Overcoming Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
A Biblical Approach
Excerpt from POINTMAN
by William R. Kimball
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"Are they Russian?"the gnarled old mama sanh asked the driver. The old woman's mouth was set with toothy, black snags. They were stained pomegranate from years of chewing betelnut. Her face was leathery from years of sun - her features etched with fear.
"No, they are Marines."The young driver answered the old woman. They were generations apart. She still remembered the war. He was too young to know.
Our group had pulled to a stop outside a little village somewhere west of Highway #1. It had been in the middle of the fighting years before. We had climbed a nearby knoll to check out the surrounding country-side. Several old women from a nearby village had approached the bus to ask about our group. It had been many years since they had seen any foreigners in that remote area, but the years had not dulled the painful memories of more brutal times when soldiers and Marines, NVA and Viet Cong had clashed in the fields and hills around them. Our arrival had conjured up ghosts from the past.
"Oh, God, are they coming back?" one of the old women asked, fearing a resumption of hostilities.
"No, no, Mama Sanh, they have not come back to fight," the driver tried to calm their fears. "They are visiting the places where they fought during the war." The driver's assurances brought relief to the old women, who greeted our return to the bus with reserved smiles.
Each of the men on our "Vets With A Mission" team had come back to visit the places which had played such a pivotal role in their lives. Each man had a personal reason for coming back. Our group had returned for some basic reasons, nostalgia, curiosity, and a need to put our past in perspective. But, it was more than just sentiment which drew us back. We had not come as tourists or sight-seers, but men on a pilgrimage of healing. We had each weathered the turbulent years of aftermath. Each of us had faced the demons from our past. Each had come to terms with the lingering wounds we had carried home. But, now, each of us felt the need to bring that healing full-circle to former friends and foes, who also shared in the suffering we all endured.
Roger Helle had also returned to visit a village near Phu Bai where his entire squad had been wiped out in a sudden ambush. He had brought his family with him to pay final tribute to those young men who had died by his side.
They had pulled by the side of Highway #1 and started hiking toward the village which lay several miles to the east. They crossed a canal and headed down a large dike until they came to a small Buddhist pagoda beside the trail. Half a dozen Vietnamese peasants were resting in its shade. No one smiled as they passed. They offered only curious stares and guarded nods. They continued down the dike through the open rice paddies, toward the fishing village two miles off the highway. They passed several Vietnamese farmers squatting in the shade of some trees along the dike, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and trying to stay out of the afternoon sun. They gave Roger a wary look, but said nothing. They continued on through the merciless heat and humidity. They passed a young boy swatting the hind-quarters of a mud-caked water buffalo pulling a wooden cart.
The trek brought back poignant memories - the fertile stink of the paddies, the sun's intensity, the look of the people, the smell of Vietnam, the old feelings of pulling point. With the memories, were the old fears that came with walking point down that same dike, which his men had patrolled countless times in the past. Each time his squad had approached the fishing village, they had drawn rifle shots from local V.C. Every time the shots would crack, they would dive in the shallow paddy water next to the dike. The reflexes were so ingrained and so deeply imprinted in Roger's memory, the familiar surroundings triggered them once again. He led his family forward, half-expecting shots to ring out from the village, half-prepared to leap into the muddy water. All the feelings of walking point were there again. The closer he came, the tighter the knot in his stomach got.
As he walked along that sun-baked dike, thoughts of his comrades flooded his mind. As they approached the village, a crowd of curious villagers began to gather. Emotions began to swirl around them as they neared. The villagers gathered around Roger's family. They seemed awe-struck by the sight of the fair-skinned foreigners. They were especially taken with Jamie's sandy-hair and freckled face. They, too, seemed caught up in the drama which was unfolding before them. Roger was older now, but they could clearly see the marbled, white scars, covering his legs and arms, and they knew he had been there before.
The covey of villagers followed Roger and his family along the dike until they came to the spot where twelve of his men had died. The brush and bamboo along the trail had grown over the years, but, he could still make out the spot along the paddy dike where he had desperately clung to the muddy bank and helplessly watched as his men died in a sudden spasm of violence. With what little Vietnamese he remembered, he tried to explain to the villagers that he had been a Marine many years ago, and his squad had been wiped out on the very spot they were standing. He finished explaining and looked into the paddy water where God had spared his life and was choked with emotion. Roger withdrew a small American flag from his pocket and knelt with his family on the trail to thank God for saving his life that day. The villagers stood reverently around him, not understanding the words he spoke, but honoring the solemnness of the moment.
"God, I want to thank you, again, for sparing my life. If you spared my life for such a time as this, then help me to have the courage to be faithful to whatever you have called me to do." Roger stuck the little flag into the dirt and stood. He scanned the faces of the villagers and felt something he had never felt for them before. He could see the pain of lifetimes etched in their sad, weary faces. They, too, had lingered in the shadows of 'Nam. They, too, had endured the nightmares. The blood of their sons and daughters had mingled in the same paddies and jungles. Their simple lives had been torn by war.
An old Vietnamese woman was standing nearby holding a little girl. She began to sob. She stepped forward and gently took Roger's hand in hers. She stood there holding his hand and weeping quietly, while she looked at her granddaughter. Roger could not tell if she could feel his loss, or if she knew about the events twenty-three years before, but he could sense her empathy. He could feel the warmth of the villagers and their compassion for him.
At that moment of overwhelming emotion, he looked into their tear-filled eyes, and felt compassion for them, too. They, too, were survivors. They also had suffered the pain and grief of loss. The aftermath had taken its toll. The years which separated them had done little to relieve the harshness of their lives. The South had lost the war, but the North had lost the peace.
Roger had come to terms with his past. He had come to terms with his guilt and hate, because he had come to terms with God. In that little fishing village, he had done something more. He had come to terms with his enemies. Roger had forgiven them with the same love with which he had been forgiven. He had made his peace where it started.
Roger had returned with those who understood the most - his wife and children, his fellow vets. They were a small piece of America come to honor her fallen sons. It was a fitting memorial - not of death, but of life. Standing there on the spot where his men had fallen, with his wife and the two children the doctors said he would never have, it did seem that life had risen from the dead. They had come back with him as a gesture of love - a requiem understood by each of us.
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