The Long Journey Home

By Steve Robbins

This Gallery is Dedicated To:

Danny - the vet who was there to point the way
Tom - the vet who gave me the gift of life, when his own life ended.

Yesterday I laughed, and today I cried. For much of my life, these things had not been possible. I was incapable of feeling anything. Today my life is full of feelings--wonderful feelings and sad feelings--and how truly amazing they are.

Recently, I have begun to think of myself as a child becoming lost in the woods, fearful of the unknown, yet drawn ever on by the delights of the forest. My delights are people and feelings and events--all the things that I had spent a life pretending didn't exist. I can now let myself remember how the journey started.

As the plane lifted off from Tan Son Nhut Airbase in the then Republic of Vietnam, I remember hearing a brief cheer from some of the men and women on board. I did not join in and was briefly puzzled and a bit ashamed that I could not. I sat in stony silence and lit a cigarette.

It was June of 1969, and I was returning to the U.S. from my fourth and final tour of U.S. Navy flight duty in Vietnam. No longer would I have to drink myself to sleep each night, ever fearful of the rocket attacks that came more and more frequently. No longer would I have to see the sad faces of the long suffering Vietnamese children, their lives so torn by war. No longer would I have to hate myself because I was taking part in something that I believed in my heart to be very wrong. No longer would I have to pretend that I wasn't involved simply because I was a technician and not a warrior. No longer would I have to awake to the overpowering smell from the morgue just down the road or see the endless stacks of aluminum coffins, those high-tech final rewards.

Puzzled by my lack of ability to cheer with the others, I remember bringing the lit end of a cigarette to my lip and burning myself. A stupid gesture admittedly; but, at the moment, a very necessary one. I wasn't dead, and I wasn't dreaming; it hurt. I have absolutely no other memories of the remainder of that trip home.

My last tour of active military duty was in the Washington, D.C. area. For the most part, I was able to involve myself in technical things and thereby avoid any close contact with the war. During my last year of this tour, however, I was required to tape record the daily press briefing conducted in Saigon by the U.S. and Vietnamese military. The more I listened, the more insane things seemed to me. We were apparently not even fighting a war but rather playing a statistical game of body counts. Additionally, the numbers I heard did not agree with my memories of the traffic in and out of the morgue at DaNang Airbase. Nothing made any sense any more.

As my discharge date drew near, my boss offered to convert my military billet and keep me on as a civilian engineer. Surprisingly, no one ever asked me if I wanted to re-enlist. I didn't. At this point, my secret dislike of things of a military nature was so great that I wanted no further involvement at all. With 14 years of active military service behind me, I said goodbye to a few companions and ventured forth to start a new life, free from the memories of Vietnam. This was not to be.

The official end of the Vietnam War two years later seemed meaningless to me. I was either beyond caring or I somehow knew that my war was not at an end.

As the years progressed, I always seemed to find work in the defense industry. This was not by choice; I simply took the only job offers I got. Usually, I could revert to my old habit of becoming involved with technical problem solving and pretend that I wasn't involved with defense projects. For some strange reason, my career progressed from engineer to department head and finally into the big corner office as program manager.

On the occasions when I had to face the fact that I was still involved with defense work, there were always the bars to distract me. Just like my latter days at DaNang Airbase, I was again visiting the bars every night. In 1985 the flashing blue lights of a police cruiser and a DUI arrest signaled the end of my drinking career.

Giving up the one thing that had helped me kill the memories of Vietnam was not an easy thing to accomplish. But a year in an outpatient alcohol treatment program and many years in a twelve-step recovery program seemed to do the job. Now, however, my only way to retreat from reality was by becoming more and more involved with management projects at work. I dove into these projects with a passion that was truly amazing.

For some reason, it never entered my mind that I should spend more time with my family. My daughter had grown up with a father that was never able to tell her how much he loved her, and my wife had spent her life living with a person who was incapable of expressing any emotion at all--excluding some nasty outbursts of anger, of course That one emotion was still alive and well. I felt like I was totally alone in the world, partially because I could not expose my family to the horrors of my mind.

At some time during the late 80s, I remember chatting with a group of people. One individual in the group briefly mentioned that he was very involved with recovery work for Vietnam Vets. I did not want to hear any of this. I was apparently trying to back away from him when he looked up and smiled. He said quite simply, "When you're ready, give me a call."

I had never mentioned Vietnam other than admitting the fact that I had been there, and I certainly gave no hints of any problems. Or so I thought. I have since learned to recognize that blank stare on the faces of other vets, but at the time I was totally confused.

By 1990 something was very wrong, and I knew it. The problems started with an inability to sleep at night. The next symptom that appeared was an inability to concentrate on anything in moments of minor stress. Neither of these things had ever happened to me before.

In the early 90s the cold war had come to an end, and the defense program that I managed came under frequent attack by some members of congress and the GAO. The program simply was no longer needed; but true to form, the U.S. Navy (my customer) felt obliged to keep the program going.

It fell to me as a program manager to prepare properly biased responses to frequent congressional inquiries. The more times that I had to engage in this act, the more the memories of Vietnam seemed to come back. No matter how stupid the war or my project had become, it seemed that the insanity must continue. It appeared to me that my actions were no different than those of that military officer in Saigon a few years before. He was giving distorted body counts to keep a hopeless and needless war going, and I was putting political spin on facts to keep an unneeded defense project from being cancelled.

