Introduction to REMF, Part One
In the military world, there has always been a hierarchy based on perceived involvement. The grunts, the true front line soldiers, live in the field, in the mud and the blood. To them, anyone "behind" them is an REMF - a rear echelon mother fucker. And depending on how "far behind," there are at least two more categories of REMF. Basically, if the grunt is living in the mud and eating canned rations, anyone having a clean place to sleep and access to warm meals is an REMF. If they've got regular access to things considered "civilized" and are allowed even brief respites from the pressures of battle and combat, they are an REMF mother fucker. If they are even further removed from the daily reality of war, have spit-shined boots, get laid regularly, and exist in relative luxury, they are an REMF Mother Fucker.
Although the distinctions of this hierarchy are fairly standard, it seems that EVERYONE has someone "behind" them, and each individual can draw their own line of distinction between what they're doing and "everyone else" - all the REMFs behind them. The categorization is then largely based on perceptions of self-importance and the illusions of the human ego. So, for instance, an REMF Mother Fucker to a grunt may only be an REMF mother fucker to the support artillery, or possibly only an REMF if they somehow work closely together. The point is, as standardized as the distinctions are, their application is a purely relative thing, although not completely arbitrary..... the Brass who sit in the Pentagon are REMF Mother Fuckers to everybody.
The conflict between vets and their personal application of REMF categories can be intense. It's easy to assume we all had it bad and others had it easier. It's harder to stop and understand the multitude of perspectives that exist. As has been said many time before, everybody's war was different.
This is a story of a simple dude - an REMF to some; and REMF Mother Fucker to others - who never got any closer to a battle than slightly out of mortar range; who only watched as the tracers moved gracefully across the sky from ground to gun ship and back again; who sat in awe hundreds of yards off shore while hills burst into flame as incredibly fast moving jets skimmed treetops; whose soul dropped out through the bottom of his rib cage when the blinking lights of choppers where replaced by airborne balls of fire; who watched as smoking hunks of twisted metal arced across the sky into distant parts of the surrounding water, where he'd rush to see if there were any living beings to be found or any recognizable pieces to be salvaged from the wreckage. Sometimes there were; sometimes there weren't.
Almost always, there would at least be pieces of aircraft and other debris floating around, or in the process of sinking. Pieces of those great and glorious machines that were supposed to sail majestically on the air and carry people around safely. Sometimes there would be nothing at all except an unblemished carpet of water that stretched from horizon to horizon, hiding everything beneath its surface.
Now, in this story, we aren't talking about an "in-country" vet; we need to state that right up front. We aren't talking about a real fighting man. We're talking about a fucking bystander, who only stepped foot on solid RVN to load body bags for burial at sea. We're talking about a fucking REMF who had a bunk and a chow line, a laundry and a shower; but who none the less seems to remember being there and feeling a profound sense of loss on many occasions. And who had a unique role that left scars and burn marks on his soul and a lot of questions in his mind.
In the process of telling this, we just may not mention certain ancillary details that really don't need to be mentioned or may not be ready to come to the surface just yet. But, what the fuck? It don't mean nothin', right? The bottom line is, we're going to dig some of this shit up and throw it on the table just to see what kind of reaction we'll get out of either one of us. Any bets as to who will have the hardest time with it?
Some people may not want to read this. I'm sure as hell not really sure I want to write it. At least, part of me isn't looking forward to it. But, what the fuck? It will probably take several attempts to get to the end of the story, if there really is an end, because all I've got right now is a rough outline to work from, and that being mostly in my head. I keep my outlines on the left side of my brain, but a big portion of this story has been stuffed away on the right side, and I'm not too good at dealing with the right side. So you'll probably know when the story is over before I do. I've got other stuff to pay attention to.
