The Torment of a Distant War

A Navy corpsman longs to make peace with the memories of fallen comrades. But healing comes slowly when you’re changed forever.

It didn’t take long to fill up the landing craft. Maybe two or three minutes. Just enough time to look up into the faces of the soldiers and Marines, three deep, lining the edge of the ship.

For the first time since the USS General Gordon had set sail from Okinawa two weeks earlier, there was no horseplay. Instead, the mood was reverent. Nobody spoke. Only the occasional cry of the seabird and creak of a landing craft gate broke the silence. We all knew what the other was thinking. Some of us would be going home in body bags.

The author of this personal story about living PTSD and survivor's guilt sits with a group of other combat corpsmen in Vietnam

The author (center) and other field corpsmen in Vietnam wait for transportation back to rear lines, 1968.

I knew at least a dozen corpsmen who died there. Of the eight corpsmen who sailed over on the General Gordon with me in 1967, half didn’t make it back.

The expression on each man’s face was the same. You could almost read the question, “Will you be the unlucky one, or will it be the guy next to you? If I'm the unlucky one, will it be because I decide to do this instead of that? When the shit hits the fan, will I be brave? Can I hack it? Will I make it back home in one piece?

“If you ‘get it’ and I don't, am I worthy of that special blessing?”

I was surrounded by death in Vietnam. No one needs to tell me how lucky I was. Statistics weren’t on my side. I was a field corpsman, a prized target.

I knew at least a dozen corpsmen who died there. Of the eight corpsmen who sailed over on the General Gordon with me in 1967, half didn’t make it back. I still wonder why I survived and those others didn’t. Feeling deserving is so unthinkable. How could I ever feel equal to those who gave it up? They seemed so much more heroic than I was. If they were so much more than me, why am I still here and they’re not?

I've been dealing with this for decades. It’s called “survivor's guilt,” a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sometimes I think I have most of this PTSD and guilt resolved. Other times I feel nothing has changed. I’m always rehashing the past, turning things over and over in my mind. I feel like I'm under constant scrutiny. I avoid group attention. I dread the thought of others considering my faults and imperfections. I fear other combat vets won’t think me worthy of being called “Doc,” a title of respect given to field corpsmen and medics. On bad days, I have a hard time accepting the title myself.

In Vietnam, I always felt ill-prepared. I now realize that I was in fact highly trained. But I still wonder how some of those men and women I worked on would have fared had they been tended by another corpsman.

The self-criticism never stops. I am my own worst enemy.