I Left A War To Fight An Unwelcome Country When I Returned; 50+ Years Later, It Still Burns!
We stood amidst angry protestors. Fresh off the plane from war, we were happy to be alive! We had survived.
About me: I am a Permanent and Totally (P&T) disabled combat veteran of the Vietnam War. I am sharing my experiences with my mental health after the war in the hope it helps someone else find peace.
When I came home, I pledged I would never forget the men and women who weren’t able to board a plane home. I promised I would try to live a life that would make them proud, one that would honor each of them for their sacrifices.
I was refreshed, but very weary! As the plane landed at Seattle-Tacoma airport near Seattle, Washington, the long ride home had given me a chance to catch up on some desperately-needed sleep. It didn’t soothe the heaviness in my heart. That would stay with me forever!
Touching down on U.S. soil made us grin from ear to ear, and many of us took the chance to kiss the ground as we deplaned, including me. Each of us clambered down the ramp steps, took several steps to the left or right, then did a military push-up to kiss the ground, the ground we had fought so hard to defend.
One by one, they shepherded us into a nearby hanger, where we each collected our duffel bag, then made our way to the airport’s entry gate to await our next flight — the one that would take many of us home, finally.
Strangely, none of us were boisterous or cheering, although, to a man, we were internally happy and relieved to have made it this far. As for me and how I felt? I was a very confused soldier!
I had just left the fields of Vietnam. All my buddies would have to fend for themselves. They sent me to the rear echelon to turn in my weapons and swap my fatigues for civilian clothes.
I admit, I felt naked without my weapons, even though I was ‘safe’ in the rear unit and no longer at the tip of the spear. Safety was such a relative term because, at a moment’s notice, mortar rounds from our elusive enemy could harass us into fortified bunkers.
Every part of me wanted to leave, yet I didn’t want to leave. We hadn’t finished this skirmish, and I didn’t want to leave until it was done. I didn’t want to be a quitter! There was a large part of me that wanted to get my ass on the plane and get out of this hellhole. Another part wanted to stay. I waxed and waned between ‘I don’t want to go home,’ and ‘I don’t want to die!’
The stronger part won.
They put me on the plane, but there was a somberness to every man on there. No one was celebrating. I reckoned it was because of all the death, destruction, and senselessness we had seen.
So, yeah, I had all these thoughts coagulating in my brain, revved in neutral: Should I be sad or happy? Should I cry to flush out the misery I felt inside? Why can’t I cry? When did I become numb? Why can’t I be my old self — happy and carefree? I had no answers, only doubts, and fears that I’d never forget what I had seen.
Logic told me to leave all that crap behind — out of sight, out of mind! Don’t take it home. Don’t burden my family with all the tragic memories swirling around in my mind. Sluff it off, no big deal!
Well, that sounds good, in theory. But my memories wedged themselves deep into a corner of my brain I had never before visited. They hid in a small room, locked behind a door I don’t have a key for, and it would take a great deal of time, effort, and help from others to break down the door, to expose the terror they held!
They gave us a steak dinner while we were in the hanger — a treat for a job well done, they said. I was puzzled!
“How do they know?” I wondered. They weren’t there! They didn’t spend a year witnessing what we witnessed. Define well-done! What, because we made it home alive, we did a good job? That’s an awfully low bar you’ve set there, sir!
After dinner, it was time for them to disperse us to our airport gates, so we wouldn’t be late for our next flight. They marched us from the tarmac to the airport’s waiting doors, nearby. Looking into the windows of the airport, as we got closer, we noticed a pretty sizeable crowd waiting for us, and we got excited. We shouldn’t have!
Welcome home, soldier! You prick!
As soon as we stepped foot into the airport, people started booing and screaming at us!
“Baby killers,” yelled one.
“Assholes,“’ ”yelled another.
“How many mothers and babies did you kill?” asked a third.
Then all hell broke loose! Someone had thrown an empty water bottle at us. Another had spit at us. Shoving and fighting with the demonstrators broke out. En masse, they turned and splintered into different directions. That didn’t matter! All we needed was to catch one of them to teach them a lesson.
Military police (MPs) were close by. They came charging between us and these goading demonstrators. They weren’t there to arrest anyone — oh no, no, no; they were there strictly for protection!
It wouldn’t look nice for the Armed Forces if we step off a plane, then get arrested for defending ourselves.
The pockets of protesters soon dissipated. They had been a group of about 75–100 strong. They withered into 5 or 6 in a group, a level much easier for the MPs to control.
After the brouhaha subsided, I made it to my gate without further confrontations. I was getting eager to go home! I made a call from a payphone to let my family know my arrival time and flight info. I didn’t have much change on me to keep feeding Ma Bell, so they assured me they would be there to greet me with open arms and love in their hearts.