I guess to start things out, this story hinges a lot on my relationship with my father, and how he dominated my life and my family. He shaped my "sense of purpose" and all my patriotic feelings. So I'm going to begin this with a section from an earlier story that attempted to put all that in perspective. Then we'll get back to the stuff going on here:
'. . . My dad (JP) was Naval Academy, Class of '40, I think. As an Ensign, he was assigned to BuShips to review the engineering designs of the USS NEW JERSEY after Pearl Harbor and was assigned as one of the Engineering Officers on the NJ from the day it was launched from the Philadelphia shipyard until it anchored in Tokyo Bay. All my life, I heard stories about being a Naval Officer. All my life, I was raised to be a Naval Officer. It was never a matter for discussion; never a concept to be questioned. JP retired as a Lieutenant but never became a civilian in a lot of ways. He was always a Naval Officer and rode me like a clumsy snipe Recruit.
I joined the Navy Reserve my junior year of high school, went into Naval Security, and was granted deferment as a Reserve Officer Candidate, and off to college I went, in 1966. After about a year of that, and doing Reserve training as a CT-O (Communications Technician - Operation Branch), I was given mobilization orders for Rhoda, Spain. That apparently was some bigwig NATO listening station that seemed to be the envy of some of the other Reservists. That was 1967, near the end of the year. Mobilization orders for a Reservist aren't a big deal, they're only a designated assignment in case of national emergency. So I would have continued in school like a good little Naval Reserve Officer Candidate..... EXCEPT... I got to thinking about "National Emergency" and what the fuck was Vietnam, anyway?
I had a brief but fiery discussion with my Reserve CO about getting my assignment switched to Vietnam, because, by god, THAT was where the action was and THAT was where I needed to be. The response was pretty ridiculous, in my naive and humble opinion (then and now). It went something like: "Rossie, you're in Naval Security. You've got a Top Secret Security Clearance. You've got a great career path ahead of you. You're not the kind of person we send to Vietnam." Those may not have been the exact words, but that was the message I received.
For a couple of weeks, I stewed on that one. Then one Friday night I got REAL drunk (drunker than normal, which for a college boy of the '60's was two steps beyond shit-faced) with my best buddy, who was also in college, but at a different school. The next morning, we both stumbled into the Marine Recruiters office and signed up. I made sure the Gunny Sergeant who filled out the papers knew that I was a transfer from the Navy Reserve and he said, "Hey, no problem. We got the paperwork right here. Just bend over." So me and Steve, my buddy, were given a 60-day deferral and orders to boot camp at Pendleton. I signed a release of my current E-3 status.
When JP found out about that, he was more than pissed. He called everybody he knew who could pull strings to get the mess I had made undone. And he knew people from BUPERS Great Lakes to Washington, DC. The consequence was that, after about 3 weeks, the Marines sent me a letter saying they had made a mistake on my enlistment, and the Navy sent me immediate mobilization orders for active duty in the Fleet....as an enlisted man. Naval Security even got a bit curious about my frame of mind and my apparent "uncooperative attitude" towards my superior officers.
My father never forgave me for not being a Naval Officer. I had screwed up his plans for my future. On my first leave home, I went into my old bedroom and on the wall was a toilet seat hanging like a picture. I lifted up the cover and, framed by the round seat on which was painted USS ASS GASKET, was my picture from boot camp. I didn't spend much time at home after that. But over the years, JP and I at least were on speaking terms. I never forgave him for that and he never forgave me for being an enlisted man. Or for being fool enough to volunteer for Vietnam when I had such a wonderful career in the Officer's Ranks all laid out for me. . .'
So, to sum it up, in 1965 while still in High School, I joined the Naval Reserve. I scored high enough on the initial testing that I was invited to join the Naval Security Group - the "intellectually elite." After receiving Top Secret Clearance, I was also accepted into the Reserve Officer Candidate program and was given a deferment from active duty to go to college. My Reserve time was spent learning the wizardry of high tech/high security communication systems.
