My Friend Paul and the Poison of
War - A003
We called him Scrounger, but
his real name was Paul. He was an amazing young man who
could get us so many things that we needed when no one else
could, not even the brass. Paul was a corporal, in fact,
our Ammo Corporal, and he was my best friend in Vietnam.
Some of the other men were envious of his position and power.
His boldness served him well as he made the connections
and swung the deals with other Marine units. I always felt
a little wowed by his abilities and confidence.
Even though, at 20, I was a year older, I remember he was
far more self-assured and able to shape his world as he
saw fit. He loved scooting around the base on his M247 Mechanical
Mule, a small, motorized flatbed vehicle that was a predecessor
to today’s ATVs. If he thought he could swap something
with another nearby base, like Hill 55—our Battalion
Headquarters, he’d strap a few bandoliers over his
shoulder and toss his M16 on top of whatever he had to trade
(seems our nylon poncho liners were worth their weight in
gold), and take off with not so much as a “by your
leave, sir” to anyone and then return with the materials
to construct a shower—and cases of beer. In contrast,
I was terrified to leave the security of our base alone.
Plus, he pulled his weight on the operations, the night
ambushes, the fire fights, and the search and destroy missions.
Thirty-one years after I left Vietnam, I published a memoir
of my experiences, Fire in the Hole: A Mortarman in Vietnam,
and I talked about my friend, Paul. A year later, in the
fall of 2002, Paul’s older brother, Chuck, called
me when he discovered my book. He told me that Paul had
died in a car accident ten years earlier but he offered
no details. This sparked a flurry of letters and phone conversations
with other members of Paul’s large family and his
wife, Hope. One morning, Chuck called me and said, “I
read your book while on vacation and I knew I had to tell
you something. Paul did not die in an automobile accident.
He committed suicide.”
The news crushed me but also confirmed my suspicions. After
I settled down, I asked if he thought Vietnam was a significant
factor. Chuck said that, in a way, Paul never left Vietnam.
He said that, in spite of his tremendous accomplishments,
he never felt he had done enough in Vietnam. He was driven
to succeed in everything he tried. He was a great father
to his three boys and a loving husband. He explained that
he had named his daughter, Paula, after Paul and that Paul
was a wonderful uncle. “But when he spent the night
at our house, he always asked for two extra pillows.”
Chuck paused in his description. “I asked him why
once and he said he needed to put them over his ears to
keep out the sounds of the exploding rounds or he couldn’t
get to sleep.”
I wanted to know how he died but I also sensed the telling
of this dark family secret was wearing on Chuck. He did
tell me, though. He said that Paul used to make the trip
between his home in Niagara Falls, New York to Hampton,
Virginia for all of Paula’s birthdays. It was on such
a trip that the ghosts of Vietnam took complete control.
Halfway to Chuck’s house for Paula’s tenth birthday
party, Paul stopped and pulled off the road. He emptied
a can of gas into the inside of his car, tied himself to
the steering wheel, and flicked his lighter. “They
identified him through his dental records.”
Sobs racked my body and the phrase “death by firefight”
kept rolling through my brain as I tried to absorb what
my friend’s older brother was telling me. Then came
the realization that suicide was the choice of someone who
had shared my same experiences.
I composed myself after the conversation with Chuck and
called Paul’s wife, Hope, to let her know that I knew.
Like Chuck, she confirmed that Vietnam was the source of
Paul’s mental problems and suicide. It was a sub-thought
to his every moment, awake and asleep. Through her own choking
tears, she confessed her feelings about Paul’s suicide
note. On top of the terrible anger at Paul for taking himself
away from her and their boys, she resented him for not saying
a word about her or the boys in his last letter. All fourteen
pages were about Vietnam and his shame at not doing enough
over there. She said that, in a strange way, she wanted
to be more of a factor in his suicide.
Three days before I learned of Paul’s suicide, I was
devastated by the loss of two other friends who went down
in a small plane in Northern Minnesota. One of them, another
Paul, was Paul Wellstone. Senator Wellstone read my book
and told me he loved it. He wrote this in a blurb for it:
“It is our public responsibility to those who fought
the Vietnam War to tell their story to the next generation.”
We veterans have a special obligation to speak out about
the atrocity we call war.
