David M Payne © 6-9-09
9/11 and the other religious wars we are in now brings back some sad memories of my tour in Vietnam in the Marines. This essay is also a warning to my fellow military members in Iraq and Vietnam. My first day "in country" was spent in the receiving barracks on the outskirts of Da Nang. I was talking to a marine who was stationed at those barracks. He told me that the VC had overrun part of Da Nang, and all of Phu Bai the year before during Tet. He asked me if I was a sound sleeper, and I told him I was. He told me that could get me killed, and I needed to learn to sleep with one eye open. That night I laid there with both eyes open, and was exhausted the next day, and for the rest of my days there. By the end of my tour in Vietnam, insomnia had replaced sleep as my body's response to stress, and is still with me today. Pot offered me my only way to sleep. This of course was a relief that was illegal there, but ignored by the brass most of the time because they understood its value as an aid in getting some relief from the stress there, and they were too busy with other things like the war to really pursue it. Also there were no drug tests for pot then, unlike now.
Life in Phu Bai was a mixture of incredible boredom and shear terror when we were under attack, usually rocket or mortar fire at night though occasionally we got hit in the daytime. The rocket attacks were interesting in one regard. We had an early warning system in place in Phu Bai, a radar system that was supposed to give us early warning when the rockets started coming in, and it worked like a charm, almost. It would go off right after the first rocket hit, letting us know that we were under attack. Of course the first rocket hitting had already let us know that, but hey it’s the thought that counts, right?
Some times we would get stoned and sit on top of the bunkers, watching the rocket attacks, treating it like an entertainment program because there was little entertainment for us there. We had a sense of the invincibility that to often comes with being young mixed with the sense that if our number was up the rocket would hit our bunker and kill us anyway, so we might as well enjoy the show. For us enlisted men, the old standby, booze was not an option in trying to drink ones self to sleep. You see we could only get 3-2 beer, which had such a low alcohol content that if you drank enough to get drunk you found yourself up all night in the latrine peeing it back out.
After a few months in Phu Bai dodging the rocket, sniper, and mortar fire we got, my helicoptersquadron pulled out to a helicopter carrier, the USS Iwo Jima. Though I thought my toughest partof my tour in Vietnam was over, I was mistaken. One night like so many other nights, we got the call to remove the chairs from the movie area on the hanger deck, which was also the area used for the first stage medivacs of the wounded. As I was helping clear the chairs out, I heard some of the marines and sailors complaining about not getting to finish watching their movie. This was a surreal experience considering the condition of the guys they brought in this night. The guys they brought in had walked into the middle of a minefield and they were a mess. One sergeant in particular garnered my attention. A mine had blown off both his legs. I watched him struggle valiantly with death, and lose. It is a picture that is seared forever into my mind.
This night along with many others like it left me with scars in my mind that can never be seen. All of my bullet holes were in my mind. You can't see them, but you can see the damage they did to me over time.
When I got back to the world as we called it, I had all the to usual problems of many Vietnam vets, trouble holding a job, a relationship, and my life together. I can't count the times I thought of suicide to end my mental stress. Also I was wracked with paranoia and worried "they" were after me. It took me 12 years to realize that my emotional problems were not of my own making. It wasn’t until the Iranian hostages got back and got that big parade, followed by thousands of Vietnam vets who protested, "Where is our Parade" and talking about PTSD that I realized that I wasn't alone, that many thousands of vets had the same problems I did. So I went to the vet center in 79-80 if memory serves me correctly, and after more years of therapy from the Vet Center and later to the VA I got my life back in good enough order to be able to form a good relationship with those around me, and try to get my love life in order. Also though I was better than I had been in the last 12 years, my PTSD was still chronic from lack of early treatment by then. Also by then one of my goals in life, having a family and watching my children grow up in a loving environment had passed me by, as I was too old to attract a woman young enough who wanted to have children with me, and I still had most of the problems associated with PTSD, though to a lesser degree. This has left a big hole in my heart, though I guess in the long run at least I made it through Vietnam alive and in one piece physically, which is more than many of my friends whose names are on the Vietnam Vets wall in Washington did.
The VA has an unwritten policy of what I call the three "Ds" for us Vietnam vets with PTSD.
1. DENY we have PTSD or deny that we got it in Vietnam.
2. DELAY any compensation for us until;
3. We DIE, and then they don't have to do anything for us.
The insomnia I had developed in Vietnam had become chronic by then and is still with me today. The funny thing about Insomnia is that it gets worse as you get older. Years later I filed for disability from PTSD from the VA and though they diagnosed me with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, (PTSD) and then told me I didn't get it in Vietnam. I was told I needed names, times, dates, so they could verify my story. I was asked if I remembered the name of the marine that had his legs blown off that night. I hadn't taken the time to introduce myself to that sergeant and get his name as he lay there dying. I never realized I would need it thirty years later, when it came time to deal with the VA bureaucracy in Washington. All I needed was the ability to have total recall of all the events, names, times and dates that had impacted me in Vietnam thirty years ago, and that might be enough to get them to help me with my service connected PTSD. But I had neglected to take notes of my activities in Vietnam, and had no "proof" my trauma was from there. My bullet holes from Vietnam were in my mind remember, not my body. I guess they think I must have gotten PTSD at McDonalds when they put pickles on my cheeseburger after I told them not to.
I would say to those of you that find yourselves involved in this war on terrorism in the coming years, take notes, you may need them if you have to deal with the VA later. And to the people at the VA who ask the questions for which I couldn’t remember the answers, what were you doing where, and with whom, thirty-forty years ago? Should be an easy question, right, but I'm sure the irony is lost on them.
I later realized I had died spiritually that night on the Iwo Jima too. The concept of God and religion stopped making any sense to me. How could any kind, just, merciful, compassionate, and omnipotent God allow this kind of madness to go on for all of humanities recorded history? An indifferent God at best, and more likely a mythical God like all of the other gods of humanities past and present.
Years later the VA, while still denying my PTSD compensation, started treating it and the insomnia it caused with a mild sleeping pill so that I can get enough sleep function at work and other places. That lasted for a few years, until my symptoms got worse and I was declared unable to work by the Post Office and Social security. The VA even upped my disability rating from 20% to 40%, which is better than nothing, but it doesn’t even come close to covering all of my lost years. I guess the irony of treating me for PTSD related conditions that they still dispute I got in Vietnam is lost on those who make the decisions at the VA.
A couple of years ago I was diagnosed with Diabetes by both my doctor and the VA, like so many other Agent Orange vets before me have been. There is no diabetes in my family, but at around 40% it's reaching way past epidemic proportions among us in country Vietnam vets. (10% is considered an epidemic so 40% must be a dammed disaster.)
I may have received a fatal wound from my exposure to Agent Orange that I never felt, and didn't even know I had, in Vietnam.
So to my fellow vets in Iraq and Afghanistan I implore you to keep notes, a journal a diary or something to show you were there and what happened to you and the troops around you, and all of all the bad things you experience there. Keep the names of those who were wounded or died with you there. You'll need them if you have to deal with the VA bureaucracy in Washington.
David M Payne
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