Copyright © 1994 By John Paul Rossie, All Rights Reserved
Combat Support Activities, Part Two
Anything having to do with support activities were contrary to my original intentions and basic nature. Over the next two years I made three attempts to transfer to "Swift Boats," which was, at least in the Navy, the ultimate adventure. For one reason or another, those requests were never authorized. The last one, about four months before my discharge, would have been granted if I'd have signed on for another four years. I chose not to. But I suspect, if given that offer when I first went active, I'd have been stupid enough to have done it.
My key plan was to show my father that I could be even better than he had envisioned by doing things my own way... by being a "real man" and coming home a war hero that he could be doubly proud of; being one of the "few good men" that didn't hide in the bowels of a ship during a war. I'm still a bit uncertain which part of my reasoning he resented the most.
I had requested Vietnam duty for a number of reasons, but primarily they were pretty standard, blind-patriot kinds of stuff:
- I wanted to "prove myself" in combat by "crawling in the bushes and biting those gooks on the ankles" as Steve and I had laughed about in our drunken stupor;
- I wanted to "make a statement" to my country that I was willing and able to "answer the call";
- I wanted to "make a statement" to my family, and especially to my father, that not only was I independent, but I was smart and tough.
I had joined the Marines on the "buddy plan" with my friend Steve, had sworn in a blood ceremony that we would stick together through boot camp and on to whatever awaited us in Vietnam. I was hungry. I was lean and mean. I was idealistic, patriotic, democratic; the walking embodiment of the Great American Hero. I was ready to do anything. I was a naive, young fool. Basically, I was stupid. But in the depths of my soul, I was sincere.
The Navy snatched me back, and the Marines took Steve. I was stunned. I was ashamed. I have avoided Steve's mother to this day, although he had assured me long ago that she had gotten over that intense anger she had when she learned what I had done to her son. I was guilty of betraying and abandoning my best friend before I ever got a chance to be challenged.
There was nothing to fight back against. I had been robbed of my dreams and had sent my best friend into deadly combat alone. There was nothing but shame for me. Not only had I screwed up my relationship with my father, who was so "Go Navy" that to him there really were no other branches of the service, but I had set up my best friend in the process. Everything had backfired, and I was a motherfucker, good only for roasting in hell. And to top it all off, I was assigned to combat support.
I had always wanted an active role in the war, and support activities were just plain against those intentions. I had psyched myself up and toughened up my skinny, young 19 year old body in preparation. I had taken both the pistol and rifle out at every chance to hone my skills. Steve and I even used to have quick-draw contests with the cans and bottles on the fence. I had regularly jogged up mountains at 9,000 feet above sea level. Living in Crested Butte, CO, prior to entry made that fairly easy. I damn near lived on top of a mountain.
By doing all this, I fully intended on making a statement to my family and to my country on my willingness to die for democracy and any other ideals that found their way onto my shining armor like pieces of lint clinging to a new wool suit. My ultimate assignment in a combat support role made me feel like a helpless observer when I could have been doing something of real significance to more directly help those in combat.
I was assigned to a destroyer, an old Tin Can, on WESPAC tour Vietnam from February to October 1969. The ship's log has many entries merely labeled "special operations" when we carried and escorted a number of unique characters as well as ELINT (electronic intelligence) gear for close-in sweeps to monitor activity, and I guess just generally to piss the North Vietnamese off. We provided gunfire support to radio call-ins from existing ground and special warfare activities within range, acting like a mobile, sea-based artillery platform with a range of roughly 8 miles. Maybe that's stretching it. Five-inch guns make a lot of noise, but don't go too far. And I honestly was never around when a round landed, so I don't even know how big a hole they made. A typical off-shore station for gunnery was 300 to 400 yards.
There were a lot of times when we just sat and watched the air battles and waited for the wounded to ditch in the sea. I guess the order of the day was, "If hit while flying, head for the water." Or at least that's the premise we were working under. We followed the aircraft carriers to retrieve any planes that failed to make it back to their home platform. That happened a few times, as I recall. Or maybe it only happened once, and I keep reliving it over and over from different angles. Damned if I know. I'm getting too old to really depend on those memories, anyway.
