Peace and War in the Heartland - Veterans Stories - A003


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 wars.

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 I’m living.


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