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.
I’ve spent hours begging their forgiveness, and I’ve tossed the accouterments of combat —jungle fatigues, helmet, ribbons, medals — into the garbage.
Last October was a low point. My wife heard the screams at 3 a.m. My body was stiff and contorted as if it were a burnt corpse. In the darkness I wondered what she was doing on the landing zone, because I felt the punishing brunt of the bombs and mentally shared the horrifying experience of the company; the vibrations and shudder of the ground as the ordnance struck, ammo cooking off and the scent of burning flesh like barbecued meat.
Dr. Pam Slone-Fama, our group therapist and staff psychologist in the PTSD Clinical Team, who helps us manage and express emotions and identify thoughts that are keeping us stuck, sees this as “blaming ourselves for something that we had no control over, all the while carrying guilt.”
“A lot of it has to do with group dynamics,” she says. How open we are with each other, how long we’ve been together and how willing we are to push ourselves to take emotional risks.
Some memories are no longer unsettling. I once had an aversion to shopping at one particular department store after a clerk’s thoughtless comment about veterans stirred something in me. And I’m handling family matters in a better way. Though I still can’t get past the wall in my brain, sometimes intellectualizing instead of emoting.
But there are setbacks. During a panic attack on a 2011 flight home from London. I nearly got into a fight with a man who refused to get out of my seat after I had stepped away momentarily. Suddenly, I was back in the jungle, still carrying belligerence and malice for the enemy. I hadn’t taken my meds, having not factored in the five-hour difference in time zones.
Luckily, my attitude forced him to relent. Unfortunately, the plane’s purser caught the confrontation. She told me it was the worst behavior she’d seen in her 30 years on the job, that it could lead to arrest and jail.
When the plane landed, I joined the first wave of passengers on the jetway, brushing past two air marshals who were hustling onto the plane, apparently looking for me.
Fortunately, the lines at Customs were short and our paths didn’t cross again. In a matter of minutes, I was on my way home.
Once a lapsed Catholic, I’ve since dedicated Mass to friends I lost in Vietnam, as well as all the dead (58,271) whose names are etched into the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. I memorialize their sacrifice every Thursday at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Kendall on my way to group.