There were also a lot of times when we just floated off shore and watched the air cav do its thing. I was always certain my friend Steve was on one of those choppers that I could see off in the distance ..... in fact, as far as I knew, he was on every chopper. He ended up in MAG-16, and we spent a lot of time just north of Da Nang.
Shit, as far as I knew then, he was on every one of those damn flying machines that I saw, especially the ones at night. And it was hard to forget that I had abandoned him when I was transferred out of the Marines and he went in alone. And even if it wasn't him in those flying machines, it was people that I would have known, should have known, if only I'd had my chance. So they were all personal friends. It was just that a lot of them I'd never had the chance to meet.
One of the worst perspectives of combat support was that, no matter what you're doing, or how important somebody tells you it is, the real battle was always just out of reach. No matter what we did, it never seemed like we were really part of the action. We were just stationed there to watch and wait. And I was always thinking that my buddy Steve was in the air on one of those fireballs and I couldn't get to him to help..... I just had to wait until he crashed and then I'd see if we could find him and see if he was still in one piece. That waiting made for some long days and nights.
Search and Rescue:
I think best described, Search and Rescue duty is a thankless job. Sometimes it was successful, sometimes not. And even when it was, the "feeling of success" was often ambiguous - we got to pick up the pieces. There were several occasions when at least we found something although sometimes it was in pretty bad shape, shot up and bleeding.
I have memories of floodlights sweeping the dark, choppy sea for hours, without finding a trace of anything. They are haunting, lonely memories of circling and sweeping flood lights from the ship and from choppers moving slowly around in a dark. I always remember the setting as being stormy and dark, although I'm certain that some searches were carried out in daylight and calm water. I guess it really doesn't matter; when you come up empty handed, you come up empty handed. The result is the same in the sun as it is in the moonlight. It's equally as helpless.
I've had recurring dreams about some of those episodes for a long time. Actually, they didn't start right away, more like a few years after my discharge. They had been pretty regular, maybe once every month, up until this past year and a half or so. Now they show up in one form or another weekly, sometimes a couple times a week. Once I start feeling bad about it again, that's an invitation for this dream to run more frequently.
Mostly, when it does, I'm in a boat. Sometimes, it's an intrusion into an otherwise normal dream, like when I'm walking along some mountain path and notice that there is an arm or a leg laying on the trail. I just pick it up and stuff it in my backpack, no big deal. I'm usually aware that it is "out of context", but it's always a bummer having it disrupt something that was otherwise going along smoothly. Sometimes I have to make apologies and excuses for the obvious interruption to other characters in the dream.
More often, and especially of late, the dream goes something like this:
I'm floating in a boat in a very foggy area. It's a skiff with a wide flat bottom, with plenty of room to haul stuff. I'm standing, and poling myself along in murky, back-bayou waters and narrow canals. I can only see less than two or three feet through the mist, which wafts around making the close-in things sort of fade in and out of my vision. Beyond that, it is just solid gray. The boat drifts through an area with over-hanging tree branches (drooping willows) so I have to constantly push them aside as they suddenly appear in front of my face.
I am standing in the boat and my job is to retrieve body parts that are mixed in with the tree branches as well as floating in the water. So, as the boat drifts and a branch comes into view, there may be an arm or leg or hand or foot attached to it. Occasionally I spot a head, which is "an important find". Otherwise, I'm concentrating on scanning the surrounding water, stooping down to pull in a part, or using the pole to fish it out. For as slow as things are moving, in a long, dragged-out sense of time, I can never seem to keep up with the pace of the action; and a lot of stuff goes by before I get a chance to grab it.
