Two Decades & a Wake Up - Redux

Editor's Note: Last week, I introduced you to the eight vets that went back to Vietnam 20 years after they left the first time. This week will cover the journey of healing and realization. Read on and enjoy. As always, you can find all my blog posts from 2013 to the present here on beBee and on my website at

Two Decades and a Wakeup
Last week, I omitted the hoped-for outcome for this two-week journey in Vietnam in 1989 for eight tormented Vietnam Vets looking to find answers for too many questions. They were also seeking relief from the daily pain of carrying so many horrifying memories from their time in-country in 1967-69. In talking with the group's V.A. psychiatrist, Ray Scurfield, MD, who had studied PTSD his whole career in the Army, believed that PTSD is best treated at the time of the trauma, not 20 years later. Not being possible in this case, the next best thing was to return these vets to the places where the trauma happened and face it onsite with the guidance of the two psychiatrists and the support of the rest of the group. The outcome that he and the other psychiatrist, April Gerlock, MD,  hoped for was new insight into their memories and new learning in how to cope with it in 1989.

The Vets
I mentioned there were eight Vietnam Vets representing all branches of the military; not entirely accurate; the Coast Guard and the National Guard were not represented within this group. They are:

  • Jim K. - Army Infantryman
  • Bill K. - Army Medic
  • Jake L. - Air Force Forward Observer
  • Bill P. - Navy Corpsman
  • Ed M. - Air Force Military Policeman
  • Dave R. - US Navy Riverine
  • Bob S. - US Marine Corps
  • Mary B. - US Army Nurse

Their Stories and the Healing Process
1. Jim K. arrived in-country in 1968 and like most vets at that time, spent 12 months there, or as vets prefer to say it, 364 days and a wake-up. His trauma began when the other eight "grunts" of his squad drowned during a river crossing, and he survived. His "survivor's guilt" and anger were still with him 20 years later.

2. Bill K. did three tours as a combat medic in Vietnam from 1967 to 1969 and is credited with saving the lives of over 200 men, even while being wounded three times himself. He more than earned the three Silver Stars and three Purple Hearts he was awarded for his bravery and being wounded. His horrific moment came as he was crawling through the bush to rescue another wounded comrade and came face to face with a 12-year-old boy with an AK47 who tried to shoot him. Bill was quicker with his pistol and killed the boy at point-blank range in the face. He could not ever forget that moment as well as the men he couldn't save.

3. Jake L. was an Air Force F.O. serving with a forward Army unit calling in close air support when he saw an enemy soldier drag a wounded US serviceman into a tunnel. He followed and caught up with them in the depths of the tunnel, fired first at the fleeing Vietcong shoulder, killed him but then the tunnel collapsed on top of all of them, trapping them for several minutes. Others above dug him out, but the other soldier died of suffocation and his wounds. Jake had had crippling claustrophobia and nightmares ever since that encounter.

4. Billy P. was a rear area hospital corpsman doing triage on wounded soldiers as they were brought into the hospital where he served. He saw too many soldiers die from their wounds and was having difficulty living with the guilt of making the decision of whether someone would receive lifesaving treatment first or not.

5. Ed M. was an M.P. at Tan Son Nhut Airbase in Saigon in January 1968 when the Tet Offensive was launched. The Vietcong overran the base, and, although they were ultimately defeated by US reinforcements, many of Ed's friends were killed or wounded. It was a night full of grenades and bombs exploding, tracer rounds whizzing by, and mass confusion in the dark, where friend and foe were indistinguishable. His nightmares lasted for 20 years, especially since he never got to say goodbye to anyone after that night.

6. Dave R. was a gunner on a Navy Swift Boat in the Mekong Delta, and while he never experienced the depth of personal horror that some of his friends from the group did, he witnessed daily carnage on the rivers as wartime atrocities were committed by both sides on innocent civilians. He was unable to shake those memories going into the two-week trip to Vietnam in 1989.

7. Bob S. was just a young Marine in 1967 and being "first to fight" in many engagements early on, he witnessed the horrors of war at close hand and held many of his fellow Marines as they died in his arms.

8. Mary B. was an operating room nurse at Long Binh Field Hospital when it came under a rocket attack one night and, as she and her fiancee were running toward a bunker, he threw himself on top of her to shield Mary from an incoming rocket. He was killed, and she was pinned underneath him for a few hours until help came. She relived that moment every night for 20 years.

The Itinerary
These eight veterans were stationed in many different locations during their time in Vietnam, and the leaders of the trip had to overcome many logistical challenges to get these vets to the places where their trauma's occurred. Imagine the State Of California, and you can get a perspective on the size of Vietnam - it is slightly smaller than CA. However, take away highways, signage, telephones, and lodging and food availability and you can get a sense of the challenges that Ray, April and the producer, Steve Smith faced, as they tried to get everyone to where they needed to go within the two week period.

The trip was also time sensitive; since the US had not normalized relations with the Country of Vietnam and vice versa, the group was only allowed to stay for two weeks and then they had to leave Vietnam. To ensure compliance with this timetable and many other things, they were accompanied everywhere by official government guides who regulated where they could go or even stop by the side of the road. The good news is, they pulled it off and everyone got to go back to where their PTSD all started.

Next Week: The Conclusion of Two Decades and a Wakeup