Breath & Shadow
Fall 2012 - Vol. 9, Issue 4
"The Persistent Demons of War: A Personal Story of Prolonged PTSD"
Arthur W. Schade
Forty years have passed since my deployment as a combat Marine to Vietnam, but only several years since I acknowledged my inability to continue suppressing the demons alone. Like many veterans, the demons have haunted me through nightmares, altered personas, and hidden fears. While many veterans are able to manage the demons’ successfully, millions barely survive in destitution, solitude and social disconnection. Scores believe that conceding to the demons’ hold would make them a coward. Countless live in denial and loneliness on order to protect their warrior’s pride. The most vulnerable— tormented by guilt and feeling alone — too often choose to end their lives.
As friends and family gather to celebrate another joyful holiday, I am melancholy-- saddened by vivid memories of lost friendships and battlefield carnage that erratically seep from a vulnerable partition of my mind. This partition is a cerebral hiding place I concocted, decades ago, a mechanism to survive in society. I unwittingly clutch at a profound loneliness as I avoid searching for memories of my youth. If I dare to gaze into my past, I must transcend a cloak of darkness woven to restrain the demons from so many years before.
My pledge to God, Country, and Marine Corps was more than forty years ago. As a young, unproven warrior, I consented to the ancient rules of war. At eighteen, like many others, I was immersed in the ageless stench of death and carnage, in the mountains and jungles of Vietnam. However, my journey began much earlier, on a sixty-mile bus ride with other nervous teenagers, to New York City’s legendary Induction Center at 39 White Hall Street.
We went through lines of examinations and stood around for hours, recognizing one another's bare asses before we could learn each other’s names. We did not realize so many of us would remain together in squads and fire teams, building deep-seeded bonds of friendships along our journey. Our initial ‘shock’ indoctrination began immediately at Parris Island; intimidating drill Instructors scrambled our disoriented butts off the bus, organized us into a semblance of a formation, and herded us to the barracks for a night of hell. Following what we thought would be sleep (but in actuality was a nap), we awoke in awe to explosive clamor as the DIs banged on tin garbage can lids next to our bunks, yelling “get up you maggots.” Even the largest recruits trembled. Flooded with anxiety and apprehension, already we were second-guessing our decision to enlist.
We remained “maggots” for the next few weeks and began intense physical and mental training. Slowly we began to recognize the importance of the team instead of the individual. In less than sixteen weeks we were proud United States Marines. It was a short celebration though, as we loaded our gear and headed, in order, to Camp Lejeune, Camp Pendleton, Okinawa and then the Philippines, where we continued to enhance our stealth and killing skills, before executing these talents on the already blood-soaked fields of Vietnam.
We argued and fought amongst ourselves as brothers often do. Still, we never lost sight of the bonds we shared: We were United States Marines with an indisputable commitment to “always cover each other's back.” Crammed into the bowels of Navy Carrier Ships, we slept in hammocks with no more than three inches from a brother’s butt above us. The sailors laughed as these self- proclaimed “bad-ass Marines” transformed into the wimpy “Helmet Brigade.” We vomited into our skull buckets for days on our way to Okinawa, where we would engage in counter guerrilla warfare training. Aware that we were going to Vietnam, we partied hard in every port. The first of our battles were slugfests in distant bar-room brawls.
Conversely, our minds were opened to the poverty and living conditions of these famous islands in the Pacific. Their reputations preceded them, but stories about the war in Japan—John Wayne movies—were not what we found. Instead, we found overpopulated, dirty cities; we were barraged constantly by poor children seeking any morsel of food. In the fields, families lived in thatched huts with no electricity or sanitary conditions. While training I experienced the horror of being chased by a two ton water buffalo (with only blanks in my rifle). Moments before, this same beast was led around by a ring in its nose by a five-year old boy. Worse than the chasing was hearing the laughter of brother Marines watching me run at full speed, trying to find something to climb. In the tree, I felt myself losing the “macho” of the Marine reputation.
And we were still thousands of miles from Vietnam.
