The bit of snow that blew across the balcony was miniscule. But ‘tis the season and for that reason, stirred the mind to think upon freshly baked cookies, logs blazing in the fireplace and stockings hung up with care.
There are many books that I read written by veterans who just want to put their story down. All of them matter to me. But if it is possible to be moved by one group more than another, for me it is the Vietnam vets who really get to me more than any other veterans’ group. It isn’t just because I have family and friends who survived the combat hell known as Vietnam. It’s also because when they got back home they had to hide the fact that they served our country and nearly died for it. They had to remain silent, as if a piece of them was too nasty to be shared with all those they were willing to die for. “You were good enough to nearly die for me but don’t try sitting at my table with me,” our society seemed to tell them.
Dan R. Vaughn, Jr., sent me his book My Life, My Hell This Grunt’s Journey Back to the World months ago. It was about his combat experiences in Vietnam but mostly about his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he told me. He wanted to let his fellow Vietnam veterans know they weren’t alone, and that there was a way back. Even though I had several other books in my stack to read and write about, I picked up Dan’s and started a few pages, just to get a feel for it. I read the first three chapters without stopping. I knew then that this was not going to be a quick or easy read.
When I looked outside my balcony today, after last night’s snow sneeze, I noticed the boards glistened with ice. The water in the birdbath is solid. A chunk of snow had somehow gathered onto my roof and crashed down in a boom that scared the ….well, let’s not mention what exactly it scared out of me, this article is G rated for General Audiences…but chunks of snow were lying helter skelter on the balcony flooring. I am not supposed to, but I set out just a little bit…just a smidgen, really…of bird food. A beautiful finch arrived and began searching the ground, moving around. Only, the “around” was covered with ice and the sweet little thing was sliding back and forth. It was so cute; so sweet. One would think it would make me laugh. If I hadn’t been reading Vaughn’s book, I would have. But all I could think of was what a slippery surface combat PTSD is, and how no one seems to be able to get a steady, solid footing on it. For although one would think that the war is both the life and hell part of My Life, My Hell, it proves to be only the “life” part. After he arrives from the war, after he is state side, after post traumatic stress disorder rears its ugly head…that’s when the hell of Vaughn’s life begins.
Vaughn writes about his induction into the army, his training for combat, and his eventual combat duty in Vietnam in 1968-1969. He does a wonderful job of capturing the “grunt” Dan’s youthful enthusiasm, innocence, indignation and blissful ignorance, perfectly. The true gem of Vaughn’s book, however, is not in the facts themselves, but the personal, spiritual insights he provides in dealing with the PTSD hell that came afterwards.
Combat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was not officially diagnosed as such until years after our Vietnam veterans returned home. Our World War and Korean veterans showing symptoms of PTSD were told they suffered from “combat fatigue” or “shell shock.” And pretty much told, “Get over it.” As with many Vietnam veterans, there was no welcome home for Vaughn. “I couldn’t help but think of how the sight of my uniform was reviled by some and appreciated by another.” In linking his war to other wars past, Vaughn connects the dots: He refers to battles that are “not in any history books…but …still lingers in the memories of us who were there within our minds and hearts.” Like those before him and no doubt those to follow, “Men killed not only one man at a time but by the tens, hundreds and thousands. Men whose bodies would be stacked like wood to be burned until they could be buried or sent home to their families.”
Vaughn’s respect for all warriors is deep. “We were reluctant witnesses to those who died in a place called Tien Phuoc in a country called South Vietnam,” he writes. “We would become a company of brothers born in battle with each one’s face in our memory forever. Our clothes would be soaked in the blood of those brothers, all heroes as brave as any who died being butchered before them and those thousands who would follow. This same brotherhood would continue to grow in places like Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan; and with it, each survivor’s need, as my own, to understand and be understood in order to find inner peace.”
Of his fellow Vietnam warriors, he goes back to the Wall to explain how he feels. “I have been to Washington, DC and I have seen the Wall and other memorials to America’s war dead. These memorials are patriotic, impressive and awe-inspiring; but none give the viewer a sense of the real suffering of these men and women. The surest way to understanding this suffering would be a trip to Arlington National Cemetery and viewing the thousands of graves of our war dead. Imagine what a difference to the viewer it would make at the Vietnam Memorial if it stood overlooking fifty-eight thousand white crosses covering hundreds of acres. Of course there isn’t enough space there for all the crosses….”
