Monday, February 17, 2014

Courage and Tragedy Under Fire --- and what followed

There’s a code of silence at the PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) Clinic in East L.A. Whatever veterans say inside those walls stays there. But a fellow Vietnam veteran met me for lunch today on Whittier Blvd., and he felt like talking. I listened. When he finished telling me the story of that firefight back on February 8, 1967 — and how it would come back to haunt him decades later — I cautiously asked him if I could write about him — if I could share his story.

He agreed.

His name is Edward. I’d share his last name with you — he’s OK with that — but that code of silence I mentioned gnaws on me. He turned 69 last month. He works the graveyard shift as a security officer at a railroad yard. He feels safer in the dark — safer when he’s not around a lot of people. And it gives him more time to spend with his 14-year-old daughter during the day.

Bank in 1999, however, he was working the day shift as a quality control inspector in a factory. He had successfully buried the memories of that day in Vietnam — the day a medic named Keith Campbell saved his life. He had buried the memories of watching a bullet strike his rescuer in the neck. He had buried the memories of a burst of more AK-47 bullets that instantly killed Keith Campbell.

But in 1999, Edward was playing with his kids in a park when a woman he’d never known burst into his world. Medic Keith Campbell’s sister had finally fulfilled her dream of meeting the man whose life her brother had saved, moments before the medic, himself, fell to enemy bullets.

She wanted to look into the last pair of eyes her brother had seen.

On February 8, 1967, Edward was what we called “short.” In three weeks, he would complete his tour and would be heading home. Please note that I didn’t say “three short weeks.” The “shorter” you were in Vietnam, the longer the days lasted. Three weeks was an eternity. The night before, the Viet Cong had lobbed mortars inside his perimeter, so at dawn, his platoon got the assignment to go on a day patrol. They preferred night patrols — it’s easier to be invisible in the dark, you see.

Oh, and Edward was to be the point man. Everyone would follow him.

“We were in the jungle,” he said, “under a thick canopy. We were in a staggered formation when we entered a rubber tree plantation. We tried to walk alongside a ridge so that they couldn’t see us as well. Then all hell broke loose. It sounded like machine guns and AK-47s.”

Within moments, Edward felt something hit his back and he went to the ground. The firefight was so intense, however, that nobody could reach him. He was pinned down next to a log. He lay there bleeding for more than four hours — the Vietcong were in a bunker of sorts and wouldn’t let anybody get near Edward.

Then someone he had never known, a medic, Keith Campbell, ran through enemy fire in Edward’s direction.

“No! Get out,” Edward recalled shouting to him. “Kill zone! This is a kill zone!” But Campbell somehow got to him. Edward remembers being scared, angry and fearing he was going to die. He seems to remember Campbell injecting him with something — probably morphine — and then working on the bullet wound in the middle of Edward’s upper back.

“All of a sudden, POW! He gets shot,” Edward said, “and his body went up and then down on top of me. They kept hitting him!” Edward says he lost consciousness — either from loss of blood, from the morphine, or both. It seemed like hours before two of Edward’s buddies could get to him. They dragged him and the medic out on rubber ponchos and placed them alongside maybe a dozen other casualties — some still living, some dead. Helicopters took him to a M.A.S.H. unit. Later he’d go to a hospital in Saigon, then to Japan and eventually to a hospital in San Francisco where he slowly and painfully recovered.

Edward looks back at his post-Vietnam life as a blur. He now knows that the drugs and the booze and the anger that enveloped his life for so many years were all part of his desperate attempt to kill the recurring thought: “I should have died — not Keith Campbell!”

A couple of failed marriages and several children later, Edward was able to stabilize and make a living. He only rarely awoke in a puddle of sweat to that recurring nightmare — the nightmare that even the drugs and booze couldn’t quell.

“I was lying in the back of a dump truck with Keith Campbell and a bunch of other guys. They were all dead. I was the only one alive,” Edward said.

But in 1999, Keith Campbell’s sister found him. She had hired a private investigator to locate the soldier whose life her brother had been trying to save. She had traveled all the way from Delaware to meet him. She had been waiting in the car when his neighbor pointed him out at the park. It all happened so fast, he said. He and Keith’s sister would spend a day together. She had so many questions.

“She wanted to touch my wound,” he said. “She wanted to touch the last thing her brother had touched.” As he spoke to me, Edward pulled his collar down showed me the indentation — the hole — in the middle of his back.

