Beyond the Battle

My trail home from Vietnam began where my active duty had started, back in Quantico.  I had requested this duty station because I’d come to appreciate Northern Virginia during my year of training.  My assignment following overseas service was an office job, supervising education and training at the base.  It has since become “Marine Corps University.” This was a time for me to depressurize from combat, to race my new Camaro, to rub shoulders with other Nam vets, and to enjoy a huge sense of relief at having survived.

Released from active duty in 1971, I entered theological seminary to prepare to become a minister in the United Methodist Church.  Quite a transition, to say the least.  The authorities gave me the only private room on campus, because they’d heard tales of crazed warriors returning from a faraway hellhole.  My calling to serve God came to me during the monsoons of 1969, and that narrative will have to wait for another time. I’d heard that there was such a thing as “foxhole religion,” and now I was experiencing it.  After decades of reflection, I now believe that my trek to biblical theology was a search for forgiveness, meaning, and a stable foundation on which to build the rest of my years.  It’s not been surprising to hear hundreds of other pastors and priests recount similar experiences.

My quest took me to Ohio, where I served churches for twenty-five years in disparate settings; large cities, county seats, and small towns.  I was fairly successful, but only because of divine grace.  I knew from the outset that I had buried memories of Vietnam deep in my soul and that the smile on my face and the confidence in my voice hid the darkness within.  I married and raised three daughters, lived in comfortable parsonages, and enjoyed leadership in several congregations and communities.  All seemed to be going smoothly, and my vessel sailed with fair winds and following seas.

While I was pastoring my first church, I entered a graduate program for mental health counseling, and I told others that the reason was to develop better counseling skills.  But I soon realized, in a moment of piercing honesty, that my study of psychology would be a search for my own sanity and well-being.  And that’s what it turned out to be.

Another challenge during this fairly “normal” period of my life was alcohol abuse.  Although I had not touched a drop during active duty, I began drinking (socially, I’d tell myself) just a few years after my honorable discharge. It grew to become an issue in my marriage and home life, but I  chose to live in denial regarding this scourge and the accompanying PTSD.  The VA helped me find some answers to the stress disorder, but I was not yet ready to request their assistance with my addiction.  That plea would come many years later.

A coagulating storm of disease, depression, and despair led to a breakdown in 1998.  All the props that had supported me to this point were demolished at once, and I collapsed.  I lost my marriage, my ministry (career), my life’s meaning, and my self-worth.  For many reasons, I was led to Seattle to try to start a new chapter and to get my bearings.  The move was only partially successful, and I retreated to my Ohio homeland in less than a year.  This would have been a time of deadly defeat, except for something I found in the Pacific Northwest that I’ll cherish forever.

In the mist and drizzle of Mount Rainier’s shadow, I was blessed to find good VA counselors who helped me move toward a “new normal.”  A deeper understanding of post-war issues helped me realize that I was not insane. And on one visit for an appointment, I found a brochure about Point Man International Ministries, a ministry by veterans and for veterans with a Christian focus.  Soon I was surrounded by men whose journeys ran parallel to my own, and I felt a  strong sense of safety for the first time in many years.  Upon returning to the Midwest, I became an outpost leader in Central Ohio.

Many have asked what I learned through all of this, and how Vietnam helped to shape my thinking.  My first response is that I’ve come to appreciate the gift of life itself.  I think of Marines who didn’t return, and I know they would want me to enjoy a full and contented life. Second, I’ve followed sound advice and tried to fit Vietnam into my life story, so it has some purpose in the overall scheme of things.  This is my answer to what we heard so often over there, “It don’t mean nothin’.”  Third, I’ve found some answers, at least enough to keep me going, to the devils of guilt and grief.  Good counseling and a return to the faith of my childhood has been the path that has led to much healing, although the journey is far from complete. And finally, I’ve concluded that the past doesn’t have to shape my future.  Vietnam will always be there, like a phantom lurking in the inner corridors.  But I refuse to let it determine my destiny.

I’ve been blessed also to find a way to transform my trauma into a testimony.  Point Man has given me the chance to tell my story to many others and to listen with an understanding heart to the words of veterans trying to find their way home.  All the way home, to America and to God, as they come to understand their Higher Power. I would be derelict if I failed to mention the support of one person who’s always at my side as I walk onward.  My wife, Martha, has tried to learn as much as she can about Vietnam and PTSD, and her love and patience have brought me through many fog-shrouded valleys. I’ll be forever grateful for this gift from God.

March, 1970

The monsoons had lifted.  The torrents that hammered us senseless for several weeks were over.  But the water from above was replaced by the thick vapor that seemed to be in every breath we took. Heavy humidity, intense heat, and the oppressive nature of the terrain itself sapped our energy and drowned our spirits.  Morale was low, owing to the environment and the elusive nature of the enemy.  The VC had been active through the rainy months, with sniper fire, booby traps, mortars, and ambushes taking their gruesome toll.

