One of the things that I became acutely aware of while in Vietnam was the randomness of War. There was a story that I heard in the first week after my arrival that made me aware of this fact. I arrived in Vietnam at the tail end of the Tet offensive. My entry station was Saigon and while signing in and getting ready for assignment I could hear gun fire still sounding off in several parts of the city.
According to the story I heard, there was someone killed in the compound one early evening after I arrived. The story went on to say that one new arrival was sitting at a table in his room writing a letter home to someone. An apparent random bullet entered not only the compound but also into his window and in its dying flight, struck the soldier in the back and still had enough force remaining to go through his body and lodged itself into his heart which killed him. I don’t know if this was a true story or one that was being told to frighten us or make us more aware of dangers all around.
If this story was true, then it is a good example of the day to day angst that each of us were experiencing. I tell people who ask, “What was it like to go through your tour?” I answer that during that year, I always knew how many days I had been in Vietnam and how many days I had remaining before I could return home. There was always a list posted somewhere in our camp congratulating “short timers”, those who had less than a month remaining until departure. This was good news for those who were leaving Vietnam. For those with longer term requirements remaining, it was a constant reminder of the length of sentence still to endure.
I wonder how many outsiders realize that PTSD isn’t necessarily caused by one traumatic incident? It can be gotten this way, but it can also be gotten by long term exposure to horrific situations, too. One thing I strongly feel is that everyone has some level of PTSD tolerance which is tested throughout his year in Country. Randomness is constantly shocking all who were in the same situation as I was in. Of course, what your duty assignment was became a definite factor in your PTSD exposure, with some assignments offering more shocks to the system than others. For example, if your MOS was as a file clerk you probably witnessed fewer atrocities then say a Ranger sloshing though rice patties.
I suppose that one of the things that I often think about was the story of the hiker that went out for a hike and somehow got himself lodged between two boulders and couldn’t dislodge his arm and eventually had to take a knife and cut his own arm off. The point in my bringing this up was that this hiker did not wake that fateful morning and think to himself, “I’m cutting off my arm today”. No, he was as shocked by the situation as much as it was for those who read about it the next day. These traumatic events just happen and for most, they simply think that those things happen to other people not to them. I believe that this is one of the reasons that the military drafts and enlists teenagers. Teenagers think they are invincible, and that nothing can happen to them. Remember some 44,000 young men and women died in that senseless War. That also doesn’t include the thousands more who were injured, maimed, and mangled only to return to a much different life then they had planned before entering the military.
It’s true that the Afghanistan and Iraq War has only killed under 5,000 United States forces but isn’t that alone a terrible thing to say? ONLY 5,000, as if this is somehow a good number. Each of these military personnel had parents, or siblings, or friends and loved ones who will be changed forever.
I remember as a young boy, my next-door neighbor had a nephew visit. We lived in a row home and this boy was there for only a few days, but I really liked him. Though I was much younger, he impressed me, and I still can remember him jumping over my neighbor’s porch railing onto the sidewalk below. It was the only time that I ever saw him and several years later my neighbor told me that he had been killed in the Korean War. There was a song by Bette Midler called “Hello In There”, and there is a line in the song that says, “We lost Davy in the Korean War. I don’t know what for. Don’t matter anymore”. The nephews name was also Dave and every time I hear this song, I think of this athletic teenager who never got to live his life, or to teach his son how to jump over the railing. I don’t know what for, don’t matter anymore.