Once on the plane in Seattle, I felt drained. I had a short stop in Dallas to switch planes, then plopped down in my hometown, Louisville, Kentucky. I de-planed without incident and started my trek through the airport to get my duffel bag and find my family.
They found me first, and my two youngest sisters ran to hug me tightly. As we caught up with the rest of the family, Mom was first to hug me, and naturally, she wouldn’t let go. Dad slid next to me, and we had a long group hug, the three of us.
My brother was next. He said something like “I’m going to treat you like a man, and shake your hand.”
I said: “Like hell, you are,” and gave him a great big bear hug!
Then, my other two sisters grabbed me and hugged me, and we all melted into one big crying session, right there in the middle of the airport.
People passing by on their way to their flight gate said nothing. Some gave quizzical glances. Others tried to ignore us. That was okay with me! I had made it home again, and the emotions overflowed everyone.
It was a Sunday, around 9:30 in the morning when I landed. Mom asked me, ‘What’s the first thing you want to do, wanna’ grab a bite to eat? I thanked her but told her no. The first thing I wanted to do was go to church, to thank God for delivering me from the hands of evil, back into my family’s arms — and that’s exactly what we did!
After church, we finally went home where I could relax. As we pulled in the driveway, I could see a huge ‘WELCOME HOME, KENNY!’ sign perched on our front lawn. It made me smile and cry at the same time!
We walked through our back door into our kitchen, where there was a cake on the table and balloons on all the chairs. It looked like it was party time.
Pop, goes the weasel!
Settling in at home would not be easy for me. I realized this about an hour after coming home.
Mom was talking to me, throwing questions at me a mile a minute, so my focus was on her and what she was saying. She was cutting the cake to make sure there would be enough portions for everyone (It was a small, round cake).
Dad was beside me and told me he wanted me to hear a new singer he liked, someone named Herb Alpert. So, I turned to go into the living room with him. Just as I did, I heard a loud POP! I spread-eagled on the kitchen floor, thinking it was gunfire. It turned out to be a balloon popping.
That’s all it took to get everyone crying again, only this time, they weren’t tears of joy. Vietnam had changed me — welcome home!
My Three Amigos!
News of fighting battles in Vietnam was on all the local networks. Someone started calling it the TV War because the news would usually be on at dinner time, and they were constantly giving updates on how the war was going.
I found myself mesmerized by these newscasts. I waited anxiously to see Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, and David Brinkley each night. They were my eyes to the outside world. They kept me abreast of the fighting.
A part of me never came home. I left it somewhere in the jungle, with my buddies.
I listened intently to all the news shows, hoping to hear a mention of my unit, but none came. The Tet Offensive of 1968 was exploding as I left the country, and the fighting was fierce. The news stations covered it as well as they could, but it took special permissions to send reporters to the front lines, where the fighting was happening.
Those who are old enough to remember these reports, I assure you, the news you saw on TV was a mustard seed glimpse of what had transpired.
All the news stations were hesitant to show the blood and guts at dinner time. They reserved those scenes for the 11:00 newscast after the children went to bed.
My furlough lasted for 30 days. After that, I had to report to Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, for my next duty assignment. Between my arrival home and leaving again, I attended family parties and functions with friends to celebrate my return.
We were outside of one event, on a basketball court at my brother’s friend’s house, when his friend started questioning me about the war. He asked terrible, invasive questions:
“‘How many men did you kill?’ he asked.
‘Were they armed at the time?” came another query.
‘How do you feel about the war, now that you have seen all the protesters back here in America?” he wanted to know.
The Army didn’t prepare me for a game of one-on-one, or tit-for-tat questions from an asshole, so I asked my brother if we could leave, and he agreed.
“Man, how rude!” I thought to myself. I refrained from saying anything to this supposed friend of my brother. I just smiled! I would not let him see I was seething underneath.
From confused to confounded.
If this had been a one-off, I probably could have forgotten about it. That wasn’t the case. At each event I attended, it seemed someone had a negative view to express, always within my earshot, but never directly to me. A subtle embarrassment was the way to give me their disapproval.
Whatever floats your boat, I guess. I felt no embarrassment at all. My country had called upon me to serve, and I did — no questions asked. I wasn’t asking for anyone’s permission to feel good about myself. That’s their damn problem, not mine.
Those who are old enough to remember these reports, I assure you, the news you saw was a mustard seed glimpse of what transpired there.
I spent the rest of my active duty time at Ft. Bragg. When I left the service, I had another three years of inactive duty to serve, until August of 1972.
What is significant about this is: After I came home from Vietnam no one offered to debrief me about what I saw, or experienced, nor did they inquire about my mental well-being? Not once!