The rage against what I came to call "the insanity of the unnecessary" continued to build in me, and by 1992 I took a deferred retirement from the company I worked for. I could not tolerate the insanity any longer.

Not knowing what else to do, I drew out my savings and returned to college. For a while the strange symptoms subsided, and life seemed to go very well. I was studying music production with the hopes of opening up a recording studio. All of my classmates were younger than me, knew very little of the Vietnam war, and certainly did not talk about military things. This suited me just fine.

Within a year of starting college, the strange symptoms seemed to be returning. The long sleepless nights and inability to concentrate on things were back and getting worse. I was also falling into periods of very deep depression and found myself frequently thinking about bringing an end to my life.

Finally one night, when I had managed to fall asleep after being awake for about 48 hours, the war terror nightmares started. Usually I don't remember dreams, but I was then taking a psychology class in which we had a class assignment to remember dreams by writing them down the instant you awoke. This was an extremely rude awakening to say the least.

After talking over what had happened with a friend the next day, I was finally convinced to place that long-deferred call to the vet who had extended the offer years before. He was true to his word. That same day I entered the PTSD treatment program at a local vets' outreach center.

Most experts say that PTSD frequently gets worse before it gets better. This was surely the case for me. The process of systematically uncovering and putting in proper perspective all the things that I had tried so hard to pretend didn't exist brought out tremendous amounts of anger and confusion in me. However, there were always my fellow vets and a few other friends to help me through the rough times. I remained in the treatment program for approximately one year and at the end of that year, was again ready to try and start a new life.

Sometime during that year in the vets' center, I lost a friend. I was at the lowest emotional point of recovery and constantly considering suicide when a friend I had met a few years before took his own life. He had also been a Vietnam vet, and our relationship had been very strange. We were each aware that the other had served in Nam, but neither of us would or could talk about those experiences. It was as if each of us knew what was in the other's heart; and because of this, we simply could not communicate to any great degree. I remember crying at his funeral, and I remember making a promise. Standing by his casket, I had promised him that somehow, someway, I would make it back. I wasn't even sure what this meant at the time. I am now!

My savings had been just about depleted at this point, and I needed to return to work. This was not easy for a guy in his 50s, especially in an era of downsizing. I had attempted to take on a couple of high-pressure sales jobs against the advise of the "Doc" at the vets' center. Like clockwork, the symptoms of PTSD returned in full force. Finally, I found a low stress job as a database administrator and started to settle down. At this point, most of the symptoms of the PTSD were gone; and as long as I was extremely careful about managing stress, they generally didn't return.

Sometime during that first year back at work, I had made the acquaintance of a young lady who was a temporary summer employee waiting to start a masters program. Her degree was in social psychology, and I was fascinated by talking to her. When she left to return to school, I kept in contact with her over the Internet.

At one point, she was having some difficulty with her current boyfriend and feeling a bit sad. For some strange reason, I wrote a silly poem for her about grinning ducks and the value of friendship. I had never before written poetry and found myself amazed at doing so then.

I sent her the poem by email; and within hours, I received a response. She was delighted with the poem, and I was delighted that she liked it. I must have spent the remainder of the day grinning like an idiot; but yesterday, I laughed. I was feeling something very special; and it had been so many years since I had felt anything except anger, that it was truly extraordinary. They say that anything that is given from the heart comes back a thousandfold. I was soon to learn how true this was.

Not long after the duck poem, I was talking to another lady who worked in the office where I was employed. She was married to a young man who was undergoing training as an Army nurse and who had been working long hours with military personnel wounded during the Gulf War. For some reason, I mentioned that I had been in a treatment program for Vietnam vets. She looked up, her eyes close to tears, and simply said, "Thank you for your service and welcome home."

I was certainly aware of that "welcome home" phrase from my time around the vets' center; but for some reason, it was just a phrase without much meaning. This time, I felt like I had been kicked in the chest my a mule.

I don't believe I was able to say anything at the moment. I rapidly returned to my office, closed the door, and cried my heart out. I have no idea of how long the tears continued; but when they were over, I knew beyond all doubt that something inside of me had changed. I was finally home, and my war was over. This young lady's simple words had triggered something wonderful in me, something I never again want to lose.

Today, as those who have been there for me would want me to do, I spend some of my time trying to be there for other vets who are also completing that long journey home.

Stephen James Robbins

"The Ducks"

October 1995

When the world turns dark, and life just sux,
spend some time, consider the ducks.
In endless circles, they seem to swim,
without plan or purpose, as if by whim.
To you and I, their life isn't gay,
but the ducks just smile, and go on their way.

Why, oh why, do they smile so?
What must it be, that they surely know?
Without purpose, it seems, darkness must reign,
yet round they go, returning again.
As you and I, consider their plight,
in lonely stance, we await their flight.

If we could but see,
what the ducks always knew.
But we ponder alone,
as we usually do.
And the ducks swim on...

Copyright © 1996 by Stephen James Robbins, All Rights Reserved

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