Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Degrees of death

In October of 1969 I reported to a miniscule "base" on a river north of Saigon to assume the position of the Executive Officer of River Division 594.  Although my primary duty was not to lead combat patrols, as part of learning the job, I had to become qualified as a Patrol Officer.  A Patrol Officer is a junior officer or senior enlisted personnel who leads a "patrol" of two river patrol boats (PBRs), usually to set an ambush trying to catch Viet Cong personnel crossing the river in order to transport troops or supplies.

The training consisted of four break-in patrols where I would ride along with a senior Patrol Officer, followed by patrols thereafter on my own.  On my last night break-in patrol I suddenly heard a boom and then everyone started shooting.  (We had been attacked, I later learned with a B-40 RPG.)  I instantly felt the most overwhelming feeling of helpless vulnerability imaginable.  I felt totally exposed, "naked" to injury and death.  I was standing on the engine covers, the highest point you could stand with nothing between me and incoming death.  It was crystal clear to me that I could be killed at any instant.  Indeed, the bullet that would render my hopes and dreams for my life a mere puff of air may have already left the barrel of a rifle. My whole body shaking, I somehow managed to pick up an M-16, flip off the safety and start shooting back. Even though it felt much better to be doing something I still felt the undeniable reality that at any instant I could be rendered a pile of flesh.

When I spoke of vulnerability in my last post, this is the experience I am talking about.  Different than fear, though fear is obviously a part of it.  It is the knowledge that you are not in control of your fate/your life.  I believe this knowledge is particularly difficult for young men to accept.  Indeed, I believe it is so threatening that most men commit a form of suicide in order to protect themselves.

As you might imagine, I was quite scared to assume my position as XO in a combat division.  Any qualms I had were only reinforced as I flew up the river in a helicopter from Saigon to my base.  I will never forget the sight of the river, totally pockmarked with craters, dead trees everywhere, nothing moving.  Yet as scared as I was, the men of my division scared me even more.

It's not that they were a bunch of bloodthirsty gangsters.  They were simply dead.  They had no life to them.  No emotion, no affect at all. No pleasure, no connection.  When they spoke, it was robotic, saying what needed to be said and no more. They seemed to be actual zombies.  Indeed, I was so frightened of them, the fate for me they represented, that I did what I had never done before, wrote a letter to my father (a fomer naval officer) asking for help.  I did not want to become like them.

I have come to believe that their emotional suicide was a defense against the ever presence of death.  By being already dead, they tried to rob death of its power.  Death was not so terrifying if life isn't much anyway.  This self death made it just barely possible to go back out on patrol after having had the experience of helpless vulnerability to the loss of everything.

Yet a strange thing happened after my first firefight.  When we got back to the base the men went through an amazing transformation.  They became alive, friendly, celabatory.  The beer came out and there was a party.  The ribbon on my black beret was cut to symbolize I had "lost my cherry."  Story after story of previous firefights were told, the whole history of the division.  And then the next morning everything was the same, back to zombie.  It was as if the beer had been a dessert rain, producing a brief flowering.  The rain came after each firefight when no one was hurt.  When the VC starting hitting us harder there were no more parties.  Yet, strangely, these men came to seem to me to be the best bunch of men in the world.

When Churchill said "There is nothing so exhilarating as to be fired upon without effect" he is correct but incomplete.  He fails to mention that the cost of the exhilaration is the fearsome vulnerability that precedes it.  In my next post I'll say more about how the experience of vulnerability affects veterans when they return to the world.

Roy Clymer

For the background and context for these remarks, please read my article on PTSD published in the Psychotherapy Networker which can be found here or see a copy of it found on this blog titled "The Puzzle of PTSD."

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