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.