Vietnam Veterans' of America Chapter 899 New Jersey

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What is a Vietnam Veteran


 What Is A Vietnam Veteran?
 A Conversation with, Tom Smallwood, a Fellow Marine Brother
 
 A HUMP TOWARD MEANING
 
 Vietnam Veterans are men and women. We are dead or alive, whole or maimed, sane or haunted. We grew from our experiences or we were destroyed by them or we struggle to find some place in between.
 
 We lived through hell or we had a pleasant, if scary, adventure.
 
 We were Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Red Cross, and civilians of all sorts.
 
 Some of us enlisted to fight for God and Country, and some were drafted. Some were gung-ho, and some went kicking and screaming. Some went to avenge a friend.
 
 Like veterans of all wars, we lived a tad bit--or a great bit--closer to death than most people like to think about.
 
 If
Vietnam vets differ from others, perhaps it is primarily in the fact perhaps that many of you never saw the enemy or recognized him or her. You heard gunfire and mortar fire but rarely looked into enemy eyes. Those who did, like folks who encounter close combat anywhere and anytime, are often haunted for life by those eyes, those sounds, those electric fears that ran between ourselves, our enemies, and the likelihood of death for one of us. Or we get hard, callused, tough. All in a day's work.
 
 Life's a bitch then you die. But most of us remember and get twitchy, worried, sad.
 
 We are crazies dressed in cammo, wide-eyed, wary, homeless, and drunk.
 
 We are Brooks Brothers suit wearers, doing deals downtown.
 
 We are housewives, grandmothers, and church deacons.
 
 We are college professors engaged in the rational pursuit of the truth about the history or politics or culture of the
Vietnam experience.
 
 And we are sleepless. Often sleepless.
 
 We pushed paper; we pushed shovels. We drove jeeps, operated bulldozers, built bridges; we toted machine guns through dense brush, deep paddy, and thorn scrub.
 
 We lived on buffalo milk, fish heads and rice. Or C-rations. Or steaks and Budweiser.
 
 We did our time in high mountains drenched by endless monsoon rains or on the dry plains or at the most beautiful beaches in the world.
 
 We wore berets, bandanna's, flop hats, and steel pots. Flak jackets, canvas, rash and rot.
 
 We ate cloroquine and got malaria anyway.
 
 We got shots constantly but have diseases nobody can diagnose.
 
 We spent our nights on cots or shivering in foxholes filled with waist-high water or lying still on cold wet ground, our eyes imagining Charlie behind every bamboo blade. Or we slept in hotel beds in
Saigon or barracks in Thailand or in cramped ships' berths at sea.
 
 We feared we would die or we feared we would kill. We simply feared, and often we still do.
 
 We hate the war or believe it was the best thing that ever happened to us.
 
 We blame Uncle Sam or Uncle Ho and their minions and secretaries and apologists for every wart or cough or tic of an eye.
 
 We wonder if Agent Orange got us. Mostly--and this I believe with all my heart--mostly, we wish we had not been so alone.
 
 Some of us went with units; but many, probably most of us, were civilians one day, jerked up out of "the world," shaved, barked at, insulted, humiliated, de-egoized and taught to kill, to fix radios, to drive trucks.
 
 We went, put in our time, and were equally ungraciously plucked out of the morass and placed back in the real world.
 
 But now we smoked dope, shot skag, or drank heavy.
 
 Our wives or husbands seemed distant and strange.
 
 Our friends wanted to know if we shot anybody.
 
 And life went on, had been going on, as if we hadn't been there, as if Vietnam was a topic of political conversation or college protest or news copy, not a matter of life and death for tens of thousands.
 
 
Vietnam vets are people just like you.
 
 We served our country, proudly or reluctantly or ambivalently.
 
 What makes us different--what makes us
Vietnam vets--is something we understand, but we are afraid nobody else will. But we appreciate your asking.
 
 Vietnam veterans are white, black, beige and shades of gray.
 
 Our ancestors came from
Africa, from Europe, and China. Or they crossed the Bering Sea Land Bridge in the last Ice Age and formed the nations of American Indians, built pyramids in Mexico, or farmed acres of corn on the banks of Chesapeake Bay.
 
 We had names like Rodriguez and Stein and Smith and Brown.
 
 We were Americans, Australians, Canadians, and Koreans; most
Vietnam veterans are Vietnamese.
 
