3.7 Million Served During 15 Years : War Experiences Haunt Many Vietnam Veterans
Seventeen years after returning from Vietnam, former Army helicopter door gunner Jim Black has a $35,000-a-year job at the Amoco refinery in Whiting, a house of his own, a sweet-natured wife and a 10-year-old stepdaughter who adores him.
He also has nights when he begins to scream in his sleep, crying out “Hit the dirt!” or “Incoming!” or sometimes “Kill the son of a bitch!” Then his wife gets out of bed, turns on the light and calls his name from a safe place on the other side of the room.
Last summer, during such a flashback, he relived a Vietnam episode in which he had emptied his M-16 into a 12-year-old girl who emerged from a hut firing a rifle. Disoriented by the searing memory, he clutched his stepdaughter and sobbed, “I’m sorry I killed you.”
For Jim Black, the war is not yet over.
Over the 15 years of direct U.S. involvement, 3.7 million Americans served in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, and the imprints of that experience have been as variegated as the individuals themselves.
Thousands upon thousands returned home, picked up the threads of their previous lives and simply moved forward. Fortunate in the resilience of their own character--or in the experiences they were spared--the vast majority of Vietnam veterans today seem indistinguishable from their countrymen.
“Most veterans are doing extremely well,” said Dr. Charles Figley, director of the Traumatic Stress Research Program at Purdue University and author of several books on Vietnam veterans.
Some--freshman U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), for example--found catalysts for growth in the violence of war. Kolbe, who believed in the U.S. mission, said his Navy service “helped me learn a lot about myself.”
Similarly, Charles Stackhouse, who spent six years as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese and who is now a computer programmer in Dallas, said: “You can make any experience benefit or hurt you. I choose to let it benefit me. I think it’s made me more patient. More tolerant. More introspective.”
For many others, the legacy of Vietnam has been far less positive.
There are men--gravely wounded but pulled from the brink of death by the almost-miraculous techniques of modern battlefield medicine--who have spent the postwar years in ordeals of anonymous pain.
About 300,000 were wounded while on active duty, and, on an average day, 11,000 Vietnam veterans are still treated at Veterans Administration facilities; 580,000 veterans from that era are still drawing disability benefits.
“I wanted to be an engineer or a doctor,” said Bruce Fowler, of Orlando, Fla., who is confined to a wheelchair and has periodic seizures from a head injury. “Instead, I let myself become addicted to drugs"--the morphine, codeine and other pain-killing drugs he took after being severely wounded.
Fowler’s struggle against the devastating physical legacy of his service in Vietnam has at last been marked by a measure of success--and by its own kind of private valor--but it has not brought him the dreams of his youth.
Then there are those like Black, seared by experiences they cannot absorb and struggling against a different kind of agony. “I grew up fast,” Black says. “I went there a teen-ager. But when I came home, I was an old man.”
Dr. John Wilson, a Cleveland psychologist who has studied thousands of Vietnam veterans suffering from what he calls post-traumatic stress disorder, believes that many “are frozen in time and space.”
“Psychologically, many of these men still live a great part of their day-to-day lives in Vietnam,” Wilson said. “Many things seem pale compared to that experience. For many Vietnam veterans, a deep part of their identity--who they are today--is that 19-year-old soldier. When you’ve been through an immense period of trauma, it transforms you as a person. It creates a strong need to preserve that part of the identity shaped by the experience. The question is not, how do you get rid of the memories, but how do they become part of you in ways that are not destructive?”
Said psychologist Figley, “Whenever you’ve had the hell scared out of you, or you kill someone, or someone tries to kill you, or succeeds in killing someone you know or care about--that takes a long while to get over.”
Experts say Vietnam veterans have been slower to readjust than veterans of other wars. American soldiers in Vietnam were about five years younger than their World War II counterparts, averaging 19--a fragile age, psychologists say, when combat experiences can have a serious impact on the way values and adult identities develop.
Also, Vietnam was a war without definition, a guerrilla war where the strategy seemed haphazard--and where the enemy often included women and children.
