened them to the trailer.
The next day ( the day of the parade) I drove the truck and trailer to the parking lot where I had been instructed to meet the group of veterans. Upon arrival I announced to the parade director that I was there and where I was parked. In turn she informed me to relocate to another space where she had an additional vehicle for the same purpose. After doing as instructed, the director conveyed to the group of veterans gathered, they could load on their choice of the two vehicles and be seated.
Right away some 12 to 14 veterans got onto the trailer and were seated on the bleachers.
All the while I was feeling quiet fulfilled by being a part of the parade and doing my part for the veterans. All was well until an elderly gentleman ask me what branch of service I was in and where I served. I responded by saying ” The Army sir, and did a tour of duty in Vietnam”.
I didn’t get it out of my mouth good until everyone on the trailer unloaded. Now you talk about your heart sinking, mine dropped to the pavement. I didn’t know at that point, what to do, so I just sat down on the trailer, quiet taken by this reaction. Finally two fellow Vietnam veterans had observed what had taken place and came over to chat with me.
It concluded my driving in the parade with two Vietnam veterans on the trailer and the remainder of the WW 1 WW 2 and Korean veteran on the other trailer.
Now this event took place some 36 years ago, however I haven’t forgotten the hurt that I felt
in this episode.
We should always, ( as difficult as it can be),try to understand others and how our actions can impact them.
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You have so NAILED IT with this quote..”We” have one more fight which we must win for you. We must stay informed and be vigilant in our choices of leaders to ensure that if and when our sons and daughters are called to serve, that once called, no politician be forgiven if he or she abuses our children’s service for political gain or to ensure reelection.” Particularly in this day of the Benghazi Scandal, we OWE that to our fallen and to our future generations. I came into this world at the begging of WWII and saw Uncles and Neighbors off to serve (some which never returned) and, As the former wife (and sister) of Vietnam Vets I couldn’t agree more with you.. Thank you for sharing these your experiences to help us understand the unthinkable.. and hopefully provide a helpful long overdue therapy… an excellent read.. Bless your work and Thank You to all who served and sacrificed. I would like permission to use this above quote in the future.. In my view .. it says it all..
Nancy, no problem with using the quote, just be certain to list the original author when you do.
Of all that I have read about other’s Vietnam experience, this article finally explains the Vietnam Vet.. You have captured my feelings and experiences!
Very good article, I am married to a Vietnam Vet. You explain it well, I will share with our boys.
I think you hit the nail right on the head. I came back to the world and was called names. I did not understand what i did to be called all of those names. I never killed a baby. I didn’t go to Vietnam to kill. I went because i love what i left behind and my Country needed me. If i had to do it again i would. I AM A PROUD VIETNAM VETERAN !!!