A short time later, President Bush invaded Iraq and scenes
of war triggered another psychological “crash;”
something I had experienced periodically since returning
from Vietnam. My crashes feel falling into a dark pit of
emptiness. With my wife, Cynthia’s, help, I decided
finally to seek professional help. I called a fellow Vietnam
vet and friend who dropped everything and sort of held my
hand through the intake process at the VA early the next
morning. It reminded me of the sponsor role for AA members.
I began a course of treatment, beginning at the VA and then
with a private therapist. Like me, my therapist was a Marine
grunt who saw combat in Vietnam and he also shares my interest
in Eastern Philosophy. We were on the same wavelength. Eventually,
the VA determined I was suffering from combat-related, post
traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I underwent nine months
of intense talk therapy (without drugs) that culminated
in a three-month medical leave of absence from my job. The
experience was transformative.
Jung wrote, “One does
not become enlightened by imagining figures of light but
by making the darkness conscious.” Such was my conscious
exploration of my PTSD. Through the help of my therapist,
I learned to recognize this deep, debilitating sadness as
a psychological place with two warring inhabitants: The
first is the traumatized twenty-year-old soldier, and the
other is the falsely empowered young man who takes on an
attitude of contempt for his own pain. To use a male-female
analogy, the timid “feminine” voice feels the
pain of the trauma of war and the tears flow, and a moment
later the harsh “masculine” voice immediately
says to stuff it and quit whining. It was like those two
cartoon characters of the devil and angel that sit on opposite
shoulders giving opposite directions. In Vietnam, we used
to say, “It don’t mean nothin.” It was
a necessary lie then and most of us continued to live that
lie for decades after we got back.
My crash experience is like turning emotional cartwheels—feeling,
stuffing, crying, being embarrassed, then berating myself;
then start over again. I did not understand it; could not
explain it; could not control it. My crying like a baby
so embarrassed me, I only felt safe in Cynthia’s loving
arms. This would go on and on until I didn’t think
I had any more tears left in me, and the day had gone by.
Of course, for years I had also exhibited the typical external
manifestations of PTSD including hyper-vigilance, startle
response, agitation, emotional numbing, etc.
I learned that PTSD is a form of depression. We use defenses
to suppress traumatic memories and to mask the internal
depression. Many vets medicated their pain with alcohol
and other drugs. Here are comparisons of Vietnam vets to
their peers twenty years after the end of the war:
• Alcohol and drug abuse: 5 times greater
• Divorce rate: 4 times greater
• Unemployment: 3 times greater
• Suicides: 3 times greater.
It’s getting worse: A 2007 CBS news investigation
found that in 2005, veterans between the ages of 20-24 were
up to 4 times as likely to commit suicide as their civilian
peers. Currently, veterans make up one in four homeless
people in the United States, although we are only 11% of
the general adult population; that figure already includes
vets from the First Gulf war and the Iraq and Afghanistan
Like my dear friend, Paul, my drug of choice fit my near-Type-A
personality. I became a compulsive overachiever bent on
seeking constant approval from others—performance-based
self-esteem; what a good friend called, “atta-boys.”
My therapist said that the harsh boy had served to protect
me from the poison of war and to help me develop a good
life but that I was now mature enough and strong enough
to take the next step and re-integrate all aspects of my
personality. We did this extremely difficult work together
mindful that I should not use Vietnam and PTSD as a convenient
excuse whenever reality did not match up to my expectations.
There are three key factors in my journey towards healing.
The first was my book. In 1995, Cynthia, suggested I write
out my stories. Although I had told most of them to her,
it wasn’t enough. I followed her sage advice and began
writing as if for a private diary that no one would ever
read. This was the beginning of what, six years later, became
my book. The difficult process to write it helped me fathom
the significance of my war experiences. It allowed me to
embrace my experiences. I have tried to integrate them into
my life, and to learn and grow from them. The process “outed”
me. No longer was I a closet vet.
The book started my process and my PTSD therapy, the second
important influence, took it to a much greater depth. Although
Vietnam is still one of the first things I think of each
day, it now is a force that propels me to help other vets
and especially to be active in the peace movement.
Third and most important to my healing are the decades of
non-judgmental love, patience, compassion, and acceptance
from my wife, Cynthia, and daughter, Jessica. I could have
been drawn down the same path my vet friend, Paul, took.
But Cynthia and Jessica, along with our many family members
and friends, opened their arms to me with a loving kindness
that kept me on the path through the wonderfully rich life