I touched it as well.

Keith’s sister invited Edward to travel to Fort Sam Houston near San Antonio, Texas, to the opening celebration of the new Keith Campbell Medical Library. Edward said he couldn’t afford it, so Keith’s sister said she’d organize a fundraiser.

“But Keith’s mother wouldn’t have it,” Edward said. “She insisted that she would pay my way there, and she would put me up in her place.”

There was a flurry of publicity about Edward — how the medic’s sister was determined to track him down. However, the experience had jolted Edward back into the past. He was now having to talk about it.

Before long, his PTSD symptoms rose to the surface — the startle response to loud noises, the claustrophobia, the desire to work alone at night where he would feel safer. He remembered recently when several helicopters flew low over where he was sleeping and he had the flashback of being pinned down. The helicopters were coming to evacuate him.

It even affected his sense of smell.

“When I was pinned down that day, I could smell my own blood. I remember that it smelled like bacon.”

Now, there are times when the smell of cooking bacon triggers his frightening thoughts.

And the nightmares returned.

Edward has kept this stuff inside of him for a long time.


TheSometimesWhy said...

Don, as always, you're the Head Curator in the Museum of Life. Bless you for your keen eye, your sharp ear, and your boundless soul.

All the best and then some,


Don Ray said...

Thanks for the overly kind comments, Michael Raysses. Coming from a writer I so admire, I'm humbled.
My friend of more than half a century, Jeanne, sent me this. Thanks, Jeanne:
Hi Don,
I tried to leave a comment and totally botched it up. I'm too frustrated to try again on your blog but here are my thoughts and you are welcome to post it if you can.

"Don, you really need a category for compassion. Your blog really moved me mostly because Edward was willing to relive such troubling experiences in order to share them with you. And then, to let you publish them is really an act of courage. These memories are no longer locked inside for only him to deal with. I truly hope Edward will continue to peel away the many layers as they arise and come to a sense of peace and acceptance. While his experience must seem so private it really is a particle of a larger story as is evidenced by the tenacity of Keith Campbell's sister in finding him and the rest of Keith's family in wanting Edward to join them in the celebration of the Medical Library. Keith wouldn't have died a hero if it hadn't been for Edward. Keith brought pride to his family for how he served. You are such a good man too, Don, for living your life so others lives are honored. Thank you for what you do and who you are. You help bring compassion to us all." Jeanne Barron Aikman

Don Ray said...

A follow-up --- I'm sure Edward wouldn't want anyone to think that any angst about her tracking him down and inviting him to her brother's memorial. He was thrilled. In fact, the effects of the reawakening of his Vietnam experience would nudge him in the direction of getting the help he is now receiving. He's a very kind and loving person.
Probably the most glaring example of his current PTSD was a incident while he was driving to meet me for lunch. Fire trucks and paramedics were rolling in his direction --- red lights and sirens. Edward immediately stopped and was looking for a way to pull to the right when a jerk behind him blasted the horn. Edward's first impulse was to flip the guy off, but he remembered the stuff he'd learned at the PTSD clinic.
Later, he realized that he had experienced a mini-flashback. For an instance, Edward was back in Vietnam, on the ground, bleeding while the firefight continued. For that moment, the guy in the car behind him was keeping the medics from reaching him. You have no idea what it feels like when this happens.

Emil Mitchell said...

Always a touchy subject, PTSD. No nightmares just some haunting memories. Ooorahhhh to any and all Veterans wherever the conflict especially those who do suffer and for so long have been pushed out of the way as over sensitive or looking for sympathy. My biggest problem still today is not being able to sort out the treatment upon returning home as many, many Vets experienced from friends, family, classmates and some employers. If you choose not to allow this rambling on your blog I understand, I just ramble a lot sometimes. Keep tripping on memories. Been contemplating writing a look back book [short] for almost as long as I've been back. Don't know if it would be much of a read even, my life's been fairly unremarkable so far. Wanted to be a photographer too once upon a wish. That's why I always regretted never finding a 42 second time lapse i did of a Viking Huey one night from ATC Tower top guardrail with an old Yashica TL Super SLR now ling gone. You could follow the tail light trail from 04 approach down the runway all the way to the revetments and see the A/C and crew clearly after shutdown.

Kevin Kane said...

Don, very strong yet delicate in the composition. Perhaps if Edward reads this it can provide some comfort. I was quite moved.