Finally, veterans returning from Vietnam were not accorded a traditional homecoming. Instead of parades, they were met with hostility, heckling or indifference.
“All cultures recognize that when we send someone to battle, it’s difficult psychologically,” Wilson said. “They are taught to kill in ritualistic ways. After the battle, most cultures also have a ritualized way of welcoming back the warrior and giving him a new identity and a new status in society.
“But we didn’t do it for Vietnam veterans. . . . Many men felt isolated after Vietnam. They had to create meaning and make sense of what they did in Vietnam--and they had to do it alone.”
Even Jamie Bryant, a Charlotte, N.C., lawyer who was opposed to the war when he went to Vietnam but had a trouble-free transition to civilian life, still remembers how strange it felt when no one asked him about his experience.
“It was the spookiest thing,” he said. “In over ten years, there has really never been anybody who has asked me: ‘What happened to you over there? What was it like?’ It’s like having a whole year of your life that didn’t exist. When you first get back, you don’t think about it much. Then you begin to wonder why no one asks the questions. Then you begin to feel like maybe it really isn’t something you should talk about.”
Jim Black talks about it all the time.
“There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t talk about Vietnam, not a single day that it isn’t brought up,” said his wife, Marcia, 31, who married him in 1977, two years after his first marriage broke up. “It won’t ever be forgotten in his lifetime.”
Black, 38, greeted a recent visitor to his home wearing a T-shirt that said “1st Cavalry Division, Ft. Hood, Tex.” and a shiny belt buckle that proclaimed, “Vietnam Veteran.” On one finger was a gold ring with the shape of Vietnam on it.
He went to war in 1967, when he was 19. “I was a kid,” he said, “but I was charged up. All the guys I went through basic with, we thought we’d stick together. . . . They were teaching us, ‘Kill or be killed.’ I was there to root out the enemy and kill the Viet Cong. Our rule was, ‘If it ran, shoot it. If it shot at you--kill it.’
“I never shot at anybody that was running unless I could spot a weapon,” he added. “I don’t have any remorse or guilt feelings about any of the enemy I killed, because they were in the act of trying to kill me. I never killed anyone who didn’t want to kill me or one of my buddies.”
The first time he saw a friend die, Black said, “I went kill crazy. It was like somebody turned a switch.”
Yet the incident with the 12-year-old child haunts him.
‘The Last Flashback’
“She came out of a hootch shooting,” he recalled. “She hit two of my buddies square in the chest, and another guy in the leg. It bothered me that she was 12 years old. The last flashback I had, I grabbed Marcie (his daughter) thinking I’d killed her.”
During the Tet offensive, Black’s helicopter was forced down eight times--the last time in the Ashau Valley, and he and several other Americans were captured by the North Vietnamese.
“They beat me around a little, hit me with sticks and clubs, but I was just a door gunner. I wasn’t an officer. I didn’t know much,” he said. “Sometimes during the night, I could hear the other men screaming, blood-curdling screams. Listening to a grown man scream--it affects your nerves. I’d end up screaming along with them.”
One morning, he says, after a night of screams, he watched one of the Americans being carried to the edge of a cliff and flung over. “He was as limp as a rag,” he said. “I think he was already dead.”
Several days later, his captors began marching him and five others northward.
‘A Glorious Sight’
“We stopped near a stream and two of them left to fill their canteens. We jumped the other two guards who were watching us. I grabbed one guy’s rifle and put ten rounds into him. Then we started running. We followed the stream until it turned into a river. One night, we heard the sound of a motor boat. It was a river patrol boat. One of ours. I saw Old Glory on the mast--what a glorious sight.”
He returned home in June, 1968, troubled and unprepared for what awaited him: nightmares, flashbacks and a terrible sense of isolation. He says that when he met Marcia, he dared not reveal his torment. “I was afraid I’d scare her off,” he said.
“It seems like it’s getting easier and easier,” she said, “but I never know when he’s going to slip back. I worry when I see the signs--he gets dark rings under his eyes, he doesn’t shave, he lets himself go.”
The situation has improved in recent years, both said, owing largely to his participation in veterans’ “rap groups.” Also, a recent visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington made a profound difference. “I left a lot of Vietnam there,” he said. “I left it at the wall.”
