Christopher Gaynor, Vietnam War
Sgt. Christopher Gaynor with his team at a field fire support base. He is leaning on his radio teletype rig, and in the background is an M113 armored personnel carrier.

A Kind of Life

Story and photos by Christopher Gaynor

Growing up in California, a young guy with many talents, Christopher Gaynor answered the call when his country wanted him to go to Vietnam and fight. Making the rank of Sergeant E5 in record time, Gaynor had lots of experiences fighting the enemy and meeting lots of other great guys along the way. When his tour was over, he went back home, thinking he had made it. But decades later, he discovered that even though he had left the war, the war had not left him. The effects of Agent Orange grabbed hold and won’t let go.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Agent Orange, Vietnam WarI take a moist towel and touch his forehead with the cooling cloth. The wounded troop lies on a stretcher alongside others awaiting medevac choppers bound for the 12th Evac Hospital at Cu Chi. Wounds cover his body, but only his bloody feet stick out from under the sheet. A medic casually unwinds and rewinds the bandages. The soldier opens his eyes and I am pulled into the abyss of his wide-eyed terror. He’s not going to make it.

“What?” I come awake with a gasp. The nightmare fades. My labored breathing falls into the darkness. Where am I? No landmarks in the dark. I look around until my eyes find the glow of the clock radio: 7 a.m. Time to get up.

I try to be quiet so Paul can sleep in. A survey of extremities discovers frozen calf muscles, spasms in my arms and hands, and the usual Parkinson’s Disease brain fog. This will be a difficult day.

Agent Orange did this to me. The constant defoliating spray soaked our jungle fatigues and dried on our skin. Too late now. The seeds of my death were planted decades ago.

Agent Orange did this to me. The constant defoliating spray soaked our jungle fatigues and dried on our skin. Too late now. The seeds of my death were planted decades ago.

First things first. I roll onto my side so that I can move my legs over the edge of the bed. Feet down, I push with my arms, and grab the wall for support. Shuffle into the bathroom. Watch your feet, they have no feeling yet, and this is the “let’s-fall-down” part of the morning. The sink approaches. I must brace my knees against the drawers and hang on with my left hand while my right does the job of brushing my teeth and getting my old face shaved.

Now that the feeling is beginning to come back into my feet, it is time to move to the dining room for my first dose of meds. This handful goes down on an empty stomach. Stretch the legs. If possible, I raise my arms above my head. OK, can I get my shoes on? I lie flat on the floor and wrestle with each shoe until they are both on and securely tied.

Out the door. Carefully I watch the steps and hang on with both hands. The nausea and shortness of breath have not kicked in yet. These will make their presence known halfway through my walk. If there are passersby on the road at this time of the morning they will see me doubled over by the side of the road, wishing for a quick death to release me from this endless torment. But, I keep moving, maybe only one mile today. Slowly.

Once back home, a second round of meds. These go down with whatever food I can tolerate. The pain will not really get bad until later in the day. My stomach cannot take painkillers. After a shower and dressing it is time to get busy. Buttons are the enemy. I sometimes fight them for ten or fifteen minutes just to get my shirt on. Shoes and laces are a special project altogether. The day is accompanied by shaking hands, involuntary leg movements and bouts of nausea. But I deal.

God damned Agent Orange! Dioxin! Agent Orange was a deadly weapon. They lied to us, and our own government killed us as surely as if they had put a bullet through our brains or tubed a Chicom mortar round to explode within our ranks with its gut-shredding shrapnel.

I will attempt to work on my projects if I can find the energy and can tolerate the pain.

Vietnam War Skycrane helicopter by Christopher Gaynor
Flying Crane. A Sikorsky CH-54 drops a sling load of 105mm howitzer ammo at an LZ for our field artillery fire support base.

Dinner. Then off to bed hoping that dyskinesia won’t keep me awake all night with uncontrollable legs thrashing about. But there are more pills for that. Perhaps tonight I won’t see the wounded terror or Norm Goble’s blown-off arm. That would be a good night.

