"I didn't need a brass band, but I sure needed somebody to shake my hand -- and say thank you. I feel absolutely destroyed and I thought to myself, 'I went through all that -- and there's nobody even here to shake my hand. '" -- Peter, recalling his arrival at Travis Air Force Base after a year "in country."
FUNNY, YOU might think, they don't look any different from anybody else, these handsome young men, bent on the business of their lives. They are in their 30s, none older than 35. Most have had some college education. Some have postgraduate degrees. They are mostly on fast career tracks, more sucessful than not in their chosen professions. Sure, they're loners, but then, that is a matter of choice, isn't it? They themselves might have told you (in no uncertain terms) that indeed it is -- assuming, of course, they would have discussed it with you at all.
They are as different from one another as random individuals can be, these bright young men. But there are some basic common traits: They are all Vietnam veterans. An there is something else; They are survivors. They came back without apparent disablement . . .
Their lives have gone on for the past 10 years or so, and gone on rather well, an uncritical eye might judge. But some of them are beginning to recognize that something is not quite right, that, perhaps they should be -- at very least -- numbered among Thoreau's "mass of men [who] lead lives of quiet desperation . . ." Others -- no one is sure how many -- are discovering that the quiet desperation is building up into more explosive channels. It is a syndrome the experts are calling "delayed stess."
"You can see it in lives that appear successful," says Steve Chapman of the Vietnam Veterans of America. "It's a sense of having been abused and having had their beliefs trashed on."
This is a story about three of those young men who served in Vietnam. They are typical in important ways or perhaps half a million of their fellow combat veterans in that saddest of wars. Each of three was faced unexpectedly with rage and despair they had been carrying around -- unknowingly -- for about a decade. And in each case, they were -- fortuitously, they now feel -- directed to a young phychologist (who is not a veteran) and his assistant (who is) and a 12-week group therapy session which they have just completed.
They have been frank with each other, with themsleves and with interviewers.
They have asked that only their first names be used.
Peter is cool. He stayed in the Air Force after his return from Vietnam and was anybody's Hollywood image of an Air Force officer/gentlemen. He even spent time as a White House social aide. Now he is an administrative official at a large agency and looks as Madison Avenue as he must have looked Air Force. He is tall, and his sandy-red hair and moustache bespeak his Scottish ancestry.
He sees himself as self-possessed, disciplines. He never married but "came close a few times." He always liked to have things his own way, he says. So when his control began to crack, it came as a considerable shock.
He was, he recalls, in a grocery store cashing a check. It was last November. He asked the cashier the date. The cashier "turned to me and he snapped, 'If you were a veteran, you'd know what today is. It's Veteran's Day, the 11th day of the 11th month.' He was an old man and I turned on him and I said, 'You son of a bitch,' and I almost grabbed him, and I said, 'I fought in Vietnam and almost got killed 50,000 times and you tell me that? You know why I don't remember, because this goddammed Veteran's Day is not for us. It's for you old f---s.' When I got back to my car I was huffing and puffing and hyperventilating and I thought, I could have killed that man I was so mad.'"
"The big thing," says Bob, a 30-year-old medical student, "that you have to forget how to do when you go to war is this: You have to forget how to love people."
" . . . Like love and affection and compromising," says Peter. "When you were in Vietnam you couldn't do those things and come back . . . "
"It is a kind of psychic numbing," says Ken Harbert, the physician's assistant who is co-leader of the group. "You put a shell around yourself, and for a lot of people, they haven't ever torn down the wall. You talk to friends, wives, relatives and they say, 'Well, he's changed since he's been in the war. He withdraws a lot. He's stoical, independent . . .' They use words like that.
"Because," says Bob, "people [in a war] get killed everyday. Just like somebody's there one minure and they're gone and if you really care about them you can't handle it. I had a really good friend that I'd gone through basic training with . . . and you know I really spent a lot of time with him. You're out in the jungle and there's not much to do except sit around and shoot the breeze . . . so I got pretty close to this guy and one day he got killed standing right next to me and . . . after that I just realized you can't get close to people.
