- 2012elections - 9/11 Special Coverage - aca - africanamericanalzheimers - aids - Alabama News Network - american - Awards & Expo - bees - bilingual - border - californiaeducation - Caribbean - cir - citizenship - climatechange - collgeinmiami - community - democrats - ecotourism - Elders - Election 2012 - elections2012 - escuelas - Ethnic Media in the News - Ethnicities - Events - Eye on Egypt - Fellowships - food - Foreclosures - Growing Up Poor in the Bay Area - Health Care Reform - healthyhungerfreekids - howtodie - humiliating - immigrants - Inside the Shadow Economy - kimjongun - Latin America - Law & Justice - Living - Media - memphismediaroundtable - Multimedia - NAM en Espaol - Politics & Governance - Religion - Richmond Pulse - Science & Technology - Sports - The Movement to Expand Health Care Access - Video - Voter Suppression - War & Conflict - 攔截盤查政策 - Top Stories - Immigration - Health - Economy - Education - Environment - Ethnic Media Headlines - International Affairs - NAM en Español - Occupy Protests - Youth Culture - Collaborative Reporting

The Torment of a Distant War

New America Media, Commentary, Mike A. Posted: Mar 08, 2010

Editors Note: A Navy corpsman longs to make peace with the memories of fallen comrades. But healing comes slowly when youre changed forever. Mike A. wrote this for the Veterans Workshop, a New America Media writing project for military veterans.

It didnt take long to fill up the landing craft. Maybe two or three minutes. Just enough time to look up into the faces of the soldiers and Marines, three deep, lining the edge of the ship.

For the first time since the USS General Gordon had set sail from Okinawa two weeks earlier, there was no horseplay. Instead, the mood was reverent. Nobody spoke. Only the occasional cry of the seabird and creak of a landing craft gate broke the silence. We all knew what the other was thinking. Some of us would be going home in body bags.

The expression on each mans face was the same. You could almost read the question, Will you be the unlucky one, or will it be the guy next to you? If I'm the unlucky one, will it be because I decide to do this instead of that? When the shit hits the fan, will I be brave? Can I hack it? Will I make it back home in one piece?

If you get it and I don't, am I worthy of that special blessing?

I was surrounded by death in Vietnam. No one needs to tell me how lucky I was. Statistics werent on my side. I was a field corpsman, a prized target.

I knew at least a dozen corpsmen who died there. Of the eight corpsmen who sailed over on the General Gordon with me in 1967, half didnt make it back. I still wonder why I survived and those others didnt. Feeling deserving is so unthinkable. How could I ever feel equal to those who gave it up? They seemed so much more heroic than I was. If they were so much more than me, why am I still here and theyre not?

I've been dealing with this for decades. Its called survivor's guilt, a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sometimes I think I have most of this PTSD and guilt resolved. Other times I feel nothing has changed. Im always rehashing the past, turning things over and over in my mind. I feel like I'm under constant scrutiny. I avoid group attention. I dread the thought of others considering my faults and imperfections. I fear other combat vets wont think me worthy of being called Doc, a title of respect given to field corpsmen and medics. On bad days, I have a hard time accepting the title myself.

In Vietnam, I always felt ill-prepared. I now realize that I was in fact highly trained. But I still wonder how some of those men and women I worked on would have fared had they been tended by another corpsman.

The self-criticism never stops. I am my own worst enemy.

When I first came home, I thought I was fine. But over time, I became short-tempered and paranoid. I was always on edge and alert hypervigilant, they call it. At first, I thought that being a perfectionist and hypervigilant was what got a job done well. You know why? Because thats what can save your life in war. In war, youre always on the job, youre always watching, feeling and smelling.

Thats the thing about a war vet: Your senses function at such an extreme level. You change forever.

Ten years ago, I was in the throes of no cure. I had been homeless for three and a half years, living under a tree in a vacant lot. My layers were peeled down to the most central core. My PTSD was raw. I was hurting.

I had a job, but people there were taking advantage of me and stealing credit that was due me. My anger built, and my alcohol abuse exploded. I was becoming a danger to others and to myself. Thats when I started going to my Vet Center for counseling.

Much of my therapy these recent years has been directed at my anger and low self-esteem. Now, I can call up some good memories.

I remember nursing in a ward in Hue. There was a Vietnamese girl with napalm burns there. The skin grafting had been getting nowhere. After every procedure, the skin would start curling and reddening, a sure sign of sepsis. So when I sponged and cleansed the new grafts, I decided to leave a fine layer of soap suds over the work areas. I thought that might protect the exposed areas from infection, and still give them air to breath. The effect was almost immediate. The suds soothed the girls pain, and by the end of the day you could see the grafts were taking.

The girl sounded her approval every time I treated her burns. She pointed to the soap suds and me, and exclaimed, Number one.

The attending doctor shared her enthusiasm. It was one of those good corpsman moments.

This is what it was supposed to be about -- a good corpsman moment, not a bad one. Ive been carrying around too many bad moments since 1968. Only now do I realize the toll they have taken on my peace of mind.