My job is to collect these body parts and put them in the boat. I am very concerned about several things:
- There are just too many of them and I can't reach them all, even when I do see them. I can't get everything done at once, and I don't have any system to fall back on for a "priority scheme," so I can't justify which pieces I grab and which I let go by. But more importantly, because of the dense fog, I can't possibly see all of them, at least not in time to react. And there's undoubtedly many that are literally out of sight in the fog. That is disturbing because I want to get as many pieces as I can to take back to the people who lost them and I'm doing a very poor job, very incomplete, very unsatisfactory by any standard. There is just no excuse for my bumbling, and the discouragement is overwhelming;
- I hear things bumping against the boat hull that I'm sure are other body parts, but I can't take the time to look down because then I would miss even more of the stuff hanging from the trees. Or visa verse if I start groping in the water. This is very frustrating, because I'm aware that there is a whole bunch more body parts that I won't be able to get and there will be more disappointed people who won't have their parts returned to them. That is my responsibility and I'm failing at it. There are tears streaming down my face, but that just pisses me off more, because it interferes with my vision and I get madder knowing that I'm letting emotions interfere with my work;
- As the boat starts to fill up with pieces, literally in piles, I have less room to move around, like to lean sideways or step backward or forward to help in reclaiming some of the pieces, so my success is again hampered (and getting progressively worse as the boat fills) and I feel extremely inadequate. I'm not successfully accomplishing my task, and I know I'm going to have to "answer to somebody" but I can't take the time in this situation to evaluate that.
- The body parts themselves seem to be conscious, and are "relaying" thoughts to me. The ones I pick up are very grateful. But the ones I miss are very disappointed, some very angry, and they let me know it louder and clearer than any positive feedback I get. Additionally, as the boat fills, I end up stepping on, falling on, and kicking into the piles of arms and legs, and then THEY start complaining about such clumsy, rough treatment. It starts to become a no-win proposition.
The entire project is very tiring (physically and emotionally draining) because it seems to be moving at such a fast pace, and the feeling of personal disappointment and failure grows more and more.
The boat then drifts to an area where there are no more trees, no more floating parts - just empty fog. It is quiet and chilly, with nobody else in sight, but floodlights (like strobes) sweep the area in a confusing, hypnotic pattern. I stand in the boat, wishing I could sit down and rest, which I can't because the boat is full. I have no problem (no "gruesome" thoughts or hang-ups) with the thought of sitting in a pile of body parts, but definitely have a problem with the concept of sitting on somebody else's parts, because it would show disrespect, as well as would hurt them even more.
So I stand in the cold, feeling like I've seriously failed in an important task, and there's an overwhelming depression that seems to be the fog itself that is very clearly saying to me: "You failed again...you only got about 10% of the things you came out to get. You're going to disappoint a lot of people. You're a failure." The message soaks into my bones along with the cold of the fog. And I'm currently stranded, having come out of the trees into deeper water where I can't use the pole.
So, I end up just drifting, with no control over the boat. That adds to the frustration and introduces another layer of helplessness because I know I need to get these body parts "back home" pretty quickly, and can't seem to be able to move. But I wouldn't know which way to go even if I could.
I wake up then, and it is virtually impossible to "shake off" the feeling of depression (failure, disappointment, guilt) that hangs on me. Sometimes it lasts for several days. But what the fuck, hey? It's just a dream, just my imagination overworking itself. It didn't really happen that way.
Naval Gunfire Support:
This stuff was great. Picture yourself inside a 55-gallon metal drum, with someone slamming the side of it with a hammer. That sound actually got to be so dependable and regular that I could actually sleep through it. Or I think I remember pretending I could. That's when I wasn't carrying or stacking rounds and casings. The call-ins were generally piped down to the mounts from the bridge or radio room, even when we were letting the automated fire control system do the calculating and pointing.
Sometimes we could hear the curses of the spotters when the first rounds fell short and we would adjust to a "better," more accurate set of coordinates. Sometimes it was a bad call from the field; sometimes it was a bad setting at our end by either human or machine error. I guess it didn't really matter.