Even at the beginning, Jamie Bryant was never charged up.
It was 1970 and he was 26, just out of law school and married with two young children. He did not approve of what the United States was doing in Vietnam. And he was scared. “I didn’t want to die,” he said.
Having taken ROTC at Davidson College, he entered the service as a first lieutenant and was soon made a captain. He was given a 13-week training course--including instruction in the Vietnamese language. “The military was very practical,” he remembered, laughing. “If you invited me to dinner, I could ask you to pass me the hand grenades in Vietnamese--but not the radishes.”
Although not a combat assignment, his work in the Mekong Delta required him to spend several days each week in local villages and hamlets meeting with Vietnamese officials and Viet Cong defectors.
‘VC Were Waiting’
“Once, I made a mistake,” said Bryant, now 41. “We went in the same road and came out the same road--and the VC were waiting when we came out. This one Vietnamese guy was killed. He wouldn’t have died that day, if not for my mistake. I took him home to his wife. They didn’t have enough money for a coffin to bury him in. I paid for the coffin. He was only in his 20s. It was so senseless.
“It was the first time I had ever seen anybody die. It felt like someone had reached down your throat and pulled your insides out.”
During his 11 months there, he developed a deep attachment to the Vietnamese.
“They were a very gentle people,” he said. “They were incredibly hospitable. They reminded me of Southerners when I was growing up. When I left the country I had a horrible feeling of guilt, like I was abandoning these people. Ever since I got home, I’ve wanted to go back. I have this wonderful fantasy of meeting some of the people I knew then and finding out they are alive and well.”
Bruce Fowler, also 41, has had five operations on his back since he came home from Vietnam in 1968.
He spent three years in Vietnam as a medic with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division. “We were supposed to be tough guys, but I can tell you, I was scared,” he said. “There I was, out in the field, not a doctor, and at the age of 21 trying to decide if there’s enough leg left on someone to sew it back on--or cut it off.”
Bullet wounds and shrapnel in his spine, head and leg sent him back to the States. “I was walking when I got home,” he said. “I became paralyzed during the fourth operation, when they were trying to get the bullet out.”
He turned to painkillers--chiefly morphine and codeine--and became addicted.
“In 17 years, I built up a lot of problems, a lot of obstacles that you can take one at a time,” he said. “I feel bitter that I let myself get addicted to drugs. I would have gone on to become a doctor or an engineer.”
He does not have a job--he says periodic seizures make him unemployable--but his outlook is not bleak. Four years ago, he broke the drug habit--"I just rolled myself up to the mirror and said, ‘You got four more codeine tablets and when those wear off, you’re going to go through withdrawal as best you can.’ .”
He has a solid 14-year marriage to a woman he met while recuperating in a VA hospital. And he spends his time counseling other Vietnam veterans at a local readjustment center.
“I’m doing real well now,” he said. “I’m dealing with it. And I feel like now I’m really going to make it this time.”
“When I came home, the world had changed. My God, it rotated triple speed while we were over there. The sexual revolution. Women’s liberation. The price of things. Different clothes. Different speech. A different-thinking society.”
On April 25, 1967, Navy Lt. Charles Stackhouse, 27, was shot down flying an A-4C Skyhawk during an air strike against a storage area south of Haiphong harbor in what was then North Vietnam.
“The first time I pulled the ejection handle it didn’t work--which was fortunate, because I was upside down,” he said. “I pulled it again as the plane was righting itself. This was 60 seconds before I could have ejected safely into the water and been picked up by a ‘friendly.’ Instead, I turned 60 seconds into six years.”
He landed in a rice paddy. Villagers cut off all his clothes except his underwear and turned him over to the North Vietnamese army.
For the next six years, he divided his time between a place known as “the zoo"--an old French movie production compound--and the “Hanoi Hilton,” the downtown prison where many POWs were held.
‘A Tap Code’
“We communicated between cells,” he said. “Someone developed a tap code, one tap for ‘A,’ two for ‘B.’ . . . It took a while to learn it, but there was nothing like talking to each other.”
