30 July 2010


On the evening of May 10, 2010, if I had been asked, “Are you planning to hurt yourself?”, I would have answered “No.” A few hours later, I awoke from “the dream” to the thought that “I cannot do this anymore!”

I got up—as I had in nearly every other night for the past 41 years to walk through the house, “checking lines.” This time, I dressed haphazardly, put a shotgun in my truck, went back in the house to get my helmet, and drove to a field, where I was surrounded by repeated intermittent visions of North Vietnamese Army soldiers and the ghosts of my Marines. For two and a half hours, I sat there with a loaded shotgun, muzzle against my chest, thumb on the trigger, safety off. Had you asked me, “What in God’s Name are you doing?”, I would have answered, “I don’t think God knows where I am.”

Of course, I was wrong—He had His arms firmly around me.

By 7:00 am the next morning, I was in the VA Hospital in Coatesville, Pennsylvania. After spending seven days on the psychiatric ward, I was accepted in the combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) unit at Coatesville. The program, which was started in 1981, a year after PTSD was first recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as an anxiety disorder, is recognized as one of the finest PTSD programs in the Nation.

Combat-related PTSD is a tricky bastard: It is marked by flashbacks (in which the traumatic event(s) are re-experienced as if they were occurring in the present, rather than as memories), nightmares, and a negative emotional and/or physical response to reminders of the traumatic event(s), such as, in my case, fireworks, sounds of helicopters or sounds replicating mortars being fired, and certain landscapes. As a result, I followed the norm and began to avoid behaviors, places, or people that might lead to distressing memories. For me, that included seeking to avoid conflict, uncertainty, and decision-making. This led me to self-isolate and refrain, in an ever-smaller personal world, from activities in my profession, community, church, and family. There was many a day that, after SWMBO and the kids left for school, I sat in a dark closet. I became emotionally numb and began to see the future as just an ever smaller and ever darker place.

In addition to experiencing difficulty staying asleep, my concentration and mental focus went to Hell. There were many days in which I lost hours of my time.

At the same time, I became hyper-vigilant. I dove for cover at the sound of a balloon popping right behind me--to the amused consternation of my fellow passengers on a commuter train. I heard mortars in the distance and dreamt of the in-coming short round that almost got us in the Arizona.

And my anger became unmanageable. Imagine, if you can, the look on a little boy’s face when he is braced up for not immediately putting his dishes in the sink. “Dammit! People die when orders are not followed.” Really?, he must have thought.

Thankfully, I did not succumb to self-medication with drugs and alcohol, a major recourse sought by many combat-related PTSD sufferers.

Finally, the guilt I felt for surviving when my Marines did not had become overwhelming.

After an intense 11 week hospitalization, I am home. The therapists and staff at VA, Coatesville, are the best. The work they do with vets from Vietnam, Beirut, Desert Storm. Bosnia, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan is something to see.

As we worked through my memory of “that night”, I told my therapist “I want the pain to go away, but I don’t want to lose the gallantry of my Marines ‘that night.’”

“Mac,” she replied, “there is not a therapist on earth that could do that, or who would want to.”

Last week, just before I came home, I told Wandro’s story in one of our groups. For the first time in 41 years, I did not cry during the re-telling—that came later and as a relief. I was sad, but it was something that happened in the past, not in the here and now.

There is a slogan that is almost a mantra in the PTSD unit: “It takes the courage of a warrior to seek help.” For the past 11 weeks, I have lived, laughed, cried, studied, and bonded with some courageous warriors. Each one is battling his or her own demons, while becoming re-assured that he is not the Lone Ranger.

They are as special to me as are the Marines of Charlie Company and I will never forget them.

I still have a long, long way to go (on the walk to my truck, I heard a whirrrrrring sound and ducked reflexively), but I’ve made a start.