I remember one time when we could only hear the radio static after the initial rounds were fired and must have fallen short - at least that was my assumption based on prior experiences. We could never raise the spotter on the radio again. Nobody ever talked about that one. And you probably will never find it in any official records, either. That's just my own speculation, but I'd put money on it. Sort of like the closest I ever got to an M-16 on full auto was when we used it to shoot holes in the casket of an officer we "committed to the deep" in a very solemn ceremony. Nobody was smart enough to remember to put holes in it so it would sink. I'll bet that one never made it into the official records, either. I wonder if the "Veteran's In Touch Program" wants to contact the family of the officer in that bobbing casket with memories like that? Did somebody mention that the truth sometimes hurts?
Copyright © 1994 By John Paul Rossie, All Rights Reserved
Shades of Death, Part Three
The dreams started at some point while we were patrolling the coast. It wasn't really a monumental occurrence; they just started. I just dreamed them. As a matter of fact, I just call them dreams to humor you readers. I know differently. In fact, I knew then, as I still know now, that they really weren't dreams. I was fully conscious. I knew that I was asleep on a destroyer off the coast of Vietnam, and that, back in the "real" world, there was a senseless war going on, and that what I was dealing with were some necessary formalities having to do with an over-abundance of confused consciousnesses floating around in the "general vicinity," not certain of what to do. I never questioned how I knew what to do. I just did it. It was no big deal. It was the least I could do.
It was also very refreshing to think that, finally, I could at least be doing SOMETHING. But I have no illusion now, and had no illusion then, that these activities were anything but real. I've studied the matter very seriously over these past 25 years, and have no doubt that what I experienced was perhaps unique but as real or more so than the mundane activities going on around me in the physical world during my waking moments. At the very least, they were much more sane activities.
In these dreams, a steady stream of young men came walking into a room where "my office" or something similar was located, where I sat at something like an Information Desk. They were coming into the room to be "checked out" or "out-processed," just as one might expect to do upon leaving military service. They were entering from one side of the room and heading out the other door. Except, fairly often, somebody would come over to me to find out "what was really going on."
Some of the guys were worried; some were just going along with the trip, but wanted to know more. Many were concerned about not getting things finished, about having left a job undone. And many were just concerned about needing to leave messages for those they'd left behind.
Night after night, the parade of nameless men came meandering through. And of the ones who stopped by my desk, each one needed something different. It was almost as if the mere passing through the room would rub off onto me their experiences of war. In a funny sense, it was like taking some of their burden, which I was glad to do. Sometimes, it was like sharing adventure stories. Sometimes it was like they were just shedding skin, so that they could move on in peace.
I always "handled" it in a very factual manner; they were just details and facts about experiences and occurrences that really weren't filled with emotion. Or, at least, once they were "shed," the experiences could be handled in that impersonal manner. My concern was with their attaining a calm state, a frame of mind where they could "leave all that shit behind". To the best of my recollection, most were able to attain that. And I felt pretty good about that.
In fact, I recall that most were thankful for my being there, to help them "fill out the forms" or "set things straight" in their minds about how to categorize their recent experiences and their current predicament. Another thing I recall, and I've thought about this often though I don't recollect that I gave it much deep thought at the time, is that there were "others" passing through, who didn't seem to require what I offered, or maybe didn't even see me. I just accepted it as factual. There wasn't any "us" and "them"....there was only one brand, one color, one sex, one rank, one type - just souls. No VC, no civilians, no officers, no REMFs. Just souls passing through.
Night after night, images of dirty, bloody, scraggly grunts came streaming though a door at one end of a room, headed out a door on the other end of the room. And I sat at a desk half way through, ready to help in any way I could, which was mostly limited to answering questions, putting their minds at ease, assuring them that all was well and that they should just move on and go to their next adventure. There was sometimes a little reluctance, a lot of times there were questions, but generally, everyone seemed to ultimately grasp that they were dead and they were headed for whatever comes next. There weren't any "non-believers" that I recall, just a lot of questions about what the procedure was:
- No, you don't need your ruck sack, that's just an illusion.
- No, you don't need your weapons, they really don't exist.
- No, there's nothing to be afraid of.
- Yes, I'll take care of letting everyone know you cared.
- Sure, I'll help you hobble to the door, but just don't be surprised when all that heals up when you go through there.
