April 1975 in Vietnam (24)

More on my recovery following the fall of Saigon forty-three years ago at the end of April 1975:

There’s no doubt in my mind that anyone who has been through combat suffers to some degree from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI), which some writers have termed a wound to the soul. One of the reasons I write is to show people how unspeakably grisly combat is. No one can live through it without permanent and damaging memories.

I suffered through combat repeatedly during my years of supporting army and Marine units throughout South Vietnam, not as a combatant but as an intelligence provider on the battlefield. Then and during the fall of Saigon, I witnessed and participated in events so gruesome that to this day I can’t talk about them. Memories of those events show up in panic attacks, nightmares, irrational rages, and flashbacks. And they creep into my writing.

I have been writing stories since I was six years old, and after my escape during the fall of Saigon, I wrote and wrote and wrote about what had happened to me in Vietnam. That eventually led to seventeen published short stories and three of my novels, Friendly Casualties (Amazon, 2012), The Trion Syndrome (Apprentice House of Baltimore, 2015), and Last of the Annamese (Naval Institute Press, 2017). I found out much later that one of the most effective therapies for PTSI is writing down the searing experiences. So to some degree, I forced myself to face my unbearable memories—by committing them to paper.

At the same time, I knew instinctively I had to help others who were worse off than I was. So I volunteered to care for AIDS patients during the worst years of that crisis, worked with the homeless, ministered to the dying in the hospice system, and finally worked with sick and dying veterans in the VA hospital in Washington, D.C. The result of those experiences was another novel, No-Accounts (Apprentice House, 2014).

I learned that when I gave all my attention to suffering people, my tortured memories receded into the background. Compassion heals.

I still have occasional nightmares, and I can’t abide Fourth of July fireworks. But these days, on the whole, I’m rational. The memories never fade, but I’ve learned to cope.

On the positive side, for my work during the fall of Saigon, I was awarded the Civilian Meritorious Medal. It remains today one of my two most cherished possessions. Tomorrow I’ll speak of the other one.

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