I remember the day I realized that I had PTSD. It was during group therapy in 1999 at the VA Hospital three years after I had been diagnosed with it and awarded disability. One of the guys was talking about his feelings after coming home from Vietnam through Travis Air Force Base in 1970. When he described what it was like for him it finally hit me. I understood.
Up until that moment I had felt like a con man. Somehow, I had snuck one past the Veteran’s Administration, the psychologists, the doctors, and the Vietnam Veterans of America. Despite 10 years of flashbacks, and nightmares, with the smell of burning feces, blood, and the red clay of Nam coating the back of my throat with a smell that I still taste, I didn’t believe I was damaged. They did, though, and that’s all that counted. I no longer had to worry about being homeless, feeding my sons or educating them because I was now a ward of the VA.
I’m told that one of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder is memory loss. My experience wasn’t loss of memory; it was more like being unable to decipher if the memory was true or just something I conjured up. Until that day in group therapy, my memories had no other witnesses, but here was someone else who had shared that spell cast at the gates of Travis Air Base in 1970. It was an epiphany that rocked me. That understanding began a gradual peeling away of the hard crust I had built up around myself to keep from feeling. After 30 years of successfully stuffing feelings, like an noxious odor, they began to ooze through the cracks and I had to finally deal with them.
Is it possible that you never heard the story of how the young men called to duty in Vietnam, were greeted by their fellow citizens on the day they returned home? My children couldn’t believe it. From the first to the last day, every trooper in Nam ticked off the days remaining until the magic number approached to go home. They were “Short Timers.” When asked how long they had left, they answered with cutesy sayings like; “I’m so short I have to look up to see an ant’s ass.” Cute, but their eyes were red-rimmed, crowded with fear because in “The Nam” we all knew, anything could happen until you landed safely stateside.
Ultimately, the lucky short-timers found themselves sitting on the tarmac with 200 others, hoping, but afraid to believe until finally that freedom bird started rolling. Inching along, then gathering speed until, nose up, we felt wheels up and we were airborne. At that very moment there was a huge collective roar of relief as we all realized we had made it. We were going home.
When we touched down at Travis Air Force Base, we were ushered into a huge warehouse where we spent about 24 hours processing out. Here they got us showers, new uniforms, haircuts, medical exams, everything we needed. In one door and out the other, the next day I found myself on the loading dock getting into a cab, one of many waiting to take us wherever we wanted. With my ticket in hand, I shouted to my driver, “Airport!”
No one warned us. I don’t know what I would have done if they had, but it still amazes me that no one had warned us. It was an ambush. As we pulled out of the gate I was greeted by a mob of war protesters. They were pounding the windows and hood of the cab, carrying signs that called me a murderer, screaming “baby killer.” As my cabby pulled away quickly, we were barraged with fruits and vegetables. I wasn’t just wounded. I was gutted.
I was 22 years old. I had done everything I was asked to do for my country. I had seen horrific things that would remain with me for a lifetime, but I had done nothing to be so reviled. Why had my country turned on me?
I can’t tell you why, but I exchanged my ticket and went to Denver instead of heading home. It took me two weeks to go home. I later discovered that a lot of guys did similar things. Some never went home. Then there are those who came back but are still gone.
I often wonder if those people who met all those returning planes tell their children and friends what they actually did to protest that unjust war. Perhaps they have since joined that religious group that protests at the funerals of the dead boys coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. Maybe they became politicians and went to Congress.
This Memorial Day, the news is full of the problems at the veterans’ hospitals. Our politicians are pointing fingers, threatening hearings, investigations, all fighting for press time so they can “say” what needs to be done. The Congress is drawing sides, salivating at the opportunity afforded just before mid-term elections. All this energy, time and money being spewed forth, all for one purpose: How does it translate into votes?
This should sound familiar. Our politicians want to divide us so they can point to the “others” as being different and wrong-minded, when they ask for our donations. With enough money they can fight those on the other side of the aisle.
Listen to them. Democrat or Republican, deep down we know they just want money. It reminds me of that big radio station down in Del Rio, Texas back in the ‘60s. Remember the one that asked for your donation, and in return they would send you a “genuine autographed picture of Jesus Christ?” Their promise may strike an emotional chord with you, but deep down you know what they want.
If we want the answer to the VA mess we really don’t have to pay some bloviator congressman $180,000 a year for the answer. Simply, we know how to fix the problem. We do it every day by honoring our own commitments in our daily lives. Congress should do the same. They should honor the commitment they made to America’s military when they sent us to war by simply paying the bill, no matter the amount. We paid with our blood, no matter the amount.
Apalachicola resident Michael Ortiz y Pino is a veteran of the U.S. Army 1967-70.