I counseled myself for 8 years by telling myself how strong I am, and to suck it up! That’s what soldiers do! They suck it up, then move on to the next objective. I tried every trick I know to stop thinking about Vietnam.
When I was discharged in 1969, I found myself exhausting every effort to remain communicative! I told myself I was not going to be an Army statistic. I would not abuse drugs or alcohol. I would find gainful employment and not flit from one job to the next. I didn’t want my life to consist of homelessness.
No matter how strong I was, I couldn’t do it alone.
As I was trying to live today and forget yesterday, it became harder to forge onward, when everyone around me knew that I was not okay. I realized I needed someone else to help me in my search for answers.
At bedtime, I’d start out in bed with my wife, but then sometime during the night, I’d either roll off the bed or fall off onto the ground. The ground brought me sleep. I was accustomed to maintaining a low profile. I was comfortable on the ground.
I found myself short-tempered, easily confused, at a loss for words, with a heightened startle reaction. I doubted myself and kept praying to God to help me ease the sorrow I felt.
I have been through counseling sessions with numerous social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists over the years — each of them giving me exposure sessions, or coping skills, or medication for the anxiety, despair, depression, and nightmares. I felt like I was a guinea pig or a proving ground for new treatments.
In 1979, the Veterans Administration (VA) started a program called Vet Centers, located in many cities throughout the country. They staffed them with trained counselors to help us work through some of our “issues.” In 1980, I attended my first session.
Everyone who attended these sessions had their chairs positioned up against the wall. It seems most of the symptoms I expressed in these one-hour meetings were echoed by other service members who attended as well. But, to a man, none of them ever opened up to let us know what their experience had been like. They kept maintaining their “suck it up” mode, hoping their problems would just go away.
I did that for 8 years and had little progress to show for it.
The VA kept changing the program, changing counselors, and not formally recognizing we were suffering from PTSD. They didn’t want to classify this disorder, this syndrome, as being a result of our exposures in Vietnam. We would submit claim after claim for compensation for our now-twisted minds, and we would keep getting denied.
My frustrations grew larger! Each time someone new was assigned to me, they would want to “start from the beginning,” and have me relay why I was there in the first place. I grew so weary of telling my “story” and going through this process that I stopped attending sessions.
Before counseling, I could not function each day. I was despondent, always tired from lack of sleep, edgy, and always on guard. As hard as I tried to keep my wife and kids insulated from a moment’s notice outburst, I didn’t always succeed. That means they suffered because of me.
I can’t remember exactly when the words ‘I’m sorry’ rang hollow when I had to apologize for something offensive I had said or done. The effects of PTSD were always present as if I was born with them.
I didn’t know who I was or how I was supposed to act. I would become exasperated when someone would suggest I needed help, killing the messenger instead of heeding the advice they offered.
There were times when I would leave the house on a whim, then take a drive to who knows where. One time, I had driven to a park and just sat in the car, eventually dosing off for what I thought would be a catnap. It would be three hours later when I awoke.
Another time, I had driven nearly 100 miles before I realized where I was. I couldn’t remember how I got there. I didn’t remember seeing any road signs to guide me… I just drove.
“Deep Dark Depression, Excessive Misery.” *
All of these ‘minor incidents,’ as I would call them, added to the burden of depression I was feeling. There was no end in sight. The cycle kept repeating itself over and over again.
That was when I finally understood I needed help.
Others would offer advice from time to time, but that old saying holds true:
“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink!”
I had to want help before a resolution would be found.
I may have turned off my engagement with the VA, but that wasn’t a remedy. I still had problems to resolve. So, I set out once again in the late '90s and sought outside professional help.
The man I saw at my bi-weekly visits was very consistent with his line of reasoning and always showed up. I was never once stood up, which I couldn’t say about the VA because they would constantly call to reschedule my appointments. I felt good about that aspect of my visits with him.
His counseling was expensive! I had to portion the amount of time I spent with him because my mental health benefits would soon run out. It was toward the end of these sessions that he recommended a program called Outward Bound. It was an alpine mountaineering course in the Colorado mountains which lasted for two weeks.
He had enrolled me in their program and got a discounted rate for me. All I had to do was buy a plane ticket. I discussed it with my wife, and she agreed it might help. I had attended several ‘exposure therapy’ sessions prior to this and I thought “what the hell, why not?”
Spending two weeks in the weeds and stones of the Marble Mountain range in Colorado did me some good. But, it also brought back more memories than I care to share with you. Let’s just say the psychologist and I parted on good terms when I returned from this trip.
The well ran dry.
Another long drought ensued between my last visit and my next visit. In 2004, I was seen by a VA psychiatrist. He put me on Bupropion, Prozac, and Hydroxyzine Pamoate to help control the nightmares, anxiety, and bouts of depression I would have. He started me with low dosages, which did nothing to ease my symptoms.
