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.