Eerily Similar Stories from Vietnam to Iraq
Nichole Crawford’s deployment to Iraq didn’t end when she returned home in 2003. Her article, titled, “Most Americans don’t know how war can shatter a life and make it feel near impossible to find happiness again.” That line struck me. For 50 years, since climbing down from the “Freedom Bird” at Norton AFB, San Bernardino, CA, home of the 63rd Military Airlift Wing, I felt something was different. I reassured myself that I had returned with all limbs and organs intact and I certainly wasn’t crazy like the stories we heard of vets who couldn’t readjust. I honestly don’t remember much about the plane or the flight home. I should have realized how much that flight impacted me. It was almost as if I’d been holding my breath for the past year, exhaling only when my feet were firmly back on US soil, CONUS as we called it, Continental United States.
Certainly, as a woman in the US Army, Nicole Crawford had much more to overcome than I did as a 20 year old guy from Huntington Beach, CA. I can’t even begin to imagine the horror of being assaulted by your own comrades, much less being told to ignore it. But, in our own way, guys were told “…don’t mean nuttin.” If you stubbed your toe, “…don’t mean nuttin”, if a plane crashed, “…don’t mean nuttin”, if a buddy was killed, “…don’t mean nuttin”. That’s how we coped with everything.
Of course, in hindsight, I now know it was all a coping mechanism. When a 19 year old mind is overwhelmed by ugly realities all around him but has to stay focused on tasks at hand, the young mind simply shrugs off the realities as “don’t mean nuttin’. It lets you cope with things your mind might not otherwise be able to handle.
Here’s me in 1969 just returning from a mission. Although I wasn’t regular aircrew, a GI in Vietnam didn’t exactly have a lot to do on the occasional day off. My buddies in C-7 Caribou and C-130 Hercules squadrons let me tag along as long as I did some tasks such as loading & securing cargo including livestock, checking fuel for contamination at remote bases, keeping Vietnamese civilians calm and making sure US GIs cleared their weapons before boarding.
The flight that has stayed with me wasn’t even a regular mission. We usually made anywhere from 3 to 6 hops per day, picking up and ferrying supplies, equipment, people and whatever else needed to be moved from point to point. On one such segment, the pilot received a request to pick up 3 KIA in bodybags for transport to the morgue in DaNang. Usually, the Army transported their own wounded and KIA (killed in action i.e. bodies) but, on this day, we happened to be right there. Having never dealt with KIA, I didn’t know what to expect. It turned out the bodies had lain in a field for two days before they could be recovered. Even in bodybags, the stench was overwhelming. This was the first time I nearly puked on a flight. That stench stayed with me for a long time and seems to have been the experience the VA used to diagnose me with PTSD. Truth be known, I always felt I was more traumatized by the row after row of aluminum “coffins” I watched being loaded aboard flights back to the US every morning. We always shrugged our shoulders and muttered, “Don’t mean nuttin’. When that didn’t work, we made nervous jokes about those guys getting an “early out,” an early discharge.
Then, one day, ten years after returning from Vietnam, I found myself sitting on the floor of my house, with a gun in hand, contemplating suicide. The court mandated I see a psychiatrist. He was a textbook classic psychiatrist with a gaunt face and neutral look at all times. And, he asked the stereotypical psychiatric questions, “How do you feel today?” “How does saying that make you feel?” “Is that how you want to feel?” “When did you first notice that feeling?” Despite it all, including my reticence to be honest with myself, I muddled through and discovered an important clue to my mental health. Whenever I experienced these episodes of despair and depression, I had a sense of silver. Not silver as in jewelry or utensils or coins, just a sensation of being enveloped in a silvery miasma. I could never understand why that happened until years later.
One day, while looking at photos from Vietnam, I saw the photo below. The aluminum cases behind the flatbed trailer are cargo cases repurposed as coffins. I wasn’t imagining silver, I was seeing aluminum coffins filled with dead GIs, stacked on pallets awaiting transport home. Even then, I stubbornly refused to admit Vietnam had irredeemably changed me. I simply shrugged my shoulders, muttered, “Don’t mean nuttin'” and carried on. I handled stress by keeping Vietnam memories stowed in a small compartment in a dark, dank place in my mind. Whenever I stumbled over it, I muttered, “Don’t mean nuttin.'”
In 2020, that small, decrepit box broke apart from the pressures of Covid-19, Trump and GQP conspiracy nut jobs. One night in 2020, I suddenly started having nightmares about friends from Vietnam, guys I hadn’t spoken to or seen in fifty years. The dreams were so vivid I panicked and reached out to the VA for help. The VA quickly referred me to a therapist experienced in dealing with combat vets.
Fortunately, things have changed in 50 years. I no longer have to go to an office but simply log into the VA Video Connect system and meet via video chat. And, the therapist has been an amazing resource. He’s helped me accept that asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness or failure. Most importantly, he’s helped me understand that therapy isn’t a one & done treatment but a series of steps to make course corrections. We’ve now scaled back to once monthly meetings but I know it’s not going to be easy.
That’s why we need to elect people like Ruben Gallego to US Senate. Ruben was a US Marine in Iraq who has seen and experienced firsthand the horrors of war. Ruben Gallego will ensure that American troops are not sent into battle without a long-term plan for their care after they return, if they return.