"And that works pretty good, but it's hard to lose that. Once you've got that defense mechanism working for you it's very difficult to break it down. And I think that's pretty much a consensus. You know, we don't get close to people. And we don't let people touch us and we don't touch them, you know, phychicly. Someone said when he walks into a room full of people, whether they're relatives or anything, he always feels different. And the one thing about it is you are different . . . "
"It's not," says Dave, a photographer, who is 35, "the strung-out junkie who is totally wasted because of his war experience, but there is a lot of good, old-time, quiet desperation. I think the greatest majority of guys expereince that more than anything else. That stuff is lurking around in the back of your mind all the time and I have a hunch that it influences a lot we do and we're just not aware of it . . . " Dave works at other jobs to support his photography which he refers to as his "art." He is shy and unpreposssessing. There is something of the poet in him. He broke up with his wife 18 months after they were married. They had lived together for eight years before that. But he doesn't feel that the relationship was affected by his Vietnam experience. I'm not married," says Bob, who says he feels older than his 30 years but looks considerably younger. "I haven't known too many to be successful [among combat vets]. I don't think they do too well in marriage."
Peter got his first clue, he realizes in retrospect, about five years ago. "It was the day President Ford announced we were pulling out of Vietnam and you saw the guy come out of the embassy and fly away and he was the last American. There was something inside of me that just tore me to peices. That's when I wanted to see the brass bands and everybody saying the war is over and, well, I was realistic and I knew that wasn't going to happen. So I thought well, what I'll do is I'll go to church tomorrow. And the priest [Episcopal] will say something.He says prayers for every s.o.b. in Washington, you know, he'll say one for the people who've come back from Vietnam, or who died at least.
"He never mentioned it. Never, never mentioned it. I remember as I was walking out the door, I turned to him and I said, 'You're a hell of a lousy priest. You know that 55,000 people died and you couldn't say one damn thing about it.'
"I didn't wait for an answer, and I knew at that moment that I had a lot of anger in me that I'd never looked into."
Jeffery Jay is the clinical psychologist who initiated the delayed stress group for Vietnam veterans at the Northern Virginia Pshchotherapy Center in McLean. It is, he feels, a unique approach to a problem only just being identified, much less treated. For ah ost of reasons, the program is neither sponsored nor financed in any way by the Veterans Administration, although the VA is beginning an outreach program to deal with the delayed stress syndrome. But many of the Vietnam veterans, including Bob, Dave and Peter, are outspokenly bitter about the VA and determined to stay as far away as possible from an operation they feel betrayed them. In addition, the VA program is still bound in developing protocols and bureaucracy, they feel. So the Jay program is separate and private, the fees paid by individuals.
Says Jay, a Ph.D. in psychology, "Anyone who was in Vietnam had a very full, rich experience including, at one extreme, expereinces that were absolutely horrifying, terrifying, traumatic -- going through the day to day with the continuing presence of death or the possibility of being killed, through experiences that were intense uses of power, intense feelings of camaraderie between people depending on one another. But whatever happened -- and a lot happened -- stopped with an abruptness that is unusual in most people's lives . . . men described their last days as being in an airfield being bombed and having to fight their way onto a plane and then once inside, there is a stewardess serving food.
"And before they went, there had been a lot of public debate with people polarized and energized around this so when they came back it very quickly became a private issue. Vietnam sort of sank out of the consciousness of America, and all those experiences were relegated to something that went on inside. There was no way of talking about it and the veterans felt a mixture of fear and blame and real suspicion about feeling free to discuss it.
"On the other hand, people didn't ask. People didn't want to know. This includes families, close friends, wives, parents. So when the veterans get 'back in the world' all that experience had to be dealt with privately . . . "
This kind of thing, says Jay, "creates a separation, and that's one of the things we hear, time and time again, 'I feel different from other people.' That's a statement you also hear in other kinds of psychiatric work and one of the most effective things to deal with this is just providing a way for people to start talking and give them a forum in which they can identify those things which really are not their fault, really are not peculiar to them, but are something that are shared in common. And provide an opportunity to own those experiences which were theirs and disown those which had nothing to do with them . . . or were much bigger than them."
"You have to look at the particular experience of the Vietnam veteran," Jay says. "There's a long list of things that were special about the Vietnam war, but in addition you can add those things which are common to all wars. It was special, first of all, because of the moral ambivalence and all the polarization. One did not simply go off to fight a war that was just and right. There are a lot of terrible things that happen in every war, but in addition, America didn't come out completely with a white hat. Another big thing that I don't think is dealt with directly enough is that we lost the war.