April 26, 1966  

The bus pulls into the Santa Ana station on West 8th Street at 6 a.m. We board slowly and silently, filling the seats from back to front as directed. At 6:30 sharp the driver closes the door, pushes the shifter into gear, and pulls onto the empty, dark street. Soon we are headed north on the Santa Ana freeway for the hour-long ride to the Armed Forces Induction Station in downtown Los Angeles.

The Order to Report for Induction, from the President of the United States, instructs me to bring enough clean clothes for three days, enough money to last one month for personal purchases – and if I have life insurance, a record of the insurance company’s address and the policy number – just in case I get my ass blown away.

I volunteered for the draft knowing the odds were good that I would be going to Vietnam. I was a college student opposed to the war, marching in anti-war demonstrations, and now I will be a citizen soldier ready and willing to fight in the very conflict I am so opposed to.

I no longer have any interest in being a college student and have dropped out. My mother said because I was doing nothing with my life I should go into the military, and if I didn’t go and present myself to the draft board, she would call them. Was she serious? Maybe. But a year later, when I got my orders for Vietnam, she cried and worried and fussed over me.

In the end, I agreed. It didn’t seem right for others to go to war while I hung out with my hippie friends. Once I made my decision, life was simple. I already had my physical exam results, and was classified 1A. Now it was just a matter of showing up when and where ordered.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014 

The soldier wears the Army Combat Uniform, with the familiar desert camouflage of Iraq/Afghanistan deployment. His M-4 is aimed at a spot just between my eyes. He clicks off the safety. I know him, he is my friend, a young Iraq veteran who was shot through the eye. We are brothers-in-arms, not shy about saying “I love you bro.” So why is he going to blow the top of my head off?

Now my thoughts go back…back…back. I hear the familiar wump, wump, wump of a Huey Slick descending into a small clearing. The fierce rotor wash whips at the tall, sharp elephant grass, and makes the trees thrash violently.

The door gunner pumps M-60 rounds into the tree line. We pull ourselves aboard and hold on tight as the bird pulls its nose up seeking higher, safer altitude. The sights and sounds from more than four decades ago collide with newer images just at the perimeter of my subconscious like stills from an old film that hasn’t been fully developed in the dark room: The Vietnam War, Iraq, and Afghanistan. I have had enough of this movie. I switch it off.

I am lost. Which world is real and which exists only in my terrifying memories? My surroundings seem unfamiliar. The rough ceiling stucco, bright zebra stripes of sunlight coming through the blinds. Tall bookcases overflowing with books along the length of one wall. Focus! Think! Where the fuck am I?

What a fucking drag. I hate being sick. Fifty years after surviving the shooting war, Agent Orange is killing me along with a lot of my Vietnam War buddies.

Slowly, the fog dissipates as I struggle with my fear. The living room of the Vashon Island home I have shared for twenty-six years with Paul begins to reassemble itself. I have slept on the sofa most of the afternoon. Moving is all about pain since my Parkinson’s diagnosis, and I must will myself off the sofa and onto my feet.

What a fucking drag. I hate being sick. Fifty years after surviving the shooting war, Agent Orange is killing me along with a lot of my Vietnam War buddies. Mid-afternoon, time for another dose of meds. Three yellow Ropinirole, one purple Carbidopa/Levodopa, and half a milligram of Clonazepam to dull the terror’s edge.

My office, the big oak table in the dining room, is covered in manila folders, envelopes, fliers, and brochures for various veterans’ programs. The American Legion Officer’s Guide is open to the Gold Star Banner Ceremony for families who have lost a loved one to war. How I dread this duty. I am ill-equipped to console mothers, wives, sisters, and brothers. I can only cry with them. Pain shared.

A to-do list is written in pencil on a yellow legal pad. Now sixty-nine years old, I want to stop doing, and just climb down into my bunker. But there is always more, and now I have taken on the duties of Commander of my small American Legion post – as far as I know the only openly gay senior officer in the American Legion in the state.

