Salvation: Helping Others to Help Yourself

A man who served in Vietnam and suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury wrote me that Last of the Annamese moved him. He told me he’s considering working with other veterans who struggle with the trauma. I urged him to use his experience to help others. And I told him of my experience.

As I’ve said earlier in this blog, I was in Vietnam at least four months every year from 1962 to 1975. I had two complete tours in-country and so many shorter trips I lost count. Because I was providing signals intelligence support to combat units, I went into battles with the troops even though I was a civilian operating under cover. After the withdrawal of U.S. military forces in 1973, I headed the covert NSA operation in Vietnam and escaped under fire when Saigon fell.

In the process, I lived through catastrophes that I still can’t talk about, even though I’ve forced myself to bring the memories into my consciousness. I struggle with classic Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (I use the term “injury” rather than “disorder” because the damage to my soul was clearly externally inflicted) that will be with me for the rest of my life.

For so many years I thought I was the only one with nightmares, panic attacks, irrational rages, and flashbacks. Until a few years ago, Americans looked on the war in Vietnam as a shameful thing. When I came back to the U.S. with the troops, we were met at the San Francisco airport by crowds who called us baby killers and butchers and spat on us. That sickened my soul. So for decades I never spoke to anyone about my experiences. I had top secret codeword-plus clearances, and if I’d gone for psychological help, I’d have lost my clearances and my job. I gritted my teeth and sweated through it. Writing down what happened turned out to be good therapy. Hence my novels and short stories.

But the biggest help came from volunteering, starting in the 1980s. I worked with AIDS patients, the homeless, the dying in the hospice system, and finally with sick and dying soldiers in a VA hospital. I learned that when I was with people worse off than I was, my memories faded into the background. I found out that compassion heals.

So I profoundly hope that the brother in arms who wrote to me will follow through and help other veterans. Just knowing that others share that wound to the soul helps more than most people could imagine. God bless him.

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