Now I'm able to tell myself that I did a good job in Vietnam. It takes some remembering, but that's how it works. When you can realize the importance of the job you did, like saving the skin of a burn victim or assisting in the delivery of a baby, it can bring satisfaction. Not every person I treated died or got worse.

Now I can forgive myself for telling people that they would live and being wrong about it. I brought comfort to people in dire need of it. Thats the important thing.

I was a completely different person that first day in Vietnam. I was just a kid, a nave child. I didnt know what depression was. But I was nervous, real nervous, because Id heard plenty of what I could expect.

When we landed on the beach, my friend Don and I exchanged looks as we piled into our trucks. Don had this distant look in his eye, as if he were in a place where I wasn't quite welcome. Don had become increasingly morose during the voyage, at times expressing suicidal thoughts. Once he got into his truck, he wouldnt look at me again. Its like his mind was made up about something. Our trucks took off in separate directions, to different units. There was no good-bye. I never saw him again.

A few months later, Doc John Kutkusky, my friend and mentor, showed me the Stars and Stripes listing of Dons death. Don had met up with a Chicom grenade while tending a Marine. By then, my reaction to death was that of numbness. I only remember feeling less than you might expect after learning of a best friends death, and surprised how this matter-of-fact conditioning was changing me. Now I understand this to be the process of denial. To function at all, you had to bury grief and to deny emotion. Its a battlefield necessity.

To this day, I can't imagine Don showing much fear. I can't picture him trembling while clutching at the ground. Instead, I imagine him moving around too slowly, not batting an eye in the face of danger.

Me? I was scared shitless. I never took unnecessary chances. I always wore a flak jacket and helmet, and I avoided clearings and exposed areas. I stayed deep in the bunkers and trenches. When I went out, it had to be pretty safe or I had a job to do.

Its a spooky feeling to work on someone in the open. Youre always at a spot where someone just got shot. I dreaded to an extreme the thought of being in a snipers crosshairs, the thought of a rifle scope zeroing in on my head. I'm sorry to be so graphic, but thats how I worked myself up.

Being really scared and jumpy probably improved my survival chances. But pure chance also determined who lived and who died.

One night at a hot spot in the DMZ, Doc Acton, my senior corpsman, gave me the choice of settling in with the machine guns or with the radioman and lieutenant. I chose platoon command. I had just two layers of sandbags protecting me when, at around 2:00 a.m., I heard the dreaded thoop, thoop, thoop ... whump! whump! whump! It was the sound of mortars leaving their tubes and exploding all around us.

When the barrage lifted, the call came for Corpsman up! Doc Acton was peppered with shrapnel across his head, chest and abdomen. The machine gunners legs were blown off. Marines were down all around. It was the only time I ever yelled out for Marines to practice buddy-aid. I couldn't be everywhere at once.

I placed my ear to Doc Actons chest, and scooped up his .45 with my free hand. The machine gunner had been crawling toward Docs pistol. He said that he had nothing to go back home for, that he didn't want to live. I held the gun out of reach, and listened to Doc Actons life slip away. His last heartbeat seemed to fade in a weak echo.

I put the gun aside and said everything I could think of to console the legless Marine. I needed two tourniquets, his belt and mine, to tie off the stumps. I did the best I could.

This writing is dedicated to Don, Doc Acton and the others. Those corpsmen are my personal heroes, the cream of the crop. They were the very bravest. I won't ever forget them.

The corpsman I replaced, a guy named Doc Nally, was KIA. He was doing his job, bandaging up a guy, when he was shot. They showed me the spot in the grass where he was hit.

The two platoon-level corpsmen on rotation with me were KIA. So was Doc Sparks, the one who succeeded me. He was a little guy, barely two days in country. I had told him to keep his head down. Apparently he didn't. He was so eager to help Marines who needed him. Word was, he raised his head to see who was hit, and took a bullet. I stopped off in Dong Ha to identify his body.

A corpsman in my platoon, the guy who showed me around when I first arrived, took a bullet between the eyes. He was working on someone at the time, so the sniper was able to get a really good bead on him. His wife wrote to me. I guess he had mentioned me to her several times. She was heartbroken, lost. She wanted to know a little bit more about him, to connect the dots.

I dont know how I can ever measure up to those other docs. I feel like Im here getting the credit for those who passed on. Sharing what happened, writing about it, has helped me focus on the good corpsman moments. I can say that I did my best in Vietnam. There is healing now. But there is no cure when you are changed forever.

One day last year at a Dennys, I was wearing a cap with a patch that read Combat Corpsman. A young Marine walked over to my table, put his hand on my shoulder and said, I feel safer just knowing youre in the building, Doc.

Its difficult to feel worthy of the title. But it sounds very good to hear.

The author deployed to Vietnam from 1967 to 1968. He is now a retired gardener living in Concord, California.

Related Articles:

Fighting the War at Home

Nightmare at a Bend in the Road

What My Recruiter Never Told Me

Heartbreak on Americas Frontlines

Haunted by 40 Months in Iraq

Page 1 of 1




Just Posted

NAM Coverage


How I Died in Viet Nam

Apr 30, 2010