It is really only the mechanism of the reassumed habit. Slowly the wound to the soul begins to make itself felt, like a bruise, which slowly deepens its terrible ache, ’till it fills all the psyche. And when we think we have recovered and forgotten, it is then that the terrible after-effects have to be encountered at their worst.”
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) The Hidden Scars That Never Heal
Great Britain’s Prince Harry recently disclosed his personal difficulties in dealing with the loss of his mother, Princess Diana. In National Geographic Magazine, Cory Richards writes about lifelong debilitating symptoms like his panic attack after summiting Mt. Everest. In my own life, while learning to accept what is, writing about a traumatic experience allows me to look at it objectively. It’s just a story.
There is treatment but no cure for PTSD. It has become the acronym for delayed reaction to everything from combat and rape to school shootings and terrorism. Severe anxiety and panic attacks began to manifest several months after I left Vietnam. While waiting at an airport, suddenly I began hyperventilating. A man came over with a paper bag. “I’m a doctor,” he said. “Keep your head down and breath into this.” A similar episode occurred while having my hair cut at the hairdresser. They had to call an ambulance. Click the link for Vietnam brides
From My Vietnam Diary – 1967-1969
While I was landing at Tan Son Nhut Airport near Saigon, “The Happy Time” was playing on Broadway with lighting design by my cousin Jean. Critics praised Jean’s ground-breaking lighting techniques, but the show ran only six months. “Hey Jude” was at the top of the charts, and the Beatles were in India with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. They learned something profound from the master, but their trip ended badly. My State Department assignment to Vietnam began with all good intentions, but was not a happy time.
Well-known to most conflict photographers are the words of iconic WWII photojournalist, Robert Capa. “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” The New York Times recently ran a story about French combat photographer Catherine Leroy whose photographs of the Vietnam War are historic examples of Capa’s assertion.
Here’s what Capa did not say: Though many war correspondents and photographers eventually burn out, when you witness a traumatic event through the lens of a camera you are a recording device that distances you emotionally. But when you are an ill-prepared noncombatant, you are a victim.
A Room With A View
When I arrived in Saigon in mid-1967, the war between north and south Vietnam was escalating. The lack of available housing required me and thousands of government civilians and journalists to live in hotels. My hotel was in a pleasant neighborhood across the street from the former Independence Palace, home of then president Ngo Dinh Diem. I began the first few months with language lessons on lunch breaks, and tennis and swimming at the Cercle Sportif, a club for expatriates, residual French and well-heeled South Vietnamese. But in one of the great inexplicable mysteries of karma, for the third time in my foreign service life, I found myself living next door to the wrong guy.
At two in the morning on January 31, 1968 an explosion rocked president Diem’s Palace, shattering my large seventh floor hotel window-and my false sense of security. When I peeked down into the street I saw small wiry shapes in black pajamas attaching more plastique explosives to the palace gates. After a second explosion, a Jeep with American GIs roared down the street to confront them; the black pajamas blew that up too. As in a Marc Chagall painting, the figures seemed to float upward in slow-motion, before gravity pulled them down into a haphazard assortment of body parts. The floor of my hotel room was covered in broken glass, bullet holes from small arms fire punctured the walls. I had minor scratches on my arms and face. Earsplitting explosions and gunfire continued throughout the terrifying night. Here you find beautiful Vietnamese girls
After the initial coordinated attack on the city, North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces soon ran out of reinforcements and eventually withdrew. In the wake of the Tet Offensive, the Americans retrieved their dead. Enemy corpses remained in the streets for days.
Tet, The Asian Lunar New Year – The Year of The Monkey
Within two days our hotel had run out of food. Early on the third day some of us tried to get to a nearby American Officers’ mess. Crouching with our heads down, we entered a street littered with bodies. A few days ago that same street and marketplace was alive with people strolling, laughing and celebrating the new year with their kids. Now the air was smoky gray and reeked of decaying bodies. North Vietnamese regulars lay in their green uniforms, the Vietcong guerrillas in black or dark blue pajama type clothes. When I stepped over the stiffened body of a young Vietcong fighter, I nearly lost it.
In the final moments of his life, he had raised his right arm with a clenched fist, an expression of defiance on his distorted face. Like a citizen of Pompeii caught in the eruption of Vesuvius, he was frozen in time and my memory. His brains had dried on the pavement leaving a stain even the monsoons could not wash away. I could never walk on that side of the street again. It was “Apocalypse Now” before Hollywood ever made that movie. It was Tet, the Asian lunar New Year, the Year of The Monkey. It was the beginning of the inexorable end for America in Vietnam.
No Rules In “Disneyland East”
Weeks later, after the clean-up, the tree lined streets of the sultry city retained their French colonial appearance. Outdoor cafes on leafy streets once again resounded with the laughter of young South Vietnamese men whose politically privileged parents kept them out of the war. Visitors continued to enjoy their aperitifs on the river’s idyllic floating restaurants. The sidewalks of TuDo Street teemed with merchants chanting their mantra: “Hey GI, for you I sell special-cheap, cheap!” But every day that followed Tet, more ragged refugees and orphans poured into the city. More slick drug dealers prospered. More young GI’s on R&R were no longer young. Never mind that the goods sold on the street were stolen from the American Commissary and PX. More often than not, American products were pilfered right off the loading docks at riverside.
Those who were not fighting the war were prospering from it. The resilient city went about its daily commerce while millions of Vietnamese on both sides died, and 58,220 American body bags came home, including eight nurses. U.S. Government contractor employees strutted around town with guns in their holsters. One night at a party in a friend’s private house, one of those “Saigon Cowboys” drove his motorcycle up the marble staircase and right into the host’s living room. This bizarre environment became known as “Disneyland East.” Drugs were ubiquitous and anything could be had for a price. The GIs bought sex from Miss Saigon. The South Vietnamese bought time. The Vietcong could not be bought.