- No, you can't go back. There's nothing you can do for any of them now.
- Just stay calm. Everything is going to be all right.
- Yes, I'll be here if you need me to answer more questions for you.
- No, you won't need medals or a clean uniform. And it doesn't matter if you think you're muddy or bloody or whatever. That's all just illusion. Trust me.
I never questioned it or approached it as a "Why me?" complaint. I was just in awe of the whole procedure. And in fact I've played that role of Guide on many other occasions before and since Vietnam - often to others that I knew, but occasionally to strangers. In fact, I've sort of come to expect it. In one sense, I'm honored to play that role. But in another sense, I'm now bothered by the significance of it.
I guess there are several things that disturb me now. Mainly, being in a rather self-destructive frame of mind lately, I've been having those same kind of "dream experiences" again. But this time around, I'm the one who is being counseled to just stay calm and ride it out without doing anything rash.
Now I am visited by nameless souls, telling me to relax, that every thing will be all right, to just go with the flow, to stay in this physical world. I don't know who these guys are that are counseling me. I'm not asking for help and I don't think I want help, especially not if I'm drawing the aid of personal identities and energies that should have long ago been put to rest and "moved on."
I guess I'm making the assumption that "these guys" just might be some of the same guys that I encountered 25 years ago. If that is so, it shouldn't be! Obviously I'm making a value judgment here when I don't really understand the operating rules of the system one iota. It just doesn't fit my current "understanding" of the situation.
I realize that "time" is illusory, but after 25 years, there should be no reason that those guys would be still hanging around this forsaken training ground we call the physical plane. And if it's NOT an illusion, and if I AM the one to "blame" for distracting them from their own spiritual advancement, then I feel even more guilty about that.
The bottom line is, I'm no longer comfortable with the memories of having helped those others because they may feel some sort of debt to me that I didn't ever intend. That, and the thought of it, awakens associated memories, and I think about all the others that maybe I didn't get to help..... and about all the ones that we might have kept alive if our spot lights could have found them. Lately, I haven't been getting a good night's sleep, to say the least.
So, what's the fucking problem? How could a well-adjusted guy ever let any of this stuff get to him? Or even take it seriously, you might ask? Or at least, I sure ask it. Well, in fact, I never did manage to "not let it bother me", at least not on the surface. I used to be real good with just ignoring the thoughts, but I've always been pretty lousy about controlling the physical repercussions of doing that.
I started having stomach problems while still on active duty when we returned from Nam and was issued a never-ending prescription of Valium "for my nerves" by the good doctors at Balboa Naval Hospital to "cure" my stomach problems. The prescription was good for several years after discharge through the Denver VA. In fact, I took very few of those pills and made some great pocket change selling them to those who did.
But, one weird thing did happen. Within a few years of my discharge, I started having a hell of a time getting onto an airplane. Or anything that flew. Even just thinking about it would bring on the shakes and a cold sweat. In fact, there were a few business trips in the late 70's and early 80's that I canceled... literally right at the boarding gate. So I went to a shrink in about 1978, way back then, who taught me the fine art of repressing any memory of aircraft in any condition except in one piece and working well. I was still a white knuckle flier, and then DID start using the Valium on my plane rides, except this time as prescribed by a private physician.
Then, out of the blue (at least from my perspective) in late 1984, when I was talking about a trip I had planned - I was taking my 10 year old daughter to Disney Land the next week, on her first airplane ride - I had what I thought was a heart attack. I went completely fucking panic-stricken crazy, with my chest constricted, breathing out of control and this overwhelming sense of doom smashing me into the ground. I "knew" I was going to die, and I just really wished it would hurry up and get over with, because the feeling of sheer terror was extremely hard to deal with.
At that instant, I was in a restaurant with a hot date and embarrassed the hell out of myself and her as I rushed off to a hospital. In fact, once she determined I wasn't having a heart attack and I didn't die, she stopped talking to me. Wouldn't even return my phone calls. I think one of the doctors told her it was "probably just all in my head." And then all my well-detailed fantasies of that sweet meat, long-legged blond were just, !POOF!, gone.
