My resolve to get help for the emotionally wounded Iraqi and Afghan vets was strengthened recently by talking with three Vietnam vets who have suffered in silence for decades. I don’t want these kids returning home from America’s newest wars to have to endure what many of my generation went through.
All three Milwaukee-area vets fit into the “wounded soul” category. That is to say, they suffered moral injuries greater than fears for their own survival. They were injured by what they did to others, not by what others did to them.
Guilt and loss of trust are the common threads in their stories. But there’s no single therapy to deal with those emotions. Unfortunately, alcohol and drugs are the most common remedies.
One of the most compelling stories comes from Mark Foreman, a corpsman in Vietnam. “I refused to carry a weapon. I was there to save lives, so I wasn’t involved in killing,” he told me.
But even to have been part of the process brought its own guilt.
“We went over there with a blind belief that our country knew what it was doing,” he says. “And a lot of combat vets, especially those involved with the killing, suffered a loss of identity. That trust in your country is broken. We were all brought up with the moral belief that killing is the worst thing you can do, and when you do it, you lose your identity. So there’s a moral issue and a trust issue.”
There’s one specific guilt that sometimes comes back to bite him.
Mark was among 83 Marines surrounded by 1,500 North Vietnamese regulars firing down into their midst with machine guns, rockets and mortars as dusk deepened. By the time he finished bandaging up the first Marine, a kid who’d suffered a head wound that exposed his brains, it was dark and Mark was afraid he’d be shot if he approached any more of his own soldiers. So he sat there all night, listening to the screams and the pleas for help. “I still believe it was the right decision,” he told me, “but I also second-guess it still.”
After being pinned down for six nights and five days, Mark says “only 20 Marines were able to walk out and the rest were either dead, wounded or gone mad.” Mark was among the wounded with a hip blown away by an AK47 bullet, a wound that festered over five days of waiting to be airlifted out. While enduring the multiple surgeries that saved his life, he became addicted to morphine. “Becoming addicted to morphine scared the hell out of me,” Mark says. He spent the next eight months in three different hospitals in a full body cast before being discharged from the military and sent home. Physical therapy allowed him to walk on crutches and move into an apartment, but he was smoking marijuana and swallowing hallucinogens like LSD to escape the memories of Vietnam.
Then he realized those drugs were another crutch. “There were a lot of news reports coming out about Vietnam veterans who were getting themselves addicted to pain meds and committing suicide,” he says. “I knew I didn’t want to go down that path.”
When he came home, the last thing Mark wanted to do was to seek help from the Veterans Administration – after all, it was an agency of the same government that had sent him into a chaotic hell – but still he tried it. Once.
“I felt the guy leading the group didn’t understand us,” he says, “so I went out and found alternative forms of therapy. I got into meditation in a big way to relax. And I began to understand how important love and compassion are in this world. That had real meaning to me because I had been living in fear of the enemy and psyching myself to go out to fight someone. But finally I put my faith in love and compassion, although not in organized religion.
“There’s not been one day after Vietnam that I haven’t thought about the horror I went through over there,” he says, “but my meditation has been able to trump having it hold me down and despair me. It holds my head up above that water. It’s now been forty-five years, and I’m still drug free.”
Mark says that some of his fellow vets feel so badly about what they’ve done, however, that they have to justify it, even to themselves. “A lot of guys came back with such rage and such guilt that they can’t feel love,” he says. “They need to justify all the people we’ve killed, so they become super-patriots. I think they have it even worse than I do.”
Jim “Chopper” Hackbarth can’t shake his rage, but his poetry allows him to understand it … and express it. As one of his first poems, “Keeping It All Inside,” said:
“If they are like me
they are keeping it
inside so no one else
will see the turmoil
of their reality.
Keeping it inside where it can hide.”
A helicopter door gunner in 1968-69, Jim’s job was to ferry fresh American troops into battle and to carry the dead and wounded out. That left him with nightmares and flashbacks of loading bodies into body bags, looking down at his own hands and seeing the blood on them.
