April 1975: The Evacuation of Saigon (5)

May, June, and July of 1975 were the all-time low point of my life. I was physically ill and psychologically damaged, and I was absolutely alone with no support from anyone. My wife refused to join me. My children were with her. When I returned to NSA, I was discouraged from talking about Vietnam. The war there had been shameful. The less said about it, the better. I had no job assignment—the agency wasn’t expecting me to return for another year. I sat at an empty desk with nothing to do.

The worst was a condition we didn’t have a name for back then. At various times in various wars, people referred vaguely to “combat fatigue,” “gross stress reaction,” “war neurosis,” “battle fatigue,” and “shell shock.” By the twenty-first century we had settled on the name we now use: Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). I use the term “injury” rather than “disorder” because the malfunctioning of the psyche is the result of an externally inflicted wound to the soul, not an internal malady caused by the mind having gone awry. For me the affliction came not just from the atrocities during the fall of Saigon but also from my years of combat with army and Marine units throughout South Vietnam. I still can’t talk about some events I witnessed and participated in.

A point so often overlooked in discussing PTSI is that its origin is a healthy reaction to horror. Only the profoundly unhealthy do not respond to ghastly events with deep emotional angst. Nor is the condition limited to people who have been through combat. Any grisly experience can bring it on. It is common, for example, in women who have been raped.

I suffered all the symptoms—irrational rages, flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks. I knew I needed therapy, but I held top secret codeword-plus clearances. Had I sought psychotherapy, I would have lost my clearances and therefore my job. I still had a wife and four children to support. I gritted my teeth and endured.

More tomorrow.

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