I Survived the Vietnam War
PTSD can affect the entire family
By Julia Tidwell Melvin
My family moved around a lot when I was young. But no matter where we were, the Vietnam War followed us. The pounding of the washing machine, a helicopter flying overhead, or a song on the radio became a time machine, transporting my dad back into the war, to a place where he couldn’t see me sitting beside him. And there we were, fighting side by side, only I couldn’t see the “enemy.” But I felt its presence all around.
My dad suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), brought on by the violence he had witnessed as a combat soldier in the U.S. Army. Many nights I would wake up to the sounds of his screams from the awful nightmares he endured. Many days were spent afraid of what would happen next. Once he had a flashback in the car because I played a Doors tape on the stereo. Suddenly, he saw bullet holes in the top of an Army jeep, and dead friends beside him, not the twelve-year old girl sitting next to him, screaming for him to wake up.
Every few months, he would go the Veterans Administration (VA) hospital to get a new medication. Nothing seemed to help. Sometimes he would stay in the hospital for a month or two because he had threatened a doctor, or couldn’t control his outbursts. Once, he was committed to a state mental institution because, thinking he was under enemy attack, he had assaulted a fisherman who had spoken to him in Vietnamese (or at least he said the man was speaking Vietnamese). My mother told me she had to lock us inside the house once when I was an infant because my dad was lurking around in the bushes outside, thinking he was about to ambush an enemy camp. I had become used to these kinds of stories. We even found humor in them sometimes.
I spent most of my childhood resenting my father for his condition. I knew other kids whose dads had fought in the war and were not as “crazy” as mine. I thought he was just exaggerating the problem or trying to get attention. I thought he was weak.Men shouldn’t cry every night or accept donations from churches. I knew other fathers worked for a living, but my dad couldn’t hold down a job. Sometimes we didn’t have enough food, and the water was shut off for a while.
We “made do” by driving to the nearest gas station and filling up buckets with a water hose while I hid in the back seat of the car, afraid a classmate might see me there. I wore second-hand clothes, and the kids at school made fun of me. I certainly couldn’t invite any potential friends over without worrying what might happen at our house. I blamed my father for everything.
If he could just get a grip on reality, he could provide for his family. After all, he had many friends who had been in the war, even lost their limbs, and they seemed otherwise “normal.” He had sustained no physical injuries, so why was he so different?
Then one day, when I was about sixteen, he told me about one of his many experiences in the war. He had been given orders to throw grenades into some bunkers, checking to make sure the occupants were dead afterward. He followed orders, and as he looked inside one of the bombed bunkers, he found many dead children inside.
I realized that he had seen more than I could ever understand. He had taken many lives in the war, some who were innocent victims.
Then I remembered the day a bird had flown into the grille of my dad’s truck. He cried as he dug a hole and lovingly placed the bird into the ground. He often said he was going hunting, but instead just scattered deer corn around and hid behind trees so he could watch the peaceful animals eat.
I looked at a portrait of him, at age seventeen, in his pressed uniform, eyes filled with the pride of serving his country. I knew then that he was one of the innocents – a victim himself. A part of him had died along with those children that day. He was not a weak man, but an incredibly strong one. He had survived, despite years of being surrounded by pain and death, but he was mentally ill.
And somewhere in the world, there were many others who faced the same debilitating condition.
Our relationship began to improve over the next few years, and he was finally declared 100 percent mentally disabled by the VA. He received a check for over a hundred thousand dollars, and a monthly pension of over two thousand dollars. It seemed things would finally be better for my dad. He would still have to deal with the flashbacks and nightmares, but at least he would no longer have to worry about how he would pay the water bill. Unfortunately, two years after the long battle he had won with the government, he was told he had terminal liver cancer, with only a few months left to live.
We spent the next few months talking and fishing, always throwing the fish back in the pond. He made the most of the rest of his time, saying he was lucky he hadn’t died in Vietnam like so many other young men he knew. For the first time since he came home from the war, he stopped having flashbacks and nightmares. He finally seemed at peace, knowing his long “tour of duty” was almost finished. At the age of forty-nine, he was gone. The war was finally over, for both of us.
Julia Tidwell Melvin is the daughter of a Vietnam veteran. She has a Masters degree in Art and Technology, and currently lives in the UK. She enjoys writing, photography, and design, along with other artistic interests.