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caution! this post may cause nausea

March 20, 2011

I’m not kidding.  I want to finish this arc about my time in Vietnam with the

Marines and get back to lighter matters.  If you’ll bear with me one more post,

you’ll understand why I find life so precious today.  But it’s gonna be ugly.

I’m writing this partly for catharsis, partly to challenge government policies of

minimalizing the soul-crushing, grinding carnage of war.  I strongly believe it’s

a citizen’s utmost responsibility to bear witness to the actions that his or her

leaders claim are necessary to protect the state.  As a battle-weary friend told

me near the DMZ, “war is the ultimate insanity”.

For six months I saw a parade of butchery on the USS Princeton and at Delta Med

triage in Dong Ha.  This is just a sampling: a corpse whose scrotum was swollen

ten times its normal size from internal bleeding; another whose guts were a swirl-

ing mass of maggots; a 3-year-old child, trampled by water buffalo and burned by

napalm, who looked at me, smiled and died; a bag containing three feet and one

name tag; a corpsman pulling off the remainder of a guy’s leg when he tried to take

his boot off; a body so badly mangled we had to send him back as a BTB (believed to

be); a dozen corpses falling with a crunch from a chopper because the pilot didn’t

have time to land.

These are the images that still haunt me.  These are the images I see when some

cowardly pundit or politician talks blithely about committing troops as if they’re

commodities — tokens in a game of real-life Risk.

You can’t look at 50 pounds of ground meat that had just been a 200-pound person

and not be changed forever.  There’s no way to fully prepare for the onslaught to

your senses.  The smell of a rotting human corpse is beyond description to me yet.

Besides flat out killing the natives, we were mean to them as well.  There was a tiny

cemetery close to one of the Delta Med buildings.  One of our truckers backed into

its short wall and knocked down a section.  Others took that as an opportunity to

dump debris in it.

The day before my 22nd birthday, I was in-country and found out that a college

friend wasn’t far away in the boonies.  The only way I could get to him was to ride

shotgun on a truck convoy.  As we passed  through the hamlets and villages, I saw

that children were standing by the side of the road.  Marines on other trucks were

throwing cans of food from their field rations at the kids.  They weren’t tossing

them, they were flinging them as hard as they could.  The kids were so hungry

that they were willing to get hit.

The truck I was on had a small refrigeration unit on it.  When I found my friend  a

few hours later, I had two reasonably cold beers — a rare treat that far out.  We drank

them, then went to chow.  We couldn’t stand near each other in line because a group

of guys out in the open would likely draw fire.  I have no idea why the V.C. didn’t

just shoot at the mess hall.

While we were standing in line, a plane flew over a hilltop and sprayed something

on it.  “What is that stuff?”, I asked my friend.  “I don’t know,” he said, “but it kills

everything.”  That stuff was Agent Orange, a herbicide that contained dioxin.  Its

impact is felt in Vietnam and U.S. troops to this day.

My friend and I talked late, then bunked down in his tent.  Bulldozers had dug deep

trenches for the tents to reduce injuries from rockets and mortar fire.  In the wee

hours, Charlie celebrated my birthday with just such munitions.

My friend shook me.  “Wake up and get your gear on, man, we’re getting hit!”, he

yelled as shrapnel ripped through the tent.  I did just that.  Then, because I was so

terrified, I laid back down and went to sleep.  That was the scariest night of my life.

In the morning, everyone else carried on as usual.  Harassment fire like that was

common.  After breakfast I said goodbye to my friend and thanked him for such a

memorable time.

I caught a ride back to the Dong Ha base with a mail jeep.  The day before I had been

part of a miles-long convoy with hundreds of rifles.   Even so, we had stopped often

to return sniper fire.  Now I was returning with just three other guys.  Fortunately

we did it in half the time.

What I’ve just described were major contributors to my PTSD.  I’ll write about that

another time, maybe on a warm sunny day.  Please don’t ever forget that there are

troops in the U.S. and Canada today that have had similar experiences and might

face similar problems.  They need your understanding.  They’ll need time to sort

it out.

I don’t resent what happened to me.  But I regret that my PTSD deeply damaged my

capacity to love.  And that’s the most important thing I could ever share with you.

