The Torment of a Distant War

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When I first came home, I thought I was fine. But over time, I became short-tempered and paranoid. I was always on edge and alert—"hypervigilant," they call it. At first, I thought that being a perfectionist and hypervigilant was what got a job done well. You know why? Because that’s what can save your life in war. In war, you’re always on the job, you’re always watching, feeling and smelling.

That’s the thing about a war vet: Your senses function at such an extreme level. You change forever.

The author, holding a pack of cigarettes, in a darkened hut.
The author in Vietnam, 1968.

That’s the thing about a war vet... You change forever.

Ten years ago, I was in the throes of no cure. I had been homeless for three and a half years, living under a tree in a vacant lot. My layers were peeled down to the most central core. My PTSD was raw. I was hurting.

I had a job, but people there were taking advantage of me and stealing credit that was due me. My anger built, and my alcohol abuse exploded. I was becoming a danger to others and to myself. That’s when I started going to my Vet Center for counseling.

Much of my therapy these recent years has been directed at my anger and low self-esteem. Now, I can call up some good memories.

I remember nursing in a ward in Hue. There was a Vietnamese girl with napalm burns there. The skin grafting had been getting nowhere. After every procedure, the skin would start curling and reddening, a sure sign of sepsis. So when I sponged and cleansed the new grafts, I decided to leave a fine layer of soap suds over the work areas. I thought that might protect the exposed areas from infection, and still give them air to breath. The effect was almost immediate. The suds soothed the girl’s pain, and by the end of the day you could see the grafts were taking.

The girl sounded her approval every time I treated her burns. She pointed to the soap suds and me, and exclaimed, “Number one.”

The attending doctor shared her enthusiasm. It was one of those good corpsman moments.

This is what it was supposed to be about—a good corpsman moment, not a bad one. I’ve been carrying around too many bad moments since 1968. Only now do I realize the toll they have taken on my peace of mind.

Now I'm able to tell myself that I did a good job in Vietnam. It takes some remembering, but that's how it works. When you can realize the importance of the job you did, like saving the skin of a burn victim or assisting in the delivery of a baby, it can bring satisfaction. Not every person I treated died or got worse.

Now I can forgive myself for telling people that they would live and being wrong about it. I brought comfort to people in dire need of it. That’s the important thing.

I was a completely different person that first day in Vietnam. I was just a kid, a naïve child. I didn’t know what depression was. But I was nervous, real nervous, because I’d heard plenty of what I could expect.