I remember I really wasn't afraid of being dead, but the bullshit of the act of dying was a little hard to handle. After several very thorough examinations, the good doctors declared there was nothing physically wrong with me..... it must all be in my head. So I blew it off - the concern, not the head.
And then, within a month, the full-blown panic attacks started on a schedule of two or three times a week, totally at random. Hell, I could be sitting at a desk working away or driving a car, it didn't seem to matter. After a few more physical examination, and more statements that "it was all in my head," I said "OK, I can accept that." And I concluded I was finally just fucking crazy, even though my doctor didn't think so.
I admitted myself to a non-VA Psych Ward to be evaluated. I wasn't stupid, I just knew "out of control" when I saw it. So I did what I thought was the right thing - I turned myself in for observation "before I hurt somebody." Take my advice; don't ever do that. There are so many chapters in their book that they could and will diagnose every human on the planet with some psychiatric disorder or other.
The unfortunate thing was, they were unable to stop the random panic attacks and had no explanation for them. They just wanted to keep me severely sedated and ask me questions about sexual fantasies related to my mother. The fact is, I never considered that particular concept until they brought it up. And it just wasn't a turn-on. So I checked myself out, with all the test results tucked under my arm, and went on a search for somebody who might know what was happening.
I visited a Mood Disorders Clinic, and met a doctor who took a good look at some of my blood test results, ran some correlation, and said, "Well, you're not crazy. You just have an imbalance in your Serotinin / Norepanepherine levels. I think we can fix that." And I began down the road with a private physician and some medications that seemed to do the trick.
After a while, he had me talking with some of his colleagues at the VA (he had done an internship there, and was later actually on staff, so he was well enough known to get us in the door pretty quickly, around some of the VA red tape.) And then the VA, after having me take several hours worth of tests, announced that I was a classic delayed PTSD case. My initial reaction was "Bullshit!" But they did issue me a card that covered the cost of my meds (but didn't tell me that getting a refill every month was going to be like re-inventing the wheel on each and every occasion.)
At times (most of the time) I regret ever getting involved in the VA system at all, because it is definitely more stress than it is worth and just not a good trade off, even for "free" meds. I feel embarrassed that I have "a traumatic stress condition," whatever that means, because I sure didn't ask for it; because I didn't EARN it like a "real combat vet" did. I was an REMF. And it's a great social and professional enigma that I don't mention unless there's some advantage to it (e.g., a small company I once worked for was supposed to get some kind of preferential treatment through a government contract by employing Vets with disabilities).
Myth and Reality:
So how about some kind of correlation between fact and fiction? What's really going on here? I suspect that, if you took all the psychologists and psychiatrists and MD's and laid them all end to end -- they wouldn't ever even reach a conclusion. I further suspect that, if someone were meticulous enough and went through all the records of KIA/MIA or aircraft ditches off the coast of Vietnam throughout the year of 1969, they wouldn't even add up to all those memories I have of pulling bodies out of the water or, worse yet, never finding the ones we looked for and didn't find.
I even suspect it is highly possible that some of the ones we couldn't find were miles away being picked up by somebody else. It wouldn't surprise me if things grew exponentially over the years in my own mind. But then, that's the left brain talking. The right brain says "So what?" And in fact, there IS a "so what?" - so what if I can't trust myself about my own memories and recollections? So what if I let illusions haunt me? Well, I always figured THAT was a sign of losing it! Now maybe I really AM back to being fucking crazy? I guess that's better than feeling ambiguous about it!
I don't know.....I guess I'm done with this story. After all, it is just a story. Maybe I wasn't really there at all..... it's been so fuckin' long ago, I really don't want to remember. Except, every time my watch beeper goes off signaling the time to take a pill or every time I look at the long row of VA meds on my dresser, it's just a little bit hard to forget.
Copyright © 1994 By John Paul Rossie, All Rights Reserved