What had they seen and done?
What mysteries did they know that we did not but might befall us?
Each year at Boston College I’m one of several guest speakers for Professor Seth Jacobs course, “America’s War in Vietnam, in which the students read a variety of sources from across the political spectrum. Every few weeks a Vietnam vet further enlivens the popular class.
This particular day I walked into an auditorium filled with two hundred and fifty students. I have war stress, but I do not have stage fright. My speaking method is simple. Talk two minutes about what I did in Vietnam. Screen a clip from a short film I wrote. Next, show slides that I took in Vietnam as an infantry medic. Comment a minute or two on each.
“Can we have the lights off? First slide. Here is Sergeant Alphonse Gamble on a firebase in monsoon. There’s mud and grime everywhere. He’s filthy, brushing his teeth, happy to fight Mr. Tooth Decay. That black necklace? Black soldiers wove them from boot laces to symbolize Black solidarity and opposition to the war. He was a good soldier. Ten years back, I located Alphonse. He’d written a book about finding Jesus. I bought a copy. It was poorly written. But Alphonse had seen heavy combat. I guess religion gave him hope.
“Next slide. That’s Jim Lamb, from Rainbow Bridge, Missouri. We’re in the jungle, you see, about to go on patrol. It’s so beautiful, isn’t it? The jungle, I mean. The spiraling trees, the leaf-dappled light, the clean fresh air. But when will it happen? We walk into them. They walk into us. We walk into each other. What’s it like, combat? Think car crash. Bar fight. Ever been stalked or mugged? Think of a mass shooting. The terror. The dread. Hold that thought. That violent thought. The “it” is just like that. People shooting rifles. Screaming. Hunting each other down. There are no rules. Wherever you’re shot—head, hands, legs, eyes, torso, face, groin—nothing is off limits. Then long periods when nothing happens. Until it starts all over again.
And so it went. Images of young men trekking through jungle, packs freighted with tinned food, water, ammo. And Claymore mines, whose seven hundred steel bearings, blasted out by plastic explosive, will perforate the enemy, tear him to shreds. It took me thirty years to learn they were human beings.
Forty minutes passed quickly.
“Can we have the lights on, please?”
Earlier I’d told the students—eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old—the same age as my platoon, “I’ll ask for questions, but I’ll volunteer you too. Anyone know about PTSD?”
No hands. I point to the Topher Grace look-alike seated fourth row, center seat. “You, sir. Yes. Plaid shirt. What do you know about that?”
The fear in his eyes. As if he’d just been shot. “Me?” His voice barely audible.
“Speak up,” I said, and hand to my throat semaphored once, twice, three times. And I still could not hear him. “Speak up.”
“It’s when you…come back from war,” he whispered. “You have nightmares. You can’t sleep well. You’re changed.”
“That’s great,” I said.” Thank you.” I looked about. “Other symptoms. Anyone?”
Again, no hands raised. Is it the pace or the tone of my voice? My words like bullets? The students my targets? Have I frightened them? Slow down, bud. You need to slow down. I signal the pair of students clad in army fatigues with name tags, rank and unit patches.
“You, sir. Military guy. What are a few signs of post traumatic stress disorder?”
The budding ROTC lieutenant stood up; he too spoke in a whisper, which I thought was strange. In war or peace, an officer must always speak up loud and clear.
“You spend a lot of time alone’” he said. “It’s hard to make friends.”
“Very good. Thank you. Let me share a few more.”
Quickly, quickly I ran down the long list, giving examples as I went.
“And anger,” I said, after spelling out grief and guilt and sorrow. “But not your garden variety type. I’m talking sudden and murderous rage. When a grocery clerk fumbles at the register, it’s annoying, isn’t it? But a combat vet wants to strangle that guy until he turns blue or his eyes pop out and he screams bloody murder.” I pause for effect. “You get the way after a war. You better believe it.