 We were farmers, students, mechanics, steelworkers, nurses, and priests when the call came that changed us all forever.
 
 We had dreams and plans, and they all had to change...or wait.
 
 We were daughters and sons, lovers and poets, beatniks and philosophers, convicts and lawyers.
 
 We were rich and poor but mostly poor.
 
 We were educated or not, mostly not.
 
 We grew up in slums, in shacks, in duplexes, and bungalows and houseboats and hooch's and ranches.
 
 We were cowards and heroes. Sometimes we were cowards one moment and heroes the next.
 
 Many of you have never seen
Vietnam. You waited at home for those you loved. And for some of you, your worst fears were realized.
 
 For others, your loved ones came back but never would be the same.
 
 We came home and marched in protest marches, sucked in tear gas, and shrieked our anger and horror for all to hear.
 
 Or we sat alone in small rooms, in VA hospital wards, in places where only the crazy ever go.
 
 We are Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, and Confucians and Buddhists and Atheists--though as usually is the case, even the atheists among us sometimes prayed to get out of there alive.
 
 We are hungry, and we are sated, full of life or clinging to death.
 
 We are injured, and we are curers, despairing and hopeful, loved or lost.
 
 We got too old too quickly, but some of us have never grown up.
 
 We want, desperately, to go back, to heal wounds, revisit the sites of our horror. Or we want never to see that place again, to bury it, its memories, its meaning.
 
 We want to forget, and we wish we could remember. Despite our differences, we have so much in common.
 
 There are few of us who don't know how to cry, though we often do it alone when nobody will ask "what's wrong?" We're afraid we might have to answer.
 
 If you want to know what a
Vietnam veteran is, get in your car next weekend or bum a friend with a car to drive you.
 
 Go to
Washington.
 
 Go to the Wall.
 
 There may be hundreds there.
 
 Watch them. Listen to them.
 
 Go touch the Wall with them. Rejoice a bit. Cry a bit. No, cry a lot.
 
 We are
Vietnam Veterans and after 30 years, I think I am beginning to understand what that means.


  The below story is one veteran's way of finding some meaning in the life we have left. I placed it here to help some of my brothers find there way back. I hope it helps them and I hope it helps others to understand what it is like to be a "Vietnam Veteran".



The Long Road Home

By T. Evans

Oh
Vietnam, what else can you take from me. You have my mind and my body, but you will never get my soul. That belongs to my wife, my family, and me. Your blood riddled soil has stolen many a poor boy, from life, living, and the pursuit of happiness; however, you have not won the war, your are still a Prisoner of War, you are not FREE, but I AM. It has taken most of my life to figure out the equation to deal with your wrath, but I have a handle on it now and would like to share my successes with what is left of the Vietnam veteran society.

The words of a famous President, "Ask not, what your country can do for YOU, Ask what YOU can do for your country." Those words more than any other words that come to mind, made us, the Vietnam veteran, proud of what we did and who we are today. The journey home has taken almost 30 years of denial, guilt, therapy plus medication, and the finial acceptance of who I am; a husband, father, and a human being. The first years were all denial. People always asked my how I got hurt, my response was, "oh, I got hurt playing tennis." Then I would order another round for the bar, and go home blotto every night. Years went by, drowning in a bottle of booze that would take away the pain, (I thought). All the booze did was cover up the scars of a war that made sense when you were there, but made no sense when upon return to the States you were scorned by the very people you thought you were there to protect from the spread of communism.

It was American patriotism that our generation believed in; our fathers fought WWII and freed the world from the dark forces that threatened our very existence. My father fought in WWII and
Korea. He turned to the bottle to cover up his PTSD, and thank God he got sober 10 months before his death at the age of 46. The Vietnam veteran fought, won, and lost because of political decisions that were made by the politicians during this time period. In Tet 68 we had the North Vietnamese Army beaten into a thread of existence. We could have walked into Hanoi and raised the United Nations Flag on top of their capitol building, but the politicians said NO. I realize the politicians were under fire from the citizens in their respective districts, but it was no excuse to turn their backs on the very men who had just defeated the North Vietnamese Army. From that point on it was all down hill; the pressure by the American people to end the war was a better political choice, and the withdrawal of American and Allied troops began.

