Most every time I go into a store wearing my USMC hat, strangers stop and thank me for my service. I’m not exactly sure how to respond. Saying “you’re welcome” seems a bit arrogant as if I singlehandedly defended their freedom and way of life. Thanking them for thanking me is a bit awkward. The best response I have come up with so far is just to smile and nod.
For a Vietnam veteran like myself, being thanked for my service is unexpected as there weren’t many “thanks” being handed out when we returned home. When I landed in San Francisco in after spending three years overseas, instead of a parade welcoming us home we were told to take off our uniforms and change into civilian clothes before leaving the airport to avoid confrontations with protesters. (That didn’t work by the way) As our dream of once again setting foot on American soil came true, the message we were hearing was that it was the burden of shame not the joy of honor that we should feel after serving our country and doing our duty.
Like so many Vietnam veterans, I hid my service from friends, employers and even myself, attempting to bury those memories as deeply in my subconscious as possible. There were times at 3 o’clock in the morning when they would surface and I would awake startled and confused, but for 40-plus years, I went about my business proud that I had put all that behind me, not once wearing a USMC hat and avoiding other Vietnam veterans out of fear and guilt.
Then I retired and found myself with the luxury and unsettling reality of time. My mind was now free to think about things other than work and day-to-day existence. The memories suddenly came swarming back, but arriving only in fragmented bits. It was like trying to piece together a jigsaw puzzle with critical pieces hiding in a dense fog, not knowing if the horrific memory was real or imagined. Even today I still haven’t quite put all the pieces together. The nightmares became a frequent, unwelcome visitor and depression a constant companion. My sister finally convinced me to get some help, so I called the Veterans Administration.
When the VA doctor told me I had all the classic symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) my first thought was that this guy is a quack and I told him where he could shove his diagnosis using very descriptive language. “PTSD is only for the weak minded and non-hackers,” I told him. “I am a Marine after all.” The doctor smiled, then said, “OK, let’s take a little test.”
Now I never did very well with tests in school but to my shock and dismay, this one I aced. Super vigilance, flashbacks, jumpy, depression, anger, survivors guilt, emotional numbness, difficultly sleeping, easily irritated, keeping people at a distance – I owned all of that and more. The symptoms had always been there, but it wasn’t until I retired that they became so overwhelming I sought out help. I learned this is very common for Vietnam era vets.
We came home from war very different and damaged people and the worst part of it was we didn’t have a clue. Even today I am angry about those wasted, lost decades living in a haze of emotional isolation. But I got better, much better. Thanks to excellent treatment by the VA Healthcare System and allowing myself to be surrounded with family, friends and other veterans who share my history, I am more content, happier and full of hope than at any time since the war. Today I proudly wear my USMC hat.
It’s not easy for me to tell my story, especially in such a public forum, but I share it because there are still countless veterans of every generation, many of them your family members and neighbors, who are suffering needlessly like I did. If any of my story sounds familiar, free help is only a phone call away. It’s never too late.
So please, keep thanking us for our service and if we act a bit embarrassed and not sure how to respond, keep in mind it is a bit new to some of us. But if you really want to thank us for our service, get involved. If you see a veteran showing signs of PTSD, suicide or needing other medical help direct them to the VA or a local Veterans Service Officer. We veterans can be a stubborn lot, so don’t give up.
You can also thank us by donating your time, talents and money to help struggling, local veterans who have fallen through the far too wide cracks of governmental regulations and red tape. If you are a contractor, a builder, plumber or can supply building materials, the DAV is in need of your assistance to build handicap ramps and remodel bathrooms to make them safe and functional for disabled veterans who can’t afford it. If you have wheelchairs or hospital beds you no longer need, we have veterans waiting. If you are a church or civic group, donate your time and money to this very worthy cause. Together, as a community, we can improve the quality of life for these veterans and their families who so bravely served to protect our freedoms and way of life.
I wish to thank the Harrison Daily Times for providing this space every week to discuss veteran issues, raise awareness of their struggle, provide information where they can seek help and how you and this community can assist in improving the quality and dignity of their lives.
In next Tuesday’s column we will be announcing the launch of a project designed to help disabled veterans in our community.
So thank you for thanking us… and you’re welcome.
Matt Russell is a USMC Vietnam combat veteran and Commander of the Boone County DAV. The opinions expressed in this column are his alone and do not represent the position of this newspaper, the Disabled American Veterans or any other organization.