My eyes involuntarily survey the walls of the living room. They are covered with large framed prints of some of the photos I shot in Vietnam in 1967 and ’68. The young men who look out at me from these pictures will be forever young and full of life. They had had plans for when they would be back in “The World.” They will never die (even if I saw them die in combat), at least not here on these walls. Enough stalling, it is time to get to work. I sit at my computer and begin composing e-mails. I load the BCC with my list of Legion members and begin to type: “Comrades….”

April 26, 1966 

The air is cool, and the open windows bring a chill to those who have not worn jackets. I zip up my windbreaker, lean back in the seat, and close my eyes. The drone of the engine and the rhythmic thump of the tires on the freeway expansion joints make me feel sleepy, but nervous energy and fear keep me awake. Behind me a kid has his transistor radio turned down low, but I can still hear “Monday, Monday” by The Mamas & the Papas. In my twenty-one years, I have never been far from home.

The Encino, California, house on its acre of land had been my world until I was ten years old. My best friend, Tim Reisig, and I had played war with plastic rifles that were more cowboy than soldier, but our imaginations filled in the details.

Hours of outdoor play seemed like the most fun any of us would ever have. We would jump on our bikes and ride to the reservoir, lie on the grassy berm, and lose ourselves in the green open fields, blue sky, and white clouds in which we thought we could recognize the outlines of animals and people.

In 1954 my family moved to Balboa Island where we had had a summer home since World War II – just steps from the water on Newport Harbor. It was an idyllic life. Many notable Hollywood actors, directors, and studio technical people lived on the island or on adjacent islands: Buddy Ebsen, John Wayne, Gene Kelly, Andy Devine, and Rock Hudson all had homes in our neighborhood.

We knew all our neighbors, and all of us kids went to the same schools. Nobody locked their doors. In fact, our house had a Dutch door, the top half of which was always open so that any of our friends could walk in and get a Coca Cola from the ice box.

I sailed and swam all summer, and my girlfriend Jo-Ann and I met our school friends at the Jolly Roger for hamburgers and Ice Cream Specials.

The drug store next door sold my favorite comic books, and I always had the latest number of Superman. It was a life that would never end for us – or so we thought.

I shiver in my jacket, and my stomach feels sick when I think about what I will face over the next two years. I feel the pangs of homesickness already, even though I am less than twenty miles from home. I awake with a start as the bus pulls up to the Induction Station on South Broadway. I didn’t remember having fallen asleep.

Vietnam War Christopher Gaynor with movie poster
Mike Attie (left), is the director/producer of the documentary film “In Country,” which explores the Vietnam War and later wars through the eyes of a group of Vietnam War re-enactors based near Salem, Oregon. Christopher Gaynor (right), was a consultant during post-production, marketing, and booking of this award-winning film – and arranged a special screening at the historic Vashon Island Theater.

These are the last moments of my civilian life. I don’t know it now, but this young version of Christopher will never come home. What and who I am now will be left behind in a distant war zone. I take a deep breath, clamber off the bus, and step into a new and terrifying world.

Sgt. Gaynor with his team at a field fire support base. He is leaning on his radio teletype rig and in the background is a M113 armored personnel carrier.

Flying Crane. A Sikorsky CH-54 drops a sling load of 105mm Howitzer ammo at a LZ for our field artillery Fire Support Base.

Mike Attie (left), is the director/producer of the documentary film “In Country,” which explores the Vietnam War and later wars through the eyes of a group of Vietnam War re-enactors based near Salem, Oregon. Christopher Gaynor (right), was a consultant during post-production, marketing, and booking of this award-winning film – and arranged a special screening at the historic Vashon Island Theater.

Click here for “Vietnam at Shutter Speed” – story about Christopher Gaynor and his photos.

Click here to see even more of Christopher Gaynor’s photos.

Click here to see another gallery of Christopher Gaynor’s photos.

 

Christopher GaynorChristopher Gaynor served in Vietnam in 1967-1968. His story and his Vietnam War photography have been featured in TIME, the Daily Mail, and other periodicals. He is an advocate for veterans, a past American Legion Commander and a VFW District Veteran of the Year.