Ghosts rattle around in my nightmares, unstable memories of guilt, loss, failing. Fifty-three soldiers — half my company — a collage of fragmented bodies; a mash-up of cubism and surrealism; dead as a result of slack coordination on a landing zone in Vietnam.
That’s my horror on Memorial Day weekend.
Over the years since the war, during my stint as a workaholic features editor and writer at The Miami Herald and beyond, images of the war have haunted my dreams and filled my flashbacks. Like the night I was en route to the office and a powerful electrical storm triggered something in my subconscious. I was back in the jungle the night a machine gunner went berserk during a downpour.
In 2004, I took medical retirement due to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The years since then have been a struggle, but weekly therapy at the Veterans Administration in Miami has helped to improve my coping skills.
Vietnam veterans have spent “years and years avoiding dealing with avoidance,” says Dr. Daniella David, chief of psychiatry at the Miami Veterans Administration and medical director of the PTSD program. “It doesn’t mean that we can change what happened. It’s always going to be a bad memory. But your ability to cope with it [through group therapy] will be much better.”
After training in air traffic control and air assault exercises, I served as a combat controller with the Army’s 1st Aviation Brigade, assigned to the 1st Infantry Division in the Iron Triangle. We were a small team inserted into hostile areas to establish landing and pickup zones for air assault operations, long range reconnaissance patrols and medevac missions that ferried out the wounded.
There were many terrifying moments indelibly etched into my mind, like the massacre in the glade —100 troops enshrouded in black body bags under a spiteful sun in a Michelin Rubber Plantation.
But the episode that affects me most profoundly is one I did not personally experience, for reasons I will explain. It was the “accident” at the Cambodian border in which misdirected American bombers strafed a landing zone, decimating my company.
For me, it was the day God died.
It was at the end of my tour. Because this was to be an 18-day operation and I was to be discharged in six days (and had neither been put on rest and recuperation, as had others, nor reassigned to the rear), I was able to sweet-talk my way out of the assignment.
The commanding officer issued a pass to Saigon and I hung out with a few rear-echelon soldiers who held sensitive jobs and lived in a villa.
On the first morning of the operation, news on the radio knocked me cold, made me shiver, though I’d had a premonition two nights earlier. Tardy bombers — overdue on a preparatory strike by an hour — had unloaded on the unit already on the landing zone.
I should’ve been with my boys — some of whom had told me they’d kill to be in my boots as I left for Saigon. It’s no wonder that I flagellate myself like a medieval Christian.
The dead have made sleep cold and nightmarish.
In my dreams, I stand in front of the house watching a matinee of their theater of war. Wrapped in gauze flecked with blood and dirt, they rode two flatbed trucks in a tangle of broken limbs and Picasso faces.