The Nature Of Trauma


The Battle of Chu Lai, Vietnam

Photo by:  Dickey Chapelle

Note:  Dickey Chapelle was a world  famous Combat Photographer, and was one of the very few women who covered the war in Vietnam.  She was killed shortly after this photo was taken, while on patrol with a Marine infantry platoon near Chu Lai, Vietnam. “The lieutenant in front of her kicked a tripwire boobytrap, consisting of a mortar shell with a hand grenade attached to the top of it. Chapelle was hit in the neck by a piece of shrapnel which severed her carotid artery and [she] died soon after. Her last moments were captured in a photograph by Henri Huet.”  Chu Lai, Vietnam was a hard-won piece of real estate sandwiched between the provinces of Quang Nam and Quang Ngai—it was also my base of operations for thirteen months (January 1967 through February 1968).  Semper Fidelis.  


Dickey Chapelle

Photo by:  Henri Huet

“Must you carry the bloody horror of combat in your heart forever?”

Homer, The Odyssey

Must you carry the bloody horror of combat in your heart forever—the answer to that question is yes.  Once trauma is experienced it never goes away.  It is possible to come to terms with it, but it never ever goes away.  But you don’t have to be in the military to fight a war, life is combat, life is war.  We all have our crosses to bear, our guilt to assuage, our wounds to heal and our scars to hide.  Military combat just brings it into high relief.

I read and view the same news stories you do.  Our young men and women are returning home from multiple combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, only to crack up once they’re safely back in the United States.  Today we call it PTSD, during the American Civil War it was often referred to euphemistically as Soldier’s Heart, in World War I we had Shell Shock, World War II and Korea ushered in Battle (or combat) Fatigue and after Vietnam they finally came up with Post Vietnam Syndrome—although at the time most people just said that:  All Vietnam Vet’s are just fucking crazy.


A Picture is Worth a 1,000 Words

And what do we do for our damaged veteran’s?  Not much I’m afraid.  We never have. We’re quick, as a nation, to send them to war, but once they return home they become a burden on our society.  There is no decompression strategy, no un-training plan in place to reintegrate them back into the world of the living.  Where are the resources to educate family and friends about their veteran’s return?  We like to mouth the slogan (and a hollow slogan it is):  I support our troops.  I say bullshit.  We are more likely to throw them into jail when they medicate with alcohol and drugs, or commit violent  antisocial transgressions, than we are to provide them with the help they so urgently need.  They become an embarrassment.  And in their pain and torment they are committing suicide in record numbers, and sometimes taking other innocent lives along with them.  It is both a travesty and a national disgrace.

I sometimes think about how my life might have been different if I had gotten the help that I needed.  I joined the Marine Corps’ via the delayed entry program when I was only 17 years old.  I entered boot camp immediately after graduation from high school in 1965.  It was the hardest thing I had ever done up to that time, and it lasted 14 weeks.  I not only underwent a physical battering, but also a prolonged psychological battering.  Their job was to turn boys into men, and men into killers.  That is still their job.  And the Marine Corps does it better than most.  Let me make one thing perfectly clear, I DO NOT CONSIDER MYSELF TO BE A VICTIM.  I volunteered for the Marine’s, it was the life I wanted and the direction I chose.  There was still a draft in the United States in 1965, but no one forced me to join the Marine’s.  The Marine Corps held up its end of the bargain.

After boot camp I was sent to Camp Pendleton for 4 weeks of basic infantry training, and then to Memphis, Tennessee for 12 more weeks of specialty training (Marine Air Operations).  I spent about a year in Yuma, Arizona before receiving my orders to Vietnam in late 1966.  I was a Corporal by the time I arrived at Staging Battalion, Camp Pendleton for another 4 weeks of advanced infantry training, escape and evasion simulations and jungle warfare training.  I arrived in Danang, Vietnam in early January 1967, and proceeded to my base of operations at Chu Lai the next day.  A few months later, at the tender age of 19 years old, I was promoted to the rank of Sergeant (E-5).  I returned home 13 months later—angry, disillusioned, disoriented, heavily medicated with alcohol and unable to assimilate. Over the years I enjoyed a modicum of professional success, but my personal life has always been a bit of a shambles—three failed marriages, minimal success as a father, conflict at work and a constant battle with anger and alcohol.

There was no reintegration plan—one day I was in Vietnam, 36-hours later I was back in the States.  Eight days later I was married to my high school sweetheart.  No decompression time, no readjustment time, no counseling, no understanding, no one to talk to.  My family didn’t want to hear about Vietnam (in fact my dad was embarrassed by my service), my poor wife had no idea who she had just married, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life (I was only 20 years old), the peacetime Marine Corps in the States was making me crazy, and I was drinking like a fish.  I was completely derailed at 20 years old.  No guidance, no counseling, no help—just thinking I was a failure on all levels.  Was it PTSD? I don’t know.  Maybe.  Probably.  I do know that stress and trauma have a cumulative effect, they tend to build up over time.  Life had a lot more trauma to throw my way in the years that followed, none of which I handled very well I’m afraid.  I still don’t think of myself as a victim, but it would have been nice to have had a helping hand.

Traumatized people usually find it hard to talk about it.  I do.  Sometimes the kindest thing you can do is to force the issue; especially if it’s a loved one, family member or friend.  There are a lot of hurting people in this world, and sometimes an outstretched hand is really helpful (and even appreciated on occasion … though not always).  It doesn’t always require a professional, often just a willing pair of ears to listen is enough.  My limited experience with ‘Shrinks’ is that they’re on the clock, and I’ve not found the sincerity and empathy (not sympathy) that is so often necessary for real healing.  The next time you see someone in pain reach out and embrace them, both literally and figuratively.  A physical hug is like a photo, it is worth a 1,000 words.

I don’t express or talk about my emotions much, except on this blog of course (lucky you), but when I do I usually feel better about things.  Here in Yucatan an embrace, a hug is an expected greeting.  I’ve been brought close to tears on many occasions when experiencing a Yucatan greeting—a sincere physical embrace, a hug.  The next time you thank a veteran for his or her service give them a big heartfelt hug.  Oh, they may stiffen up (or even try to pull away like I usually do), but more than likely you will see tears in their eyes.  Our feelings are deep, and often covered with layers of emotional scar tissue, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t feel.  I don’t suppose I will ever be as emotionally free and open as I was as a child, but like a child I do long for it.  The woman that ever really reaches me emotionally will have a slave for life.  Perhaps in my next life.  Karma.  

Must you carry trauma in your heart forever?  I’m afraid so—but there is always hope for a brighter tomorrow.  And hugs can bring that hope ever closer.



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