Yes, PTSD is Scary Stuff
by James Glaser
Now we get to the very reason that Veterans get PTSD. More than likely, there was a traumatic experience or experiences that you might say overwhelmed them.
Now that I have been through it, I believe that the whole Post Traumatic Stress Program at the Tomah VA Medical Center was designed around the trauma group. Everything you did there, the relaxation class, the dream workshops, assertiveness training, the journal, even the set up with a small intimate group of fellow Vietnam vets, was designed to get you focused on that trauma or those traumas that had taken over your life since you left the war. Getting the things you had kept secret in your mind out in the open where you could look at them, and getting feedback from a group of your peers was supposed to help you.
It is hard for me now to remember the first trauma group meetings, but I do remember that we had that group more often than any other class. I think we started by reading something out of our journals about Vietnam. And it wasn't long before we all knew what kind of unit each guy was in, where in Vietnam he was stationed, and what years he was there. We learned about each others' jobs, and we talked about the good times and the bad.
As the weeks went by we explored more and more of what was really the problem with each man. It didn't take me long to figure out that, like me, each of these guys had something that sounded pretty bad, but they could talk about it. For me, it was like a cover story. I could talk to the doctor about it, heck I could use it myself to keep what was really bothering me hidden in the back of my mind. So everybody would tell their "cover story" thinking that it would be good enough, so that you didn't have to tell everyone that secret thing in the back of your mind, that thing that was so horrible, that you didn't even want to let it out for you to look at.
Some guys' cover stories were plenty horrible, and if it wasn't for having something that hurt them more, that cover story could be the thing that they were keeping hidden. When you go to group, you all agree that what is said in that room stays in that room, so I won't be repeating what the guys I was with were saying, but here is what I had to talk about when I had to come out with something that was on my mind all the time.
I was taking some radios from Signal Hill, above LZ Stud which was down highway nine past the Rock Pile. I hitchhiked a ride on a H-37 helicopter to Dong ha, took a H-46 to Phu Bi, and from there I got a ride on a Huey to Da Nang where our repair facility was. It was hard getting from the air field to where I needed to go with the radios weighing over 50 lbs. a piece, plus I had all my other gear, flak jacket, rifle, helmet, pack, ammo, and probably some c-rations. Well I finally found the place and turned in the radios and they gave me two new ones to take back.
It was late, and I made my way back to the field, knowing that I wouldn't get out till morning, so I walked around looking for a place to sleep. I was walking around an area that was a staging area for supplies, and I found a place between two conex boxes that wasn't all that far from a head, and there was a bunker nearby that I could go to if there was incoming. Well, after I got situated, I walked around having a smoke, and as I came around this one conex box. I should explain, a conex box is a big green metal box that supplies are shipped in. They are about 8x8x8 foot and the have skids under them so that a fork lift can move them.
Well, I came around this one, and it had an 8x8x8 wire mesh screen next to it that formed a cage. There was a Vietnamese woman in that cage with her young child. I would guess the child was about three or four. The woman was tall and at one time she was pretty, but right then she was exhausted and she was begging me for water. The child was lying at her feet, alive, but not moving. I got out my canteen and was about to give her some, when this American Army Major comes running up and yells at me, "What the fuck do you think you are doing?" I said I was giving this women some thing to drink, and he put his hand on his 45 and told me to walk away, which I did.
The next morning I had to take a look and see what was up with this woman, and she and her child were both laying in that cage dead. I believe that they died of thirst. A metal conex box sitting in the sun would bake you and the inside of that box was the only shade they would have had.
I don't know what that woman did. I don't know what information she might have had that that Major wanted, but I do know that we, the United States of America murdered her and her child, and it bothers me today like it bothered me back then. It is one of those "I could of, should of", done something, but I was a Marine sergeant, who had been through the brain washing boot camp all Marine enlisted go through, and when a Major tells you to walk away, you walk away. Now, I pay for that almost every day.
So that is the thing that I would use to hide what was really sticking in my craw, and it worked for a lot of years, until I got to Tomah. Here is the goal that they told me I was working for. Things about my time in Vietnam were constantly on my mind, and they were really affecting my life. The doctors at Tomah said that they couldn't make those things go away, but they might be able to get me to the point that I could have those thoughts and memories in a special place that I could retrieve them from whenever I wanted, but I could also put them away, so they were not right out in front always trying to jump out at me.
Did it work? Kind of, sort of. Like I said, the story about the woman in the cage was horrible, but I had already dealt with it and its guilt. Now I used the thought of that woman and her child to hide some things way worse than that. I was hiding those things from myself. I knew about them, but I didn't want to ever think about them again. So, when Vietnam would overwhelm me, I would go through the story of that woman again and that kept everything else at bay, but it was always trying to come out.
That is why they have the trauma group at Tomah. They told me that I had to get those things out in the open before I could get better. Here is something strange. A lot of the guys' horrible, terrible experiences, the ones that were driving them nuts, to me and many in the group didn't seem as traumatic as other things that happened to them. It is the time, the place, and the way your mind sees things. Horrible, terrible for one, might not really be that bad for another.
Some of the things the Corpsman and Medics went through, I think would give me a life time of bad dreams, but out of all of the wounded and dieing men they had to deal with, somehow, one of those was the memory that they couldn't shake. I don't know why it is that way, but it is.
By the time I left Tomah there were many memories of my time in Vietnam that had surfaced there that I hadn't dealt with before. I don't know if I was better or not, but the program gave me some tools to work with, and I got a lot of things out in the open so I could look at them. They were and are sometimes overwhelming, but at least now I know what I am dealing with, and some times I can put them away and live my life, but then again there are things that will pop them out, like that sound of a helicopter going over, or a little kid screaming at play, or the flashes of sun light through the trees.
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