Today is Veterans Day, and I thought this might be a good day to introduce myself and explain why I'm compelled to write about vets' mental health care treatment. But that can wait for another day.
My colleague Paula J. Caplan has launched a national campaign to urge Americans to listen to a vet today. I think that's a great idea. So let me share with you the story of Art Schade, a Marine who fought in Vietnam in 1966/67.
By AW Schade
Forty years have passed since my deployment as a combat Marine to Vietnam. Like many veterans of war, the "Demons" have haunted me through nightmares, altered personas, and hidden fears.
The purpose of this story is to help veterans of all eras recognize that there is no longer a need to fight the "Demons of War" alone. Civilian and VA health communities understand the psychological transformation that haunts veterans. It is no longer a dishonor, nor are you less of a warrior, should you seek medical assistance from within or outside the military. It has taken me more than two years to complete this personal message. It forced me to muster memories of my past-grudgingly-in an attempt to glance back through the cloak of shadows I weaved alone for so many years.
Please take a few moments to read this story, before your future becomes a reflection of my past, and those of countless veterans of every war. For over time the "Demons" may intensify in your mind, until they control your thoughts, and eventually imprison your soul.
Friends and family gather to celebrate another joyful holiday. Nonetheless, I am melancholy, saddened by vivid memories of lost friendships and battlefield carnage that erratically seeps from a vulnerable partition of my mind. A cerebral hiding place I concocted decades ago to survive in society. Still, today I am frequently unsuccessful trying to forget the worst of war's atrocities. As well, I avoided searching for memories of my youthful years, since looking to the past means I must again pass through the warring years.
My pledge to God, Country, and Marine Corps was forty years ago, or more. At eighteen, like many others, I was engulfed in the ageless stench of death and carnage, in the mountains and jungles of Vietnam....
Within sight of land, we heard the roar of artillery and the familiar crackling of small arms fire. Sounds we were accustomed to, through months of preparing ourselves for war. We would eventually load into helicopters, descending into confrontations ambivalent, yet assured we were young invincible warriors. We were assured the South Vietnamese needed us; as many of them did. Thus, our mission in enemy encounters was simple; save the innocent and banish the enemy to Hell!
The helicopters plunged from their soaring formation to hover a few feet off the ground. We nervously leapt-some fell-into the midst of an already heated battle. The enemy sprung a deadly assault upon us; at once triggering the loss of youthful innocence. I became engrossed in the shock, fear, and adrenaline rush of battle. It was surreal! It was also not the time to ponder the killing of another human being, recall the rationale behind the ethics of war, or become absorbed in the horror of men slaughtering one another. Thoughts of present demons certainly were not on my mind.
When the killing ceased and the enemy withdrew, I remained motionless, exhausted from the fighting. With only a moment to think about what had just occurred, shock, hate, and anger were buried under the gratitude of being alive. I had to find out which brothers did or did not survive, and as I turned to view the combat zone, I witnessed the reality of war: dreams, friendships, and future plans vanished. We knelt beside our brothers, some dead, many wounded and screaming in pain. A few lay there dying silently.
As I moved about the carnage, I noticed a lifeless body, face down, twisted abnormally in jungle debris. I pulled him gently from the tangled lair, unaware of the warrior I had found. Masked in blood and shattered bones, I was overwhelmed with disgust and primal obsession for revenge, as I realized the warrior was my mentor, hero and friend. I shouted at him as if he were alive: "Gunny, you can't be dead! You fought in WWII and Korea. Wake up! Wake up Marine! I need you to fight beside me!" Tears flowed down my face as I held him close and whispered that he would not be forgotten. I placed him gently in a body bag, slowly pulling the zipper closed over his face, engulfing him in darkness.
Navy Corpsmen–our extraordinary brothers–worked frantically to salvage traumatized bodies. We did our best to ease the pain of the wounded as they prayed to God Almighty. "With all my heart I love you, man," I told each friend I encountered. However, some never heard the words I said, unless they were listening from Haven. I was unaware of the survivor's guilt brewing deep inside me. In two or three weeks our mission was completed, and we flew by helicopter from the jungle to the safety of the ship. None of us rested, instead remembering faces and staring at the empty bunks of the friends who were not there. I prayed for the sun to rise slowly, in order to delay the forthcoming ceremony for the dead.
Early the next morning, we stood in a military formation on the aircraft carrier's deck. I temporarily suppressed my emotions as I stared upon the dead. Rows of military caskets, identical in design, with an American flag meticulously draped over the top, made it impossible to distinguish which crates encased my closest friends. As taps played, tears descended. For the first time I understood that in war, you never have a chance to say goodbye. I pledged speechlessly to each of my friends that they would never be forgotten: A solemn promise I regretfully only kept, through years of nightmares or hallucinations.
