As I mentioned earlier, I returned from the fall of Saigon, after 13 years on and off in Vietnam, an emotional wreck. I had no name for it then, but I was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). I couldn’t seek psychological help because I would have lost my intelligence clearances and would have been fired. So I turned to helping others. I discovered that compassion heals.
At the beginning of the AIDS crisis, I became a buddy to AIDS patients. At that point the nation was in panic over AIDS, and many in the medical community wouldn’t treat AIDS patients for fear of contracting the disease. Men were literally dying on the streets because no one would touch them. I couldn’t tolerate watching that go on. I volunteered to take care of AIDS patients.
We buddies did everything for our patients—bathed them, fed them, even gave them injections because there was no one else to do it. And in the end, because all of society, even their own families, had abandoned them, we stayed with them while they died.
I saw that being with the ostracized dying was like combat: you stay with your brother no matter what the danger. And when he dies, part of you dies, too. In the five years I worked as a buddy, I had seven patients, all gay, all died. I grieved over every one of them as I did over the men who died in combat next to me.
Working with the dying did help me cope with PTSI. My attention was so focused on my patients that my brutal memories receded. But each death brought with it a fresh wound. So I turned to the other therapy I found for PTSI, writing, and I wrote about my patients. That ended up being the novel No-Accounts, the story of straight man caring for a gay man dying of AIDS. As in my books about combat, I made no attempt to gloss over the ugliness of death, this time from AIDS.
Has it helped? Yes, but the memories, like those of combat, never go away. But I wouldn’t do it any differently if I were I were in the same place today.