In retrospect;
Vietnam was an internal civil war, much like our own civil war. The American Civil War was about white men having ownership of black people who were kidnapped from their own country against their own will and forced into slavery. North Vietnam was a communist country fighting against a corrupt but free South Vietnamese government. In 1967 some of the American soldiers joked that the reason we were in Vietnam was to protect the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Saigon. Is it right to become involved in another countries civil war? My conclusion after 30 years of mental turmoil, if you send one American or Allied boy to a foreign country to fight a battle, it must be only to fight to the death and WIN. The United Nations flag must be blowing in the wind over the defeated country. The price of freedom is very costly, but the price of being a free loser is even higher.

The road back has been a real hell, but it is a hell that for me was worth all the effort I endured. What is life without a purpose? It's an existence. The answers to finding ones purpose is an exhaustive search that lies deep within your soul.


In 1981, I was a musical instrument repairman. One day a parade went by my shop, I went out to see what it was all about, and to my amazement, it was a parade honoring some local
Vietnam veterans. I couldn't believe it, I had never heard of such an event. It was the first parade given in the country to honor Vietnam veterans. The parade was put on the local American Legion and local county government officials. It was truly an uplifting experience.

My wife was watching television one night and called out, "come quick"; the vets that were in the parade had a telethon about a new vets group, The Organization of
Vietnam veterans. Along with the telethon they were showing an interview with a Vietnam vet who had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We couldn't believe some of the symptoms the vet had were very similar to many of the problems I was experiencing. I called in and found out they were having a meeting at the local American Legion. The time came around for the meeting and I was really getting stressed out, but after about an hour of hearing some of the vets speak they asked if anyone would like to join. I happened to be the first new member to join (# 9), and from that point on my life began to change. I felt a bound of camaraderie that I hadn't felt since the war. I actually thought I was going crazy with some of the thoughts I was having, but most of the men in the organization were having some the same thoughts and I felt like I had finally found some answers. As I look back at it now, it was just the beginning of the long road home.

My high school senior picture, this was taken about the same time my class was graduating. It was a sign of the times, as you can tell by the look in my eyes. Many years have come and gone since The
Nam, and many transformations have taken place in the rebirth of a civilized human being. I have to give a lot credit to the Organization of Vietnam veterans (OVV) for getting my healing process off the ground. As you will see in the end it was my wife of 23 years, and my children that stuck with through all the years of therapy and soul searching for answers.

OVV had purpose and a mission in the early 80's, The Wall, community awareness, and above all listening to what each other had to say and help each other through the years of stored up pain and anger. I was very fortunate to be in the first VA Outreach therapy program in our area, but first there was The Wall.

OVV represented The State of New York in the Welcome Home Parade in Washington D.C., the same weekend as the dedication of The Wall. The Wall stirred up memories that I had been hiding for years. When you look at The Wall you see a reflection of yourself in the highly polished
Vermont granite. At first I was upset about the design, but once you visit The Wall a profound wave of emotions are released. For me it was the first time I was able to cry since the war; not even my father dying in my arms along a roadside brought a tear to my war hardened empty shell.

The dedication ceremony was somewhat moving but not as much as the two vets who traded holding the American Flag for 48 hours; because the congress at the time voted not to have an American Flag the site. I believe the rational behind their decision was since we did not win the war it would be a disgrace to fly Old Glory over the loser's memorial. I believe that decision gave me the strength too be proud of who I am and what I did. While at the dedication I was in the front row of the handicapped section, General Westmoreland stopped and shook my hand. You could tell by the look in his eyes how sorry he was for not being given the chance to fight to the death; instead being branded as a man who was ordered not WIN.


A friend of mine, Bob from OVV, read the first three pages. He told me to go on with the story there's much more. The more I read this text over and over again; there really is no conclusion, just and ending. I sat and thought about it for a while; there really isn't and ending to the story. It's like a really bad movie; it ends and leaves you without a conclusion. The story line was there, the content was there, and BOOM just like a trip wire it's over. That really speaks well for the condition, PTSD. There really is never an ending, just constant reminder that we all have to learn to live with.

My secret is to stay completely focused on what ever makes me happy. In my situation my choices are narrowed down, due to physical conditions that are a result of
Vietnam. I am just lucky I really enjoy working with computers. So I sit everyday in front of a monitor and stay occupied 8 to 10 hours a day. Me at my work area. It may sound like, "what's this guy talking about, I hate computers." That's just the point I am doing what I like to do, and it keeps me focused enough so I don't think about Vietnam all the time. But that's not an answer too: The Long Road Home? For me it is. For all of you still looking for answers. Do what you like!