Nights were especially treacherous; the enemy owned the hours of darkness, and our illumination rounds gave us only temporary respite from the frustration of being unable to find and destroy our nemesis.  We had so much firepower at our disposal, but poor peasants in pajamas were making us look like helpless giants.  Whenever we moved after dusk, we could almost feel hundreds of eyes on us.  The VC knew the terrain and it seemed they had the nocturnal vision of jungle cats.  Sleeping was nearly impossible for fear that a sapper would get through the perimeter and drop a satchel charge or slit a throat.

It was on such a night, while I was commanding a rifle company of Marines, that orders came from battalion or regiment to move into a blocking position a kilometer (click) to the north.  My first reaction was, “What kind of maniac would issue such a command?”  Moving over two hundred Marines through heavy brush right into an area of operation (AO) we knew was hostile seemed like a suicide mission.  But I suppose out of loyalty and duty, I sent the message to my four platoons, “Saddle up!”  And off we stumbled down overgrown trails right into the maw of perdition.

And then the evening was shattered by an explosion coming from the direction of my point platoon.  I had my radioman call immediately to learn what we’d run into, and I braced myself for the ugly report.  The voice on the other end gave me the grim news that I had feared: many casualties, one KIA.  And then the name came to us, in code: Lance Corporal Goldman had been blown apart when an AK-47 round had struck the anti-tank weapon he was carrying.  His remains were scattered in the mud and the murk.

I reported this to battalion headquarters and was told to stop our part of the mission, in order to get choppers to us in the morning, after the dense fog would lift and a landing zone (LZ) could be cleared.  Indian company set up our position in some of the worst and least defensible part of Quang Nam Province.  But we had no choice. Our navy medical corpsmen, may God forever bless them, did their best to attend to the needs of the wounded.  And we covered what body parts we could find of Corporal Goldman. I learned later that two of his friends had found his head after searching in the blackness…and had placed it near the rest of what they could retrieve.

I needed that night to try to be a comforter to those who had lost a brother.  His platoon commander and sergeant were grieving the loss of a good Marine and the injuring of so many others.  The unit had been decimated, and we would have to shift personnel to continue the mission after the choppers  came at daybreak.  I was also grieving, but I dared not show it.  I learned much later that the grief I buried at that moment would surface in horrific ways decades into the future.

My grief was exacerbated because Goldman was in my platoon months earlier, long before I took leadership of the company.  He was one of my favorites, always grinning, always walking (humping) with a good spirit, and always making friends.  I recall having to reprimand him on one occasion when he tried to befriend me, forgetting that there has to be distance between officer and enlisted. But I liked him, and I hope he came to respect and value my leadership.  I often long to know how much my men realized my care and concern for them, and my fervent desire to bring all of them home from Vietnam.  I suppose the emptiness I feel to this day is at least partially what the counselors now call “survivor guilt.”  Did I do enough?  Could I have made better decisions?  Would the five warriors I lost still be alive if my leadership had been more efficient?  Questions that will never find an answer on this side of eternity, and maybe not on the far side either.

When I’m in Washington, DC, I always make a trip to the Vietnam Memorial…and to the names I know.  My first stop is Sammy Wayne Goldman, and I linger there sometimes for several minutes to pay my respects, to thank him for being such a good Marine, and to tell him I’m sorry he couldn’t have lived to make it back to America, to get married and raise a family, to see his children and grandchildren graduate, and to savor the happy life that he deserved.

I also tell him I’m sorry for an incident that is burned into my brain as a haunting memory that I’ve lived with for fifty years, and one that I’ll carry to my shadowy grave.  When the sun rose on that scene of carnage, the choppers came and retrieved the wounded.  Before they took the remains of Goldman, my sergeant asked me if I wanted to go see the body.  Without thinking, I said, “No.”  And so he went alone and returned after a few minutes, describing what he had witnessed.  A shudder went up my spine, and a toxic flow of pain and guilt coursed through my veins and arteries; words cannot describe the agony of soul that I felt that morning as the searing sun broke through the canopy above our throbbing heads.  I had failed to pay my respects, I had cowered when my moment of leadership arrived, I had neglected the Marines who had gathered around their fallen comrade.  And I’ll never understand what kept me from rising to the occasion.

Oh, I’ve done a good job of making excuses and rationalizing for half a century.  I’ve told myself that I would have broken down in front of my men, and that would have erased whatever confidence they had in me.  I’ve tried to convince myself that I wasn’t able to see one more dead body; I’d seen so many in the eight months prior to that incident. And I’ve even attempted to attribute my behavior to early PTSD, a malady that would almost destroy my life twenty five years later.  But all these defense mechanisms fall flat when I’m alone at night, listening to the voice of my conscience, and trying to stay away from Jim Beam Black.

The only closure I’ve found and the only balm I’ve been given to soothe and heal my broken soul is the assurance that God forgave me long ago and gave me not one, but many new beginnings along the way.  I’m further comforted knowing that Sammy and my other brave Marines were taken on angel wings to their immortal home.  And one day, I hope to be welcomed by all of them, not as a commander, but as a fellow warrior who did his best for God and country.  May it be so for everyone who reads this faltering yet faithful story.