Two Decades & A Wake Up - Conclusion

Editor's Note: In the fall of 1989 eight vets with PTSD went back to Vietnam 20 years after they left the first time. This week will cover the outcome of that journey of healing and realization. Read on and enjoy. As always, you can find all my blog posts from 2013 to the present on my website at http://stevemarshallassociates.com/steves-blog/

Was It Successful?
After the eight vets had returned from Vietnam, I met with the two psychiatrists, Ray and April, for a debriefing on the trip. With hundreds of hours of the onsite film still yet to be edited, I was curious for a first impression from the two mental health professionals if the journey had met their expectations and if they had seen a substantive change in each of the eight veterans. The answer was a resounding, "Yes!" The next obvious question was, "Why and How?"

The Process
The trip started in Hanoi and worked its way south for a departure two weeks later from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). The trip was planned so as to make stops at each of the eight locations where the veterans served, as well as to take a down day for group discussions in between each site visit. Here are the results of each of those visits.

1. Jim K.'s personal story was the place for the first stop. Although the firebase where he was stationed in 1968 was easy to find on a map, it was far harder to find in 1989. Thick undergrowth mixed in with the remnants of the base still littered the ground; old artillery shell casings, collapsed hooches (living quarters), a lot of trash, and the river crossing where he watched eight of his comrades drown had now been reduced to a dried-up stream. The group stopped here for several hours and with the help of Ray and April, and assisted by the support of the other seven vets, Jim slowly started to see the that his memories were not what he was viewing on this day. More later on Jim K.

2. Bill K.'s location for the horrific trauma of shooting 12-year-old Viet Cong soldier in the face proved equally difficult to locate, even with the use of a 1968-era US Army map and a current Vietnamese military map. Although located near a US base in 1968, the base had virtually been swallowed by the local flora and fauna in the ensuing 20 years. At one point, even when he felt sure he had found the location, he changed his mind when it didn't jive with the memory he had been carrying for 20 years. Bill's disappointment was only matched by his surprise at the cognitive dissonance of his 1968 memory and the reality of the terrain in 1989. But, later, after a few hours of talking it through with the group, he was smiling, as if he had discovered something new.

3. Jake L.'s former battlefield was buried deep in the Central Highlands where there were no roads, and the decision was made to take Jake to a preserved set of tunnels west of Saigon. The Tunnels of Cu Chi were a 256-kilometer network of tunnels that were unknown to US Forces for many years and, even when they were able to ascertain that literally hundreds of Viet Cong soldiers were right underneath them, it proved almost impossible to rout all of them out. Guided by an ex-Viet Cong soldier, Jake tentatively followed her into a 100-yard section of tunnel, followed by one of the psychiatrists, April Gerlock, while the remainder of group awaited them at the exit to the tunnel. As he emerged several minutes later, crawling on his hands and knees the entire 300-foot distance, his reaction was cathartic. Jake exclaimed that he felt like he had shed a hefty coat of armor and felt "lighter" than he had in 20 years. He hugged his former enemy/guide, and they both smiled.

4. Billy P.'s war was situated in a hospital in Saigon where he treated severely wounded soldiers. Still a hospital in 1989, and still the same as he had last seen it 20 years before, save for the signage in Vietnamese, Billy became silent as the group toured the facility while Billy recounted his different experiences as a Navy Corpsman (EMT) with the wounded. When he started to display symptoms of severe anxiety, the group adjourned to a nearby park to debrief. This is where Billy dropped a 1,000-pound bomb on the whole group; he wasn't ever a corpsman; he was just an orderly that cleaned bedpans and changed sheets on hospital beds. His guilt at seeing Jim, Bill, and Jake reliving their experiences in the preceding four days became too much to bear, and he confessed to faking his history in Vietnam! Fortunately for him, the group, which had been together in weekly support sessions for several years, reacted in a way Billy could never have predicted and actually empathized with him! While he had breached the code of trust shared between them, they still understood that he had been carrying a massive load of guilt around with him for 20 years.

5. Ed M.'s memories of having his position overrun on the eve of the Tet Offensive were much on his mind as the group traveled to the site of the former US Air Base just outside Saigon. At the gate, Ed was devastated by the news that they could not enter as it was still an active Vietnamese Air Force base in 1989. Even with a thorough debrief session with the group as they were turned away, Ed couldn't shake his resolve to bury the artifacts of his time at midnight on January 30, 1968, when his world erupted into chaos. That night, at midnight, Ed snuck under the wire, evaded the sentries on duty and found his former duty position at the end of the main runway. He then dug a hole, buried some photos of his fellow soldiers, his dog tags and crawled back under the wire to rejoin the group back at their hotel. He declared that it was very satisfying and he was able to get some closure from his nighttime sortie.

6. Dave R., our "Riverine" on a Swift Boat in the Mekong Delta was similarly disappointed as they approached his former Navy base on the Mekong River. As an active Vietnamese Navy base, he was denied entry to the site. Dave became very despondent and was inconsolable until the commander of the base came to the gate after hearing about the group and their mission. While he still couldn't allow them to enter the base, he took the entire team to his home and threw a dinner party for them, also inviting many of his fellow soldiers, all veterans of the Vietnam War. The group was humbled by this honor, and after much Saigon Green beer, any and all transgressions of the past were long forgotten.