I wish I had the answers, but I don't. That's why they have group therapy so you can deal with your past and get on with your future. Remember; my future started when I found The Organization of
Vietnam Veteran's, and The Paralyzed Veterans of America.

We are not getting any younger, and the VA budget is frozen. By the way, it's frozen by the same government body who sent us all to
Vietnam. Don't take me wrong, I would volunteer again in an instant for military duty, to protect our freedom, and fight to the death for the country I love. You have to get involved, write some letters, and start complaining to the people who put us in this situation; the very people your supposed to be voting for. You wouldn't be reading this if you weren't connected to the Internet. You can locate all of your elected officials email addresses just by a simple search. We can't let the very system that took are victory away, take away our VA Hospitals, too. I am telling you from being in the system from my teens, and the big 50, is staring me right in the eye in a couple of months, our benefits and services are being cut to the bone. So, if you still don't want to do anything about your PTSD, do something about our hospitals. The day may come when you have no choice, and the program will be cut and you won't get the help you need

I didn't spend all these painful weeks it took me to compose this story to be meant as a political statement. I wrote because I wanted to share how I found, The Long Road Home, and if it just helps one veteran seek help for his or her problem with PTSD. Then I have done what this little story was all about: The Long Road Home.


Taking the 2nd step

I was still self-medicating myself every night, by drinking myself silly so I could get some sleep. I still drank for the first few years of therapy, but I was becoming a babbling idiot. My wife was about to leave. I had to make a decision the booze or my family. It's been 14 years since I have taken a drink.

That was the turning point to the healing process. The years of covered up and deeply hidden emotions and horrors began to low like a river. I won't elaborate on any of the topics we covered in those years, the stories of the men that experienced the journey with me will be held in the strictest confidence until the day I die. I can tell you that everyone's own
Vietnam was very different, but we all went on a painful journey of our souls together and now we all have our own separate lives. I will tell you this, PTSD is a real and valid condition that affects each individual in a different way, but the bottom line; it is a condition that never goes away and each individual has to learn to live with their ghosts because the ghosts never go away.

When we, returned to
Washington D.C. for the dedication of the Three Man Monument. That was after two years of intense therapy. OVV was still a strong importance in my life, and sharing these feelings with men that had been in similar situations helped to deal with the intense emotions that The Wall unleashes. It is really hard to tell another person how to deal with so much emotion. That's why I believe in the group approach along with individual therapy sessions. I count myself lucky again, that was the early 80's and psychotherapy was accepted by the masses. Hell it's the 90's now, and it's even cooler. What I am trying to say here, if you have PTSD deal with it. The longer you wait, the longer it is going to take to learn to live with the condition

On my next visit The WALL was the most popular place to visit in
Washington DC. A few years have passed, it's been cleaned, paved, and now has 2 flagpoles. At the memorial site there are large books located in several places to look up what panel #'s the names of your fallen comrades are etched on. I started at the top by the Lincoln Memorial side and proceeded down to the center. The beauty of this visit were all the messages and articles people left to the fallen hero's photo 1, photo 2, photo 3. The beautiful flower arrangement's, photo1, photo 2, my service organization, and finally to one of my buddies I grew up with. The emotions The Wall opens up are painful and sometimes too powerful to deal with. You should really go with your family or a group, on this visit I teamed up with Jim and Steve, fellow OVV members.

As you emerge from the canyon of fallen hero's, you follow the path to the
Vietnam Monument, a beautiful, but powerful representation of 3 combat veterans. Photo 1, photo 2, photo 3, and photo 4. The work of art is spectacular, you can tell by the look in their eyes, the scars war leaves on the human psyche where they are imprinted forever.


At the end of that day I looked up saw beauty, I knew from that moment on, there was a reason I survived. I had no idea at the time what the reason was. As I look back upon the day now, it was another turning point in my quest to live in coexistence with the memories that would never go away.