"So with all these ambivalences and questions that the veteran has coming back then, there were perhaps questions about whether or not he had done well, whether he had fulfilled his obligations. Here Johnny marching off to war was a late adolescent, as most were, so there was a lot on the line in terms of proving manhood, being good enough and doing the right thing and all the questions that came up: You kill and there are people who are killed all around you, and then for all that to have gone for naught, to have resulted in some kind of futile, vain action, in the end raises real questions in the mind of the veteran as to how well he really did do.
"A lot of anger results from feeling ripped off, feeling expected to have done something and not being able to have done it, ripped off for the time that was lost when he was there. There are also a lot of questions about self and a lot of bitterness and anger that is not dealt with anyplace. But the conflicts are still there and are dealt with internally."
The stress, revolving around the conflicts and the often negative self-image, builds up until something triggers it or until it simply has to find a way out. It can, Jay says, manifest itself in a broad range of symptoms including anxiety and nervousness, reactions to loud noises, nightmares, difficulties in sleeping, problems with relationships, problems with being close to anyone. Sometimes it can be dramatic, but the image of the spooked, murderous, wild-eyed veteran on a rampage is more a figment of the cathode tube than of reality. Often it is, indeed, years of quiet desperation.
Peter was an officer in the Air Force in administration and personnel. He'd joined the Air Force after his four years at a big midwestern state university because he'd been told the Army was "real bad," and "I got sick when I went out on boats and things."
Vietnam had never been a part of his consciousness, really, much less his life, and he volunteered for Vietnam duty rather dispassionately.
"The first night was when it came home to me that I had ended up in a war zone," he says. "I sat in a huge room all filled with beds and I was the only person in it. I remember all night long you could hear helicopters going up and down and artillery going off . . . The Air Force never had artillery sounds . . . I remember about 4 o'clock in the morning a woman came in to clean with a little broom. She was wearing black pajamas and the thought went through my mind, "This woman's going to lob a hand greande into my bed.' I just sat there shaking. That was the beginning of my fear in Vietnam.
"I was the support officer for 17 forward sites . . . it meant every day I had to fly to four or five of these little sites . . . they were just little dirt roads we landed on and people were constantly shooting at us, lobbing stuff at us. It was what I'd always pictured in my mind the Marines did and I never adjusted to it. It was scary the last time as the first time. But I never said a thing about it while I was there. Never once did I express fear to anybody. It hit me that the only way to make it through was to be strong. It's all I cared about. I did my job, I didn't drink. I didn't smoke pot . . . My roommate cried every night, all night long, and had diarrhea and ran to the bathroom all night long . . . We were bombed every night.I was very calm and cool . . . One time my room got blown up by a rocket and there wasn't much left to it and I went over and just pushed all the debris aside, shook out my matress, got in my bed, took out a flashlight, read about two pages and went to sleep. I remember the next morning [My roommate] called me the biggest a---- he ever met because he said I had no feeling at all. And in a way, he was right. I had taken my feelings away."
"I was part of the big 1966 cattle-call," Dave says. He was 20. "I don't know how many were drafted at the same time. So I just went in and started being a soldier for a while. I drove a truck. The guys I was with were sent down to Texas and hooked up with a transport operaton then sent over on a troopship to Vietnam. That was a thrill in itself -- me and 2,000 other soldiers and Marines for three weeks on a troopship. And we got 'in country' and right from then it started, within an hour after we hit the place, you know, I got scared. As soon as we started walking on the soil, I thought, 'Oh, boy, this is going to be a mess.'"
When he came back, he says, "I didn't feel that anybody was sympathetic to me. We were regarded as somewhere between villians and suckers. And I think that's pretty much the way I felt . . . It's such a strange situation, not being able to come home a hero . . . and after I got back I wasn't involved politically in any of the antiwar stuff. I was just so glad to be out . . . I mean I didn't particpate on the thing at the Capitol steps where they threw their medals away because I'd already thrown my medals away . . .
"You had a feeling when you came back, 'well, that's it. Let's get on with it.' Only apparently you can't get on with it."