He says he never tried to escape and always remained optimistic about his release. “I thought it would be longer than one year, but I never thought it would be as long as it turned out. And I never lost track of a day--what day of the week it was, or the year. I knew exactly.”
He was released in March, 1973, and repatriated with hundreds of other POWs. “We were showered with love and it was tough to handle emotionally,” he said. “It was easier getting shot down than it was coming back. I knew what to expect when I got shot down. I didn’t know what to expect when I got back.”
The Rev. Ray Stubbe, an ordained minister who is no longer active in a particular church, remembers Vietnam as a country of extremes. “Sandy places and tortuous mountains,” he said. “Beauty and ugliness. Terror and peace. You’d get mortared, and then everything would be normal.”
Stubbe went on active duty in the Navy chaplain corps in 1967 and immediately was sent to Khe Sanh. “I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do, so I got into the pattern of going out on patrol with the men, looking for the enemy’s presence,” he said.
On January 21, 1968, he said, “All of a sudden, we found ourselves surrounded by 40,000 of the enemy, North Vietnamese regulars. We took heavy artillery and rockets. We took 1,600 rounds a day of heavy artillery, a round that would leave a crater so big that you could stand in it with your head below the surface.”
It went on for months.
“I lost a lot of very close friends,” Stubbe said. “I’d go from bunker to bunker to see how the people were and have a prayer with them. After a while, we became oblivious to everything. Numb.”
Plague of Nightmares
For Stubbe, the “revulsion, fear and tears and the anger” he repressed in Vietnam led to a severely troubled readjustment, plagued by nightmares, migraine headaches and “withdrawing from people almost from the time I got home.”
“I kept dreaming of the bunkers, of people who were dead and their coming back to life. I’d wonder where the rest of them were. I’d see the goriness of it, the blood and the people shot up. I talked to doctors who said people come back and everything’s OK. Well, it’s not true. It’s a big myth.”
Stubbe, now 47 and living in Milwaukee, finally received help from an in-patient psychiatric stress disorder program at the VA Medical Center in north Chicago. “The memories are still there, but I know what they are and I can deal with them now,” he said.
“In a sense, those were very good days. It sounds funny after all I’ve said, but we all got very close to each other, even though we didn’t always know each other’s names. There was a sharing of the basics of life. Here, people are roles and masks and functions. There, people were people. There were no organs, pews or stained glass but it was much more meaningful and intimate than it has ever been for me since.”
Jim Kolbe, 42, the newly elected Republican congressman from Arizona, recalls his Vietnam service with pride. “It was a very positive experience for me, the things I was doing, the amount of responsibility I had,” he said.
He was hungry for a Vietnam assignment when he went on active duty in the Navy in 1967. Eventually, he began directing operations of a coastal patrol with the mission of tracking supplies into Vietnam through the country’s endless river systems.
It was a role that rarely placed him in danger, although “I would try to get out on patrols.”
More than 60% of the men in his unit were either wounded or killed, he said.
“I’ll never forget the first patrol I was in charge of where we lost men,” he said. He had dispatched five boats to a village district headquarters. Three hours later, their work completed, the Americans returned over the same river route. As it was later reported to him, Kolbe said:
“All of a sudden, a B-40 rocket comes out of nowhere. It hit one guy right in the chest and another guy standing next to him. They never knew what hit them. I went over and over in my own mind, what could I have done differently? If I’d only been there. . . .”
Another time, he said, his closest friend was killed by “friendly fire,” accidental fire from U.S. troops. “The futility that somebody should have to die that way--it was so discouraging,” he said.
Yet, he was a believer in the war. “I tried to be professional,” he said, although some of the events and the way in which the war was conducted “caused me to do a lot of soul searching.”
But, he added: “I didn’t let it eat away at me as some did.”
“Maybe I was able to handle it because I was older, more mature. I had been to college. I had an understanding of what I was about. I didn’t come back with this terrible thing locked inside of me. . . . I could have felt guilt over some of the operations, over losing my friend. I can’t tell you why I didn’t suffer all that but I didn’t.”