In confidence, we spoke as brothers about our fears, hardships growing-up, families, girlfriends, humiliations, prejudices, and plans for our lives once our tour of duty was over. We knew each other’s thoughts and spoke as though we would all return home alive, never considering the thought of death or defeat. We had not learned that lesson, yet. Moreover, we dreamed of going home as respected American warriors who defended democracy in a remote foreign land, standing proud, feeling a sense of accomplishment, and experiencing life, as none of our friends at home would understand. Our country had called and we answered.
We transferred to a converted WWII aircraft carrier that carried helicopters and Marines instead of jet planes. We were to traverse the coast of Vietnam and deploy by helicopter into combat zones from the Demilitarized Zone, the imaginary line separating North and South Vietnam, to the provinces and cities of Chu Lai and Da Nang. Then further South, to the outer fringes of Vietnam’s largest city, which was at that time, Saigon.
Within sight of land, we heard the roar of artillery, mortars and the familiar crackling of small-arms fire. These were sounds we were accustomed to from months of preparation. However, for the first time, we understood the sounds were not war games. Someone was likely dead. Anxiety, adrenaline highs, and fear of the unknown swirled within my mind. Was I prepared? Could I kill another man? Would another man kill me? From that point forward, death was part of my life. We would eventually load into helicopters, descending into confrontations ambivalent, yet assured we were young, invincible warriors. We were convinced the South Vietnamese people needed us; many of them did. Thus, our mission was simple: save the innocent and banish the enemy to Hell!
The first time we touched down on Vietnamese soil, we mechanically spread out in combat formation. Immediately, everything I was taught to watch out for rushed through my mind: Was the enemy around us? Was I standing near an enemy grenade trap, or stepping toward a punji pit filled with sharpened bamboo spikes? Seeing our company walking through the low brush gave me comfort, until an unexpected explosion deafened my senses. We immediately hit the ground and went into combat mode, establishing our zones of fire. There was nothing to think about except engaging the enemy. We were ready for battle.
We waited, but heard no gunfire or rockets exploding, only a few Marines speaking several hundred feet away. One yelled, “I can’t F’N” believe it!” We learned our first meeting with death was due to one of our brother’s grenade pins not being secured; we assumed it was pulled out by the underbrush. Regardless, he was dead. Staring at his lifeless body, I felt the loss of youthful innocence gush away.
One engagement began with us being plunged into chaos from helicopters hovering a few feet off the ground. We anxiously leapt—some fell—into the midst of an already heated battle. The enemy sprung a deadly assault upon us. 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 slaughtering each other. Thoughts of war’s 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, the 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. I knelt beside my brothers, some dead, many wounded, and others 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 who he was.. Masked in blood and shattered bones, I was overwhelmed with disgust and a 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 Heaven. I was unaware of the survivor’s guilt brewing deep inside me. In two or three weeks our mission was completed; 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 the crates encased my closest friends from strangers. 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 one side was overwhelmed—often we fought to the death. Engaging enemy troops was horrific in both jungles and villages. 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 individual was a friend and which was a foe. The tormenting acknowledgement that a woman or child might be an enemy combatant had to be confronted; it was often an overwhelming decision to make.
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, and avoid forming new, deep-rooted friendships. I struggled to accept the feasibility of a loving Lord. I never detected the nameless demons embedding themselves inside of me.
At the end of my tour, I packed minimal gear and left the jungle battlefields of Vietnam for America, never turning to bid farewell-- never wanting to smell the pungent stench of death and fear again. Within seventy-two hours, I was back on the street I left fourteen months prior--a street untouched by war, poverty, genocide, hunger, or 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.
While we received some support from a few family members and high-school friends, returning home from Vietnam was demeaning for most of us. There were no bands or cheers of appreciation for what we had accomplished. 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 coworkers could never truly understand the events that transformed me in those fourteen months.
I changed 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 companion.
The media played their biased games by criticizing the military, never crediting them with saving thousands of Vietnamese 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 ever engaging in conversations of Vietnam.