“We saw mutilated, burned bodies,” Jim told me. “We did a lot of insertions and combat assaults, and I saw tremendous carnage and massive destruction. When you’re flying, you see blood all the time on the floor and body bags everywhere. One day, one of them popped open, and I’m holding this guy’s arms in my hand. You have to get numb and shut off your emotional reactions. And that’s the way I lived the rest of my life – when things got tough, you shut down.”
Jim was drinking heavily by the time he was reassigned to Germany, and he says he was allowed to leave the Army just before he was court-martialed for drug and alcohol abuse. He continued to drink heavily, got into a bunch of bar brawls, went through a divorce and remarried. When his daughter was born, however, he turned from alcohol and drugs into a workaholic.
But anger management issues persisted, and he sought private therapy which proved helpful because it gave him a different perspective. “You blame yourself for not doing more, for surviving,” he says. “I carried all this guilt because I brought back all these guys, but I didn’t even know their names. But one of the psychs finally told me that I helped a lot of families because bringing back those bodies gave them closure. That totally changed my point of view and made me feel better. And other vets told me that the door gunners were angels because we swooped down and brought them out of hell. A lot of that stuff I’d forgotten, so it was important to remember.”
That finally gave Jim the courage to be honest about what he’d been through. In his poem, “Look Back,” he wrote:
“Looked into the mirror and what did I see?
I see an old man looking back at me.
An old man full of a young man’s memories and pain.
Shouldn’t have looked back.
This is going to be bad.”
“I was afraid to tell people what I’d been doing because I was afraid of being judged,” he told me. “How do you justify your actions in a war zone? You’re going against your moral code in those situations. You’re told to do something totally against your morality, and you have to live with that for the rest of your life. That’s why we came home and kept our mouths shut for 30 or 40 years.”
The third of these Milwaukee-area vets, Michael Maurer, also tried to hide. And he was equally unsuccessful.
Michael was a combat medic in 1966-67, and combat found him quickly. In his first three days, his base camp was hit with 81 rocket and mortar rounds. “There was a platoon coming back that we had to go out and help,” he told me. “Of those 28 guys, 14 were killed and 14 were wounded bad. Mortar rounds were coming in real hard. I can still see the flashes and hear the silent screams.”
Michael also learned how to deep-six his emotions, a defensive mechanism he never was able to unlearn. And when he left the Army, he tried to drown his memories in alcohol. When he saw how futile that was, he also immersed himself in work, routinely logging 70-hour work weeks as an insurance agent. “I kept fighting the intrusive thoughts on a daily basis by being a workaholic and by having golf as a passion because I had to have my mind actively focused on something else, even though Vietnam was there daily. You are never cured from PTSD. In my mind, you have to put your mind elsewhere into something that’s constructive, even if you have to put on a façade like I did because the civilian world has no understanding of what you are going through. It’s like you are expending double energy as a person to be accepted as normal.”
Michael also carries a rage that stems from having been helpless in hell. “Since I’ve been back, I’ve had thoughts of suicide, but I’ve stopped myself from acting on them. There’s this anger that I think rests in a lot of us. One place if comes from is that you’re over there and in fear every day of being maimed or killed, but you can’t do anything about it. You don’t have control because you’re under orders to do what you’re told.”
So today, Michael mistrusts those who would give him orders. “I don’t trust anyone,” he says. “I’ve always known there was something wrong. And I always felt a mental stigma against asking for help when I had all my body parts.”
When Michael finally reached out for help a few years ago, it had to be from a counselor who was also a combat vet. “I am comfortable talking with combat veteran counselors more than any other type because they have been in war and seen the horrifying effects of war,” he says. “The first time I was at the VA and saw a psychiatrist, I asked him if he was a combat vet, and he said ‘no.’ And I asked him how he could expect to treat me if he had no experience seeing what I had seen. The VA tries to treat you with drugs and therapy for something they know little about.”
Michael finally found a combat vet counselor who was able to provide him with the insights that he had needed. “One thing I’ve found out is that there’s no cure for it, so that’s helped my mindset. I’ve learned that you have to learn how to manage, and that’s helped my mindset. And I found out that this is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. One of the most important things I found out is that it takes the courage of a warrior to ask for help.”