" . . . I always felt I was ashamed to be a Vietnam veteran," says Bob. "Like I went the whole route, volunteer, Green Beret, airborne . . . you know, all that stuff, the superkiller, because I figured if I was going to do it I'd be the best.
"And the thing about it is, it's been hard for me to accept that I'd made all those sacrifices and nobody really appreciated it. One day I just realized that even though Vietnam was all screwed up, it wasn't really MY fault, and I really didn't have anything to be ashamed of. And if it had been any other time I'd probably have been a hero. Most of the people by age, you know, we grew up on World War II movies and the parades and the hero's welcome and I still don't think I can accept the fact that I went over there and did all that and I just slipped back home and nobody cared."
Bob comes from a small town in the southern Midwest. He went into the service as soon as he graduated from high school. It was the patriotic thing to do. He was 18. When he came back he was "19 going on 40."
The dean of his medical school sent Bob to Jeffrey Jay's "Back in the World" program when the veteran became so depressed he was unable to study. He had beaten a drug problem and a drinking problem himself. "But it seems like almost everyone has trouble after about 10 years . . . . I had never discussed vietnam with anybody. I'd never talked to my parents about it because basically my philosophy was that it happened; it was a bad deal and [now it was time] just [to] go on with your life."
Dave had himself a "nice little emotional breakdown" and a friend had scouted out the Jay program.
Peter says, once he had buried his hostility to the priest, his problems did not overtly return until last November when three things happened to him within a few weeks.
"About a week after the incident in the grocery store. I saw some of those Vietnam stamps that came out honoring the vietnam veteran with little medals, and I remember I bought a whole sheet of them and brought them home and I wrote across them all, "Too little and too late," and hung it up on my wall.
"I realized then I had serious problembs, a lot of anger."
Then a watch repair shop lost a watch he had gotten in vietnam. "It had been stolen out of the repair shop. The salesman came in and he said. "I know you bought that watch in vietnam. It's not worth very much.' Well I did grab him and I said, 'My watch has nothing to do with Vietnam. . . for what I went through in Vietnam I don't even want you questioning me about the damn thing.' He said, "Look I was in World War Ii. Why are you so upset?" And I said, 'I don't want to hear about your lousy World War Ii and how good you guys had it and how bad you had it. . . .
"About the same time I saw a notice about Jeffrey's group. I thought, 'I never feel stress.' Then I put down the article and I thought, 'Boy, do you feel stress.'"
The group -- Dave, Bob and Peter and three others -- met an hour and a half a week for 12 weeks with Jay and Ken harbert. Jay is now putting together a second group.
"At first." says Peter, "I was fearful. I didn't know if there would be guys there with limbs lost and I felt guilty going to a group because lots of people suffered a lot worse than I did and here I was being a big baby because I was scared and now I'm angry because I was scared 10 years ago.
Well, I got in there and we sat around and I was the first one to talk and I explained why I felt angry. I said, 'I feel really p----, especially about World War Ii vetertans because they got everything and we got nothing and I was scared and I never expressed it and now I feel real bad about Vietnam. I feel like crying and I feel like hitting somebody." and we went around the room and everyone said the same thing."
Says Bob, "Most Veitnam vets have a tendency to stay away from each other and Don't think there's anybody who can help a Vietnam veteran any more than another Vietnam vetean . . . . Everybody's got to work out their own solution, but it's much easier if you can have contact with somebody who's had the same problems and has dealt with them.
"I would love to be able to give a remedy for Vietnam veterans," he says, "but so far in our group -- basically, a first-time thing -- there's no precedent to go by and it's extremely difficult to say this is therapy or this is how you treat . . . and I don't think the book is going to be written for quite a while. We'll just keep trying."
The way Jeffrey Jay puts it is this: "Even if you're doing well, you can probably do better by letting it all out and finding a way to integrate it."
"I don't think there's any Vietnam v eteran that doesn't have a problem," says Bob. "And I think for probably nine years I wouldn't admit to myself I had a problem and therefore wouldn't talk to anybody about it. Basically it was too painful and it was much better if I didn't think about it. Basically if you can get to the point where you can talk about what it has done to you, that's one of the biggest therapeutic things you can do for yourself."