Another—and in some respects far more serious—aspect of my sense of isolation was my struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Injury. As I noted before, I don’t call is a “disorder;” it’s the result of an externally inflicted psychological wound. When the malady hit me in May 1975, after escaping under fire from Vietnam, I had never heard of it. We didn’t have a name for it back then. I knew I needed psychiatric help, but I held top secret codeword-plus clearances; had I gone for treatment, I’d have lost my job. So I sweated it out on my own.
I thought I was the only person going through the nightmares, flashbacks, irrational rages, and panic attacks. I was profoundly shamed by the symptoms. I took them to be signs of cowardice. My memories of being called a baby killer and butcher and of being spat upon by crowds at the San Francisco airport when I returned with the troops during the late sixties and early seventies made it worse.
I couldn’t talk with anyone about Vietnam. The fact that I, an NSA employee, was in Vietnam was classified. And in the halls of NSA, the Vietnam war was seen as a shameful exercise. No one wanted to hear about it. I was silent.
I didn’t want to talk about Vietnam. I was ashamed. I believed that my condition proved that I was unbalanced or a coward or worse. I was alone.
I wrote in this blog earlier about being forced to depend on myself in childhood by an alcoholic mother and a father in prison. Foraging on my own was my natural state. I was—and still am—a loner, uncomfortable with having to depend on others. So gritting my teeth and getting through the multiple bouts with my memories on my own felt natural to me.
Some years after the fall of Saigon, I read about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a disease that affected those with experiences so ghastly that the psyche was permanently damaged. I had all the symptoms. Figures in most recent studies vary, but one finds that four out of five men who faced combat in Vietnam shows symptoms of PTSD.
“Thank you. And welcome home.” Words I so yearned for and never heard. Then, three or four years ago, I attended a Vietnam veterans gathering. Young people who hadn’t even been born until after the fall of Saigon came up to me. They smiled and took my hand in theirs. “Thank you for your service,” they said. “Welcome home.” I cried.
I wasn’t alone anymore.