  1. March 20, 2011 6:37 am

    My God Allen – what a war! I hate to think about it and I wasn’t even there. But I thank you for sharing this and I hope it gives you a bit of relief.

    As far as your capacity of love – you sure did figure out a way to work through that and score Jude!

    • March 20, 2011 11:25 am

      Amen to that. She has been the driving force in my willingness to take more and more emotional chances. I admire her remarkable tolerance of my quirkiness.

  2. Fletcher Sanders permalink
    March 20, 2011 9:00 am

    Thanks for your comments. I agree with you that we should bear witness to what our leaders claim to do to protect the state. Right now Donald Rumsfield is parading around to all of the talk shows on radio and TV promoting his book. Every time I see him, I get sick to my stomach. This incompetent boob screwed up both the Iraq and Afganastan condlicts as bad as someone possibly could. His cullmanation was resigning from the Bush administrations cabinet. And yet, he is being escorted around as if he is one of the conquering heros. Shows you what the values of this country has sunken to. God help us all.

    • March 20, 2011 11:41 am

      Thanks, Fletcher. One of the cowardly politicians I was thinking about, Paul Wolfowitz, was on TV today pushing his agenda. He and William Kristol, two of the worst, never served in the military. They and other neo-cons want a “New American Century”. I guess they don’t want the rest of the world to have a say in global matters.

  3. Nina permalink
    March 20, 2011 2:55 pm

    How unspeakably horrific to have had to witness such atrocities, and to have to carry the burden of memories from that grim time. Considering the nature of the experiences you’ve had, I think it’s a wonderful testiment to your resiliency that you’ve managed to carry on and carve out a fulfilling life for yourself alongside a wonderful woman who clearly cherishes you. I think everyone in our community would agree that, despite the wounds to your soul, you’ve managed to remain caring and open, and a person many value and respect.
    It must have been painful to dredge up all these awful memories, but hopefully the act of sharing them will help to exorcise a few demons. What a nightmare it must have been – for both sides. One that left a lasting legacy of PTSD for those who managed to survive.
    Kudos to you for having the strength to share, Allen.

    • March 20, 2011 3:07 pm

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments, Nina. I said earlier in this section that Jude’s love has freed me to take more emotional chances. And our community is where I risk most. It helps to live in the coolest neighbourhood in the world.

  4. Meghon permalink
    March 20, 2011 3:22 pm

    I’m glad that you have finally found some peace.

    • March 20, 2011 4:46 pm

      Thanks, luv. It took a magnificent woman and a magical place.

  5. kris (lower case) permalink
    March 20, 2011 7:14 pm

    my 11 yr old son is adopted from vietnam (came home at 5 months). i know when people think of throwing cans of food hard at those kids they see just some faceless asian child…i see my son.. that changes everything when you see it that way… if people saw the other people of the world as their sons/daughters there would be a lot less cruelty.

    • March 20, 2011 9:26 pm

      I appreciate you sharing that, kris. You have summed up the problem beautifully. Seeing all the wounded civilians in-country was the toughest part of my job.

  6. Wade Hannon permalink
    March 20, 2011 7:45 pm

    Dear Brother,

    Thank you for sharing these experiences. As you know, my father was in WWII & Korea & he say many horrific, dehumanizing things. Unfortunately he was never able to cogently articulate his experiences. He lived all the rest of his life with the “1,000 foot look in his eyes whenever his experiences in both wars came up. He suffered. My brother and i suffered from his inability to express loving feelings, which, having talked with older family members, was a direct result of his combat.

    War diminishes us all.

    Now the US government continues its warmongering by attacking Libya. While i stand in solidarity with the opposition there, i do not support using violence to resolve any human problems- personal, familial, social, political, whatever. Violence breeds violence.

    So, as i have since i met you & you became my dear friend & brother, i tell you that i love you, respect you & care about you.

    For all the rest, the time is now for each & every one of us to stand up and proclaim that we do not support war, do not support killing, do not support hatred and violence.

    As John Lennon wrote, “imagine”.

    • March 20, 2011 9:37 pm

      Wade, my brother, I know that your family is still hurting from the effect of your dad’s PTSD. I know of many other families that don’t have someone of your strength to anchor them. You had to rise above a ton of shit to reach the heights you have. I’ve long admired you for walking the walk. Hang in there. The struggle continues.

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