Worse, I fought alone to manage recurring nightmares. I locked them all away in a chamber of my mind 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 bitterness. 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 memories and echoes of lost souls seep through the decomposing barriers fabricated in my mind. Vivid memories of old friends, death, guilt, and anger persevere. There may be no end, resolution, or limitations to the demons’ voices. They began as whispers and have since intensified, over a period of decades in my mind. "Help me buddy!" I still hear them scream. 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 I had fought more fiercely. "I had to kill!" I tell myself. Visions of lost friends and foes hauntingly reappear at inappropriate times.
Guilt consumes my consciousness as I wonder why I did the things I did as well as the 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.
Regardless of which war we fought in, I am sure that all of us soldiers similar experiences. I never recognized the persistency of the demons. I did not notice as they matured each time I thought I had beaten them. No, they were simply hiding deep within my soul. Disguised and deep-rooted, these demons caused anxiety, loneliness, depression, alcohol abuse, nightmares, and suicidal thoughts. Other soldiers share these demons. For thirty-five years, I would not admit to them because I believed that needing medical assistance was a weakness.
When the first Gulf War began in 1990, I sensed the demons bursting from within. No matter how hard I tried to avoid them, I saw vivid images and news coverage of every aspect of the war. The bodies and faces in the media were not strangers anymore. Instead, they were my brothers from a much older and forgotten war. I sought refuge with the Veteran’s Administration and began attending group therapy.
During my third or fourth group therapy session at the VA, the psychologist leading the meeting persuaded me to speak about myself; starting with my overall thoughts of my tour in Vietnam, but only on focusing what I had accomplished--not what I had lost of myself. After a long hesitation, I told the group that the greatest accomplishment in Vietnam was the hundreds of people our teams personally saved from rape, torture, or savage death. We did not give a damn about the politicians and college students back home arguing, or running off to Canada to avoid the draft. We were enlisted Marines, on the front lines, protecting innocent people caught up in a horrific war.
My most positive moment, I continued, was when I lifted a three-year-old girl from the rubble that separated her from her parents, who were slaughtered by the Viet Cong for giving us rice the day before. Though traumatized and trembling in fear, she reached up to me. I cradled her gently in my arms and made her smile for only a moment. I then handed her to one of our extraordinary corpsman, and continued to seek out the enemy who committed these atrocious murders. It was then I understood why I was in Vietnam.
However, as with all things masked by my subconscious, that moment of compassion had been obscured for decades until this small therapy group encouraged me to look back for positive events buried within the worst of war’s memories.
Moving on to questions regarding my post-war years, the doctor asked me to focus on my career, an area where he knew I had achieved some success. I explained when I left the Marines, after four years, I was youthful and confident in myself. I had no clue as to what depression and anxiety were, and I thought the nightmares were personal and temporary. I was determined to look forward. Unfortunately, today I realize that while constantly looking forward helped me avoid chaotic memories of war, it also cloaked the memories of my formative younger years, and positive events throughout my life.
I never relished talking about myself, and thought it would be a good time to stop, however, the group asked me to continue. I was reluctant; I looked around the room and knew many of the Vets had succumbed to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder early in life and did not fare as well as I did. I felt I was about to sound like a wimp, or worse, a self-centered ass.
Awkwardly, I began to tell them -- with many gaps -- about my career after Vietnam. My first recollection was one they all understood; I went through eleven or twelve jobs feeling totally out of place. Watching sales managers gather their teams and with fanatical enthusiasm tell them how great they were, and how to attain the highest sales revenue was a game compared to combat in the jungles of Vietnam.
Feeling extremely frustrated within this environment of man-games, I was ready to head back to the military. However, before my planned reenlistment, I met and married to my wife of 42 years. She will be the first to tell you that living with a type-A personality who has PTSD is often a living hell— In the past she had no idea what I was battling—then again, often neither did I. Like millions of warriors before me, I never spoke to anyone about the war, or the nightmares which I abruptly woke from soaked in sweat and tears.