As I glance back to my balcony I see the chunks of white and I know exactly of what Vaughn speaks. The white gravesites and crosses at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia or the white, rowed crosses at Normandy Cemetery in France say all that needs to be said about the lasting destruction of wars.
Vaughn writes of terrible experiences he endured and of terrible dreams. “I don’t remember the exact date, but it is a day I can never forget. I have relived it in my mind and heart every day since. I have tried to wipe it from my memory, but the dream returns day after day to haunt my soul. I am sometimes overcome with grief and tears as I relive it now and as I try to write….it is difficult to find words to describe the torment within me, which only my death will end. I am not alone…” He lives with the guilt of death and his survival. “I guess to some this would seem…cruel and uncivilized behavior, the kind of thing which only animals or demented humans could do to one another. My only explanation is that this was war, and men do things in war for which they both take pride and …for which they are not proud.” He would choose to do what he did, he said, to protect his brothers-in-arms and simply says, “This guilt is a by-product of war which all veterans must endure.”
That Vaughn can write from an astute mind and a compassionate heart after what he has seen and had to do in country, and then suffer rejection at the hands of the very country he fought to preserve, is impressive. “Americans who served and died in past wars in order to preserve our nation and our rights were loathed then and now by some who consider any war immoral. They are right to feel this way as do those of us who have had to bear the pain of battle and console the dying. They forget, though, of all those through history who would have millions die and suffer in order to appease their thirst for power. They would focus their revulsion not on the evil of the world but on those men and women who stood when called and fought and died to stop it…It’s ironic that all who protested the Vietnam War and all wars before and since were able to do so because of the sacrifice of those who paid the price required for that freedom…to voice one’s opinion without fear of retaliation…They should be protesting war itself and not those who must take up arms to protect America and her allies.”
Yes, My Life, My Hell This Grunt’s Journey Back to the World, is a book about the hell known as the Vietnam War. Yes, it is about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Yes, the book could have benefited from a stricter editing of the punctuation or grammar here and there. But what the book is really about, is a profound narrative of how post-traumatic stress disorder comes to live within the warrior’s heart and mind. And, which is the gift of Vaughn’s book…how one can heal from it. “It’s hard for many to break free of the insanity of war and unlock its grip on their minds and hearts. It’s no impossible; with love and time we can all heal. No one should want to die after suffering so much. “
Vaughn returned home to deal with his life and PTSD. He wrote his book to bring back the men who died, to honor those who survived, and to open his heart “…to someone (anyone) who would listen and help me in my search to find peace.”
The sun has been shining on my balcony for a while now. The smaller chunks of snow have melted and the ice is beginning to disappear around the balcony edges. If the sun keeps shining, the cold snow will disappear, the hard ice will melt…and everyone can stand firm.
With the more recent, accurate diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), more help is available. Although it is true that not all combat veterans suffer from combat PTSD, it is still true that all of you were put in abnormal situations and required to perform in ways contrary to your beliefs in order to survive. You did the right thing. persistent re-experiencing of the traumatic event(s). . If you are suffering from the following symptoms, reach out to someone. Your brothers and sisters in arms, your doctors, your minister or priest, your friends, or the several organizations that offer help. What you are experiencing with PTSD is nothing to be ashamed of. You took care of this country. Now let us take care of you.
• avoiding experiences or people that trigger memories of such event(s).
• increased arousal, to include nervousness, over-reaction to sudden noises, (are you jumpy?), difficulty sleeping (night sweats), and nightmares (ever hit your spouse, girl/boyfriend in your sleep, or are they scared to wake you up?).
• bouts of “inappropriate” rage and-or depression.
• difficulty relating emotionally to others.
• feelings of extreme alienation and meaninglessness.
• isolation from others (do others see you as cold, unfeeling?).
• in the most extreme cases, persistent thoughts of murder and/or suicide.
Welcome home, Dan. I am glad you made it back. Thank you for your service.
Please keep talking…we’ll keep listening. I promise.