My last parade

Return to forever: upon return from The Wall II, The Monument, it was time to stop drinking booze and get on what I thought would be the cure. Quitting the booze was hard, but not as hard as dealing with the explosive emotions that followed. I fell into a deep depression; I had feelings of suicide that drove me to a breakdown. My therapist told me that checking into to a psyche unit would be an option to consider. I was already diagnosed by a VA Psychiatrist, that I had PTSD. So I checked into a VA psyche unit for severe depression and PTSD treatment. I stayed for 6 weeks; it was before they had real PTSD units. It was quite an experience being in group therapy sessions with all types of psychiatric patients. I think out of 40 patients, 4 were being treated for PTSD. It was my first time being in such a place. To cut it to the quick, I faked my way out. The one positive event I can recall from this experience was the authorization of outpatient treatment for a private psychiatrist. He started me on the medicine I needed, and in a month my depression started to lift. Little by little I was able to function, and get back to working hard in group therapy. Now I had the medication, the group, 2 one on one counselors, and The Organization of
Vietnam Veterans. My cup was full, and little by little things started looking a lot better.

The OVV was strong in those years and is still in existence today. Most are a great bunch of guys. We had parades, picnics, reunions, and camaraderie was at an all time high. This went on for a few years, everyone's families were all involved, the kids all played together, and everything seamed to be flowing like a river.

Another turning point: I was really getting burned out on everything being focused on
Vietnam, but I hung in there for about ten years. The New York City Welcome Home Parade. It was the big one, and as it turns out it was my last one. The energy of the crowd was of celebration at it's highest, and for some it was the beginning of their journey on the long road home.

We started in
Brooklyn, at the beginning of the bridge. They closed the bridge, the city stopped for a couple hours and I went on the parade of my life. At the beginning an active duty Army Captain said no wheelchairs over the bridge. There was a bunch of us in chairs, we looked at him an exchanged some Vietnam sayings and gestures, and off we went on the ride of a lifetime. I

knew as soon as I hit the bridge why no wheelchairs were aloud, but it was always the thrill of challenges like The Brooklyn Bridge, that have kept me going all these years. The bridge has expansion joints that are steel fingers with sharp edges about one inch apart. If your wheel happened to get stuck you would be in a world of hurt, but there were enough able bodied men that were just as psyched, and if there were a problem they would have carried my chair to the end of the parade route. The bridge also has steel spikes for traction; each spike is about one
half to three quarters inches in length. I had a new pair of tires on my chair and by the time we hit Manhattan I must have worn six months of life off the tread.


The canyon of hero's is the name given to the street we were on. There was so much ticker tape coming down I would get a four foot high ball of paper in front of my chair. The guys from OVV that went with me would help me get cleaned off so we could keep going. I kept looking up and hoping that no one would throw a computer or something else heavy out of the windows of the giant buildings. On we went people cheering, police blockades, police on horses. It was at that time I wish every veteran that went to
Vietnam could be there to feel the energy and the empathy from the crowds of people. Just imagine how sweet it would have been if the politicians would have let us finish winning the war, instead of making us withdraw and feel like losers. But History is history and we must continue no mater how much pain is involved.

By the time we reached the
New York City Vietnam Veteran Memorial, "The Wall of Letters", my butt was dragging, but I made it to the end. The Wall was at end of a parade that made me feel life, feel pain, but most of all it made me feel whole again, a human being, not just some expendable damaged U.S. Government number.

The memorial is at the end of
Wall St. and Water St. The message is so powerful you that must go with a group or your family. The letters are from veterans written home while serving in Vietnam. Every letter on the monument is so full of Vietnam emotions that it brings you to tears. I could finally cry again, something I could never do until that moment. I had tears before at the Washington D.C. Wall, but not like this. It was like I was finally home. I made a promise to myself that this was my last parade, and it was time to start to learn how to live life again.

I still have flash backs, fits of rage, bad nightmares, but most of all the guilt. Perhaps that is the one symptom that will never go away. I still get all of the symptoms, but through all the years of therapy, I have learned to live with my PTSD, and not let it take over my soul like it did when I didn't have the tools to fight back. I said it before and I will say it again, stop the drinking and the substance abuse, get on the right medication, and go to therapy, so you too, can learn how to exist with the demons of war. I have to say, if it weren't for my loving wife of 23 years, and my children, I probably wouldn't be sitting here writing this text. That perhaps, is my ace in the hole. I know there are many men who are homeless, single, divorced, and just alone out there going through this process. There are trained professionals out there that can help, the VA has special PTSD treatment centers that are excellent, but you must be willing to take the first step: To the long journey home.

This is dedicated to my wife and children for helping me learn to live life again.

T. Evans wrote the above article.