Combat is vicious; rest is brief; destroying the enemy was our mission. We fought our skillful foes in many battles until they or us were dead, wounded, or overwhelmed. Engaging enemy troops was horrific. Memories of guerrilla warfare in jungles and villages were equally, if not more, agonizing. We had to either accept or build psychological boundaries around the terror. Nonexistent were the lines of demarcation; we constantly struggled to identify which Vietnamese was friend and which was foe. The tormenting acknowledgement that a woman or child might be an enemy combatant that had to be confronted, was often overwhelming.
I was not aware of the change in my demeanor. In time, I realized that I had adjusted emotionally to contend with the atrocities and finality of war. I acquired stamina, could endure the stench of death, eliminate enemy combatants with little or no remorse, suppress memories of fallen companions, avoid forming new deep-rooted friendships, and struggled to accept the feasibility of a loving Lord. I never detected the nameless demons embedding themselves inside of me.
I packed minimal gear and left the jungle battlefields of Vietnam for America, never turning to bid farewell or ever again wanting to smell the pungent stench of death and fear. Within seventy-two hours, I was on the street I left fourteen months prior, a street untouched by war, poverty, genocide, hunger, and fear. I was home. I was alone. Aged well beyond my chronological age of nineteen, I was psychologically and emotionally confused. I had to transform from a slayer back into a (so-called) civilized man.
Except for family members and several high-school friends, returning home from Vietnam was demeaning for most of us. There were no bands or cheers of appreciation. Instead, we were shunned and ridiculed for fighting in a war that our government assured us was crucial and for an honorable cause. I soon found that family, friends, and co-workers could never truly understand the events that transformed me in fourteen months, from a teenage boy to a battle hardened man.
I was not able to engage in trivial conversations or take part in the adolescent games many of my friends still played. For them, life did not change and "struggle" was a job or the "unbearable" pressure of college they had to endure. It did not take me long to realize that they would never understand; there is no comparison between homework and carrying a dead or wounded friend.
The media played their biased games by criticizing the military stand, and never illuminating the thousands of Vietnamese saved from mass execution, rape, torture, or other atrocities of a brutal Northern regime. They never showed the stories of American "heroes" who gave their lives, bodies, and minds to save innocent people caught in the clutches of a controversial war. For years, my transition back to society was uncertain. I struggled against unknown Demons and perplexing social fears. I abandoned searching for surviving comrades or engaging in conversations of Vietnam.
Moreover, I fought alone to manage recurring nightmares. I locked it all away in a chamber labeled, "Do not open, horrors, chaos and lost friends from Vietnam." However, suppressing dark memories is almost impossible. Random sounds, smells, or even words unleash nightmares, depression, anxiety and the seepage of bitterness I alluded to before. I still fight to keep these emotions locked away inside me.
Today, my youth has long since passed and middle age is drifting progressively behind me. Still, unwelcome metaphors and echoes of lost souls seep through the decomposing barriers I fabricated in my mind. Vivid memories of old friends, death, guilt, and anger sporadically persevere. There may be no end, resolution, or limitations to the demon voices that began as whispers, and have since intensified over decades in my mind. "Help me buddy!" I still hear them scream. As nightmares, jolt me from my slumber. I wake and shout, "I'm here! I'm here my friend," and envision their ghostly, blood-soaked bodies.
Even today, I wonder if more Marines would be alive if only I had fought more fiercely. "I had to kill!" I tell myself. As visions of lost friends and charging foes hauntingly reappear at inappropriate times. Guilt consumes my consciousness as I wonder why I did the things I did, as well as question: Why did they not survive? More dreadful, however, is the conflicting torment I feel when I acknowledge that I am thankful it was others instead of me.
This story has one purpose: to extend a helping hand. Regardless of the war you fought, your memories are similar to mine, and mine to yours. I never recognized how suddenly the demons were maturing. Disguised and deep-rooted, I assumed anxiety, loneliness, depression, alcohol abuse, nightmares, and suicidal thoughts were traits that haunted every man. To all past and current warriors, I rise and applaud your valiant stand. Nonetheless, controlling war's demons takes time; and the battle is much harder if you challenge them alone.
Do not wait to seek medical assistance, as older veterans were forced to do. Far too many warriors were less fortunate than me, and even you. PTSD is real my friends, and easily recognizable. Yet, if not confronted early, can ruin relationships with your spouse, children, family members, and career.
Remember, you will always be warriors and heroes to us all. Nevertheless, many will be overpowered by the demons and lose ownership of their soul! It is up to you to win this battle, as I know many of you will. This takes time, family, friends, VA, outside professionals, and/or peer groups. These groups will be the comrades that today "have your back!"
AW Schade is a Marine, Vietnam 1966/67, retired corporate executive, and author of "Looking for God within the Kingdom of Religious Confusion."