I monitored my actions for a week, then called, asking him to increase the dosage. He did mention these medicines would be on a trial basis until we could find a proper dosage for me. I remember asking him ‘How long do I have to take these?’ His reply stunned me. He said ‘forever!’
You talk about a kick in the teeth, I couldn’t totally fathom taking pills for the rest of my life. He wrote out prescriptions for all three of them and told me I could pick them up at the VA Hospital for free.
Before I agreed to take them, I told him I wanted a second opinion. He arranged for me to meet with one of his colleagues, who would give a thorough review of my VA medical file and then send it off for my other counselors’ notes.
The entire process took 90 days before he could schedule another appointment with me. When we met, he filled me in on everything the other psychiatrist had observed. He came to the conclusion that I suffered from PTSD.
Duh! I wasn’t mad by this pronouncement, but I was frustrated yet again!
As we were talking about my next steps, he remembered a new ‘exposure therapy’ that was available. He didn’t run this type of program, but he put me in contact with the head psychologist at the hospital. She had conducted all the training classes for the counselors, and he thought she may be able to help me.
That turned out to be the best suggestion I’ve ever heard. So, I scheduled an appointment with her, started from scratch again for the umpteenth time, told her where I’d been, what I’ve been going through, whom I had seen, where I had gone, and how I ended up seeing her.
She immediately scheduled me for two weekly visits for 12 weeks in a row. She explained the program to me step-by-step, explained what I could expect to accomplish and the various tasks I would be required to perform. It sounded like it might actually work, so I agreed to enroll, and away we went.
(As an aside, no wonder the suicide rates among veterans are so high! We can’t get the help we need fast enough to help address all these tattered feelings.)
“Drip-dry when you get out of the shower.’
She was methodical and patient in each therapy session until, bit by bit, week by week, she had me opening up, reliving some of the experiences I had been through which were tucked away in that room way in the back of my mind.
It was as if, magically, she had found the key to that door, the door that had been controlling all my emotions, all the anger, nightmares, and angst I had been feeling for so long — that little door had finally been flung open.
She was able to regulate the dosage of several of my medicines because the amount I was taking hadn’t done any good.
One activity I had to attempt included taking a shower, then drip-dry instead of using a towel. I had told her I hate getting wet in the rain — it reminded me of the monsoon season in Vietnam; She felt exposure to self-drying might remind me it’s okay if I get caught in a rainstorm.
I did that for a week. I still hate rain showers. But the lesson had been learned: I won’t get hurt if I’m getting showered with verbal assaults.
Another activity was to go to a local hospital and sit in the open reception area. Sitting with my back to the wall would not be allowed. There had to be exposure to me from all sides. I did this one because I hate hospitals.
They remind me of trauma units in Vietnam, where I visited one of my buddies who took a direct hit from a mortar round. When I completed this exposure, I felt completely naked and alone.
I won’t bore you with all the activities, but there were others I had to attempt. Each one brought out one more ‘stumbling block,’ as she called them. When I found one, we would discuss it at length until I could find a suitable solution for dealing with it moving forward.
I now sleep on my side of the bed, without rolling or falling off (most nights) and without the nightmare visitations I had been having. I learned new breathing techniques, new stress relievers, and exercises I can perform when I start getting uptight about my surroundings. Most importantly, they work!
Before and after.
What a relief it is to have the tools needed to control myself! After 50+ years of counseling, I feel a peace and contentment with myself I haven’t felt for a very long time.
It wasn’t easy! It never will be easy! But it was definitely worth it.
I have incorporated many changes throughout all of these sessions:
I have changed my thoughts. I am very reflective now instead of being so judgmental with people.
I have changed my actions. I know who and what to avoid. I don't make spur-of-the-moment decisions.
I have changed my reactions and over-reactions. One-Mississippi, Two-Mississippi… it works.
I have completely changed my outlook on life. No more sullen outlook.
I have re-defined ‘happy.’ I find great joy in the little things now!
I have adapted routines and suggestions into actionable, repeatable processes to improve my mood swings.
I have learned to quit being so hard on myself. Quit measuring myself in terms of “right” or “wrong.”
I now understand how a viewpoint different than mine can lead to more personal growth for me as a person.
I worked very hard throughout all these ordeals to make my fellow soldiers proud — the men and women who didn’t get to hop on a plane and fly home. I have lived with their memory close to my heart all these years and will continue to remember them for the rest of my life.
When I take my twice-a-day medicines, I pretend I’m feeding these men and women some solace, for all the pain they have endured. I tell them “I remember!” May they rest in peace.
Thanks for reading this! I appreciate it!
*Buck Owens and Roy Clark-