7. Bob S. survived the six-month siege of Khe Sanh, and was "evac'ed" in July 1968 along with the survivors of the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, as the North Vietnamese Army closed in to take over the base. During the six-month battle, Bob watched and fought as wave after wave of NVA regulars tried to push him and his fellow Marines back into the jungle. He watched as his friends, fellow Marines, were blasted to bits by incoming mortar and artillery rounds as well as killed in hand-to-hand combat. Over 400 Marines were killed and 2,200 wounded during the 180-day siege; more than 10,000 NVA Regulars were killed as well as 10,000 civilians in the surrounding areas. As the group arrived in 1989, they were stunned to find that the place had been flattened by Vietnamese bulldozers and all that was left were rusting tank hulls and pieces of US aircraft, with a new museum right in the middle of the old Marine base. Bob couldn't even find his old bunker; it had been filled in with dirt as had most of the base. Grass and undergrowth had invaded any open spaces and virtually wiped away all of the horrors he so vividly remembered. Profoundly moved by what he saw, he said little for the rest of the day.

8. Mary B.'s former posting at Long Binh, the 93rd Evac Hospital, came under attack in the early morning hours of January 31, 1968, commencing with a fierce rocket attack from outside the perimeter of the base. People scattered and ran for bunkers. Mary and her fiancee ran together but were too late. With rockets exploding around them, they hugged the dirt; Mary's fiancee on top of her. When the attack subsided, Mary was covered in blood and pinned to the ground under the weight of her husband to be. She realized quickly that he wasn't moving and started calling for help. In the chaos following the attack, it was almost two hours before help came and she was able to stand up and look down on his silent form on the ground. Ray and April shared with me that this instance was the one they dreaded the most; that of Mary going back to Long Binh.

In 1989, Long Binh, once the largest base outside of the US with 50,000 active servicemen and women, was now just a pile of ruins. Surrounded by a modern industrial park, anchored by the presence of a Nestle, a Sanyo, and a cement factory, there is a desolate road leading into a lightly wooded area where somebody had marked the old entrance with a mock concrete tank. Further back, amid recent earthworks, row upon row of decaying concrete slabs lie in the dun-colored ground, probably the foundations of barracks or hootches, basic dwellings for soldiers. Beyond these slabs, are hexagonal concrete bunkers, their empty rectangular gun ports looking out into the forest. Mary wandered the area, looking for her old hospital building or her barracks, but couldn't recognize or recall much more than her memories of that night, 20 years ago. As the others followed her, Ed M. found a mound of empty machine gun shell casings, the brass only slightly dulled by the passage of time. His comment to the others was profound and telling about the outcome of the entire trip. "They are all used up, just like the war; all used up." 

Postscripts
I was at the gate when the group returned to Seattle and had a chance to spend some time with each of them. All had been deeply moved by what they saw and experienced. Once again, Ed M. summarized for everyone how he felt the trip had changed him and his perception of the war, "I feel good. I know I will never feel like I did before I went to Vietnam and this is as good as it's ever going to get."

At a subsequent press conference, Ray Scurfield was asked why he believed that taking these vets back to the site of their PTSD was effective. He responded,

"Basically we're utilizing sort of an extension of a very accepted therapeutic practice in working with trauma survivors," said Scurfield, director of the post-traumatic stress disorder program at the American Lake Veterans Hospital near Tacoma. "That is direct therapeutic exposure to the trauma."

"By coming over here, our assumption is it will trigger repressed memories and feelings that they need to get out consciously and talk about," he said. "In doing that, it appears they come to some kind of peace." He continued, "many veterans picture Vietnam today as it was 20 years ago. By going now," he said, "they have to substitute the reality of Vietnam today. It's not the way it was 20 years ago. That's a very important message for many veterans."*

*
Dr. Ray Scurfield wrote a series of award-winning books about this trip as well as future trips with veterans to Vietnam. His most famous, books, 'Healing Journeys: Study Abroad With Vietnam Veterans, A Vietnam Trilogy, Volume I & II,' are regarded as invaluable reading on the subject of PTSD and how the perception of war can be changed.

The Group
The group set out for one more journey after they returned from Vietnam - the Wall* - in Washington, D.C.  Ray and April had planned on this trip to create closure for both the trip and a major chapter in these soldier's lives. It proved to be effective, moving, tearful, transforming, and not without some sadness as they all found the names of people they had known during their time in Vietnam.

*If you haven't been to the Wall, I recommend it highly. It doesn't matter if you served in Vietnam or know someone that served there or not; it is a profound experience and a fitting tribute to the men and women that lost their lives in that place on the other side of the world.

1. Jim K. and Mary B. had bonded during the trip and eventually married and are still married to this day. 2. Bill K. and Ed M. were actually next door neighbors in Tacoma before the journey and continued to be close friends. Bill K. suffered a series of setbacks after the trip and has struggled with alcohol. Since the group continues to meet, he regularly attends the meetings at American Lake VA Hospital. His comment on the trip was that, while it was positive, he feels, "....no matter how hard I try, I'll probably never get out of Vietnam."
3. Bill P. fell off the radar when he returned and lost touch with the group, despite all efforts to locate him.
4. Jake L., Bob S., and Dave R. moved on with their lives and eventually stopped attending the group meetings.
5. The progenitor of the trip, Steve Smith, created an hour-long film for PBS, which initially aired on Veterans Day 1989 on KCTS9 in Seattle. In December of 1990, the film, 'Two Decades and a Wake Up,' was nominated for an Emmy. The following year, it aired nationwide on PBS, on Veterans Day, accompanied by a post-broadcast call-in center for vets. The call-in center was overwhelmed by calls from Vietnam Vets. Steve Smith went on to form a company, which for many years, organized tours of Vietnam battlefields for veterans and their families.

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