I decided not to reenlist and instead pursued a career in business, receiving an offer from a very large computer company to become a collection administrator. Within about eight years I was selected to attend Syracuse University to attain a degree in Management, paid by the company at full salary. I accepted challenging positions in finance, marketing, business development, world travel, and sales: Yet, the nightmares, depression, anger, and anxiety were increasing beyond my control.
Traveling to a country once was great, but after the second or third twenty-one hour flight to Bangkok or Singapore, it got old quickly. I began to realize boredom and repetition were major catalysts for my emotional setbacks; having too much time to think was a recipe for falling hard into the bowels of PTSD. Anger, frustration, mood swings, and depression were common events affecting my family and career. I had stopped moving forward, and was spending increasing amounts of time battling the memories of the past. It was during this period of time that I came to understand the demons would never leave; they would simply wait for a sliver of weakness to overwhelm me; they were persistent.
As stated before, around the time of the First Gulf War in 1990, everywhere I turned were vivid pictures of death, battles, and impoverished families. This made escape from the memories of Vietnam impossible. I still did not accept I had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but my brother-in-law, who had been treated with it for years, was persistent and talked me into getting a quick check up. Three psychiatrists later, I was not only diagnosed with PTSD, but for the first time began to understand about the demons I had been fighting alone for forty years.
Today, I have still not won the battle against the demons, but, with the help of medications, therapy, outside physical activities and writing, I look ahead. The demons continue to haunt me through nightmares, depression, memory loss, anxiety, a need for solitude, and difficulty controlling my temper. Sometimes these symptoms become so intense that they lead to road rage or prevent me from being able to carry on a coherent conversation. For these reasons, I was forced to retire early from my job.
Although I am not able to sit down with a vet and talk about war, I have taken on a cause through writing stories such as this, to reach out to young and senior Veterans to break the stigma of PTSD and seek assistance. It took me over three years to write this essay.
Wishing someone had mentioned the following suggestions to me earlier in my life, although being macho I probably would not have listened, following are a few suggestions from one old warrior to others of all ages:
• Break through the stigma of PTSD and get medical assistance - it is real.
• Unless you are in a high-risk job, you will probably not experience the adrenaline rush and finality of your decisions as you did in combat. For me, I lived playing business games -- never finding the ultimate adrenaline rush again. It is a void within me, I think about often.
• The longer you wait for treatment, the harder it will be to handle the demons. They do not go away and can lay dormant in your soul for decades.
• Understand it is never too late in your life to begin looking forward and achieving new objectives.
• If you do not want to speak about PTSD with your family or friends, then hand them a brochure from the VA that explains what to look for, and why you need their support. You do not have to go into detail about the tragedies of war, but without your loved ones understanding your internal battle, your thoughts can lead to divorce, loss of family relationship, or suicide – a terrible waste of a hero.
• Silence and solitude is not the answer. If you have PTSD, you may not be able to beat it alone.
• If you are concerned about your military or civilian job, seek help from peer resources. They have experienced what you have been through, and will help keep you living in the present, instead of the past.
• Call a person in a peer support group anonymously. They will not know you, but will talk for as long as you wish.
• You cannot explain the horrors of war to someone, except possibly a PTSD psychologist, that has not experienced it.
• Get up off your ass and take a serious look into yourself. Accept the fact that if you have continuous nightmares, flashbacks, depression, bursts of anger, anxiety, or thoughts of suicide, you have PTSD. If so, talk to someone who can help.
• There is also financial assistance through the VA, which may help you avoid living a life of destitution.
• Finally, let your ego go. There are too many individuals and groups today wanting to help you. If you do not, you may find yourself alone and bitter for a lifetime. The demons are not going away, but with help, you can learn to fight them and win one battle at a time.
A.W. Schade is a Marine (Vietnam 1966/67), retired corporate executive, and author of the award winning book, Looking for God within the Kingdom of Religious Confusion, a captivating, comparative, and enlightening tale that seeks to comprehend the doctrines and discord between and within Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Secularism. What the seeker discovers, transforms his life forever.