“What else? Startle reflex. It’s when you duck or cringe when a car backfires. Or someone suddenly coughs, or knocks on a window pane. Or a sudden clank or pop or something dropped, shatters. Why? Because walking through jungle, waiting for the sudden loud burst of an AK47, the outgoing thuummp of mortar shells, you drop at every hint of an ambush. Low to the ground, you crawl to cover. Start firing. Startle reflex. It saved you in war, but once home, people will look at you strange.”
I check my watch. Five minutes. “There’s time for one last question.”
Way in the back, a confident hand. A strong voice. “What was it like, the day you returned from Vietnam?”
Quickly, quickly, I recalled how a hundred and fifty young men in a cramped room waited to be processed out. That the army clerks recommended we discard our MPC—the American money issued in Vietnam. “You can’t use it here,” they said. “Why not get rid of it?” Fistfuls of the colorful script were collected in large plastic buckets. Later mailed to Vietnam, converted on the black market to green backs, minus a profiteers cut, the clerks received cold hard cash. The fraud, perpetrated several times a day, earned them serious money.
An hour later, excited, anxious, disoriented, I put on my dress uniform, now brightened by a distinctive unit patch, a Combat Medic Badge, a half-dozen medals. I bought a plane ticket and boarded my second commercial jet that day. The flight home would take five hours. After a time, two good-looking stewardess sat either side of me. Their short skirts revealed their alluring legs. When one stewardess repeatedly nudged my boots with the tip of her toe I did not grasp her motives.
“I was having,” I said to the class, “a very bad day.”
The buzzer rang. The students gave me a round of applause, then filed out, off to the next class, and the one after that. Seth Jacobs smiled broadly. “Good work,” he said, or words to that effect. We shook hands, then he too departed, to write or read or whatever it is that has made his course on Vietnam the most popular at BC.
On the walk to the subway I realized I’d left out a deeper ritual of homecoming. In the early morning hours of 25 November 1969, in a large, darkened hanger, one hundred and fifty anxious men, wearing new boots and fresh fatigues, their canvas duffle bags strewn about, awaited the jet that would fly them to Vietnam. Sprawled on bunks, half-awake men struggled to sleep. Others stretched out on the smooth cement floor. As the hours ticked by, the sound of trickling coins signaled last phone calls home.
Finally, we heard the slow whir of approaching jet engines. A sergeant ordered us to fall in. The immense hangar doors slid open. The enormous plane taxied to a halt. In the pale dawn light, one soldier after another quietly descended the steep metal staircase. As the mute men filed past, the sound of their shuffling boots on the cement floor echoed throughout the hanger. Some men, wearing khakis, appeared glad to be home. Others, in faded jungle fatigues, seemed crowned by an unknowable sorrow. In those fleeting moments, a strange rapture took hold between them and us. What was it? we asked ourselves, that lay behind their inscrutable faces. What had they seen and done? What mysteries did they know that we did not but might soon befall us? It was as if these old young men had viewed themselves in a ghostly mirror, and we in turn beheld our future. A year later, I too walked in that knowing silence. Years have passed trying to unknow it.
And so it goes. With rare exception, America’s notion of world peace confines itself to war. Billions have been spent. Millions have suffered. Our dismal failures span the globe.
“There are only two reasons why you should ever be asked to give your youngsters. One is defense of our homes. The other is the defense of our Bill of Rights and particularly the right to worship God as we see fit. Every other reason advanced for the murder of young men is a racket, pure and simple.” 1
So said Marine Corps General Smedley Butler, winner of two Medals of Honor. His more dutiful counterpart ordered Federal troops to attack WWI vets seeking promised cash. My improvement on Douglas MacArthur’s well-known adage? Old soldiers never die. They’re replaced. By the lives of our sons and daughters.
1 War is a Racket, Round Table Press, 1935
Marc Levy served as an infantry medic with the First Cavalry Division in Vietnam and Cambodia in 1970. His books include How Stevie Nearly Lost the War and Other Postwar Stories and The Best of Medic in the Green Time. His website is Medic in the Green Time. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.