Photo credit: Paul Townsend
It must have been 1969 when I heard the song “Hair” on the AM radio. The song begins when a woman asks a man why he is so hairy. It was the so-called Age of Aquarius, when tribes of hippies marched off to Woodstock and Height Ashbury to live the Summer of Love. I am not sure why long hair became a sign of freedom, but it certainly was part of those turbulent times. My parents were teaching at a major university and campus was full of young people with long flowing hair, and they were out in numbers. Not only were people out in protest, but they wanted to live freer. They didn’t see the sense in living the Leave it to Beaver life and wanted to venture out. It was a new version of the American Dream. The new generation was trying new things, thinking differently, wearing wild colors, creating new music, and declaring peace and love. It was an important time for women and people of color, too. After almost 26 straight months of pregnancy (two children and a miscarriage), my mother decided that two boys were enough. She took control of her body and began to use birth control pills. The Pope wasn’t going to tell her how to run her life. My folks also sent my brother and me to an integrated school on the other side of town. I also can remember Walter Cronkite in the news each night telling us how many tons of bombs US forces dropped on North Vietnam. The war seemed like it would never end.
In those days, I had no idea that my cousin Tony was stationed in Vietnam. He grew up in the Quad Cities. Most of my family either went to work at John Deere or International Harvester right out of high school or joined the military. Tony and his brothers joined up. It was their ticket out. Not only was it a way for them to see the world, but it was also a way to assimilate into a country that still couldn’t pronounce our last name. Like a lot of other working class families, my grandparents and their two sons lived in a modest home, a one-bedroom house on Second Avenue in Silvis, Illinois. In the apartment next door, lived my great aunt and uncle with their four boys. They all shared a single bathroom that held a bathtub that didn’t have running water. Perhaps because of this, a lot of young men chose to go into the service. Several blocks from their house was another street that had the highest percentage of young men that enlisted for the service: in a one and a half block segment thirty-three families sent fifty-seven of their sons to serve in the armed forces. Many of them were Mexican Americans. In the case of my cousin, he was (and still is) an Italian American.
Tony served several tours of duty in Vietnam and was highly decorated. Along with a number of his other medals, he received three Purple Hearts. He jokingly tells me, “These are the medals they give you when you’re dumb enough to get wounded.” There was a time, however, when he couldn’t joke about the war. For him, the war didn’t end when the last helicopter left the US embassy. As a family we knew very little about his experience in the war. The climate in those days didn’t encourage the soldiers to talk about what they’d experienced. There weren’t even words to describe the Post-Traumatic Stress that he suffered decades after the last shot had been fired.
I got to know Tony in 1988 when the Illinois Vietnam Veterans Association dedicated the Memorial to the 3,000 Illinois servicemen that died or went missing in action during the war. He stayed at my folks’ house during the ceremony. The first night we were together we stayed up well into the middle of the night talking and became very close. The following day, I went with him to the dedication. While I’ve never been patriotic, what struck me was how the veterans watched out for each other. I was taking pictures, testing out my new telephoto lens, when I noticed that one of the veteran’s was suffering from a sudden bout of trauma. Something had brought back a memory, and in seconds the fear, anxiety, and pain he should have felt years before became real. It was as if he were a prisoner to a memory that he could never name, describe or talk about. He was almost catatonic as he stared into the names inscribed on the wall. As I snapped off a series of pictures, I could see that the trauma had hit him like a bad acid trip. He was speechless and lost, as if the words themselves would have stuck in his throat. Even though Tony didn’t realize that I was watching the scene unfold through the lens of the camera, he saw the same thing I saw: the man was suffering all by himself. Tony approached him, offered him his hand and put his arm around him. My cousin went and got him and made sure he was okay. If Tony had ever done anything heroic, that was it. I took the final shot in the series and turned away.
I was fortunate that Tony trusted me enough to bring me along. It is especially hard for Vietnam Veterans to tell their stories. Quite frequently, they live in isolation believing that no one can understand. While they may be right, I am not sure that anyone should have to bear the weight of an untold story.
A few weeks ago, I wrote Tony and asked him about how he realized he had PTSD and how he managed it. His response is below.
I think everyone who knew me was aware that I had problems, but the problem didn’t have a name at the time. They just knew I was messed up. I’m probably the only one who thought I was a rational human being. If a large problem–one that would overwhelm most people–,popped up I would remain calm, shrug my shoulders, and say, “I can handle it.” However the smallest thing could go wrong and I would go ballistic. I can’t count the number of walls I punched holes in or the number of door frames I left knuckle prints in. I never hit another person, though; mainly because I was afraid that, once started, I wouldn’t be able to stop. In combat you learn that the only way to fight is to the finish and it becomes part of your psyche.
It took me many years to be able to cope with life without using alcohol as a crutch. It’s what we call self-medication for PTSD. Many people who suffer from the disease use both drugs and alcohol to cope before getting into programs that offer counseling and prescription medications. I never participated in any of these programs. When I felt that I could handle being around people I would go from bar-to-bar and city-to-city on my motorcycle. When I felt the need to be alone I would put a couple of cases of beer on the front seat of my car and drive around until both cases were empty. There were even times that I would stop at a liquor store to buy another case or two so I could make it through the night.
I never drank beer in bars but always had mixed drinks. I would order two drinks and drink the first one without stopping then start on the second one. I remember I met some friends at a bar that didn’t drink; they went there to dance to country music. They tried to get me to load my bike in the back of their truck which I refused to do. I stopped at their house the next day and they were upset because I insisted I was okay to ride. At the time, I was renting a place from a couple named Sandra and Jerry in Davenport, Iowa. Sandra told me that she had kept count of my drinks and that I had 21 mixed drinks over a three hour period and they were worried about me. I drank like that until around 1980, staying out all night, going home to shower, and going to work. I slept through my lunch hour and for a couple of hours after work, then began the cycle again.
Finally, Jerry and Sandra managed to get through to me and I decided to quit drinking. My refrigerator was full of beer, the crispers had whiskey in them, and the freezer contained four bottles of vodka. I had no food in it at all. I dumped all of the booze and quit drinking. I don’t even like the taste of liquor anymore and average a beer about every six months now.
To be continued …