The Hero’s Journey – by Carl Hitchens

This Veterans’ PTSD Project Story comes from Carl Hitchens, a Vietnam Combat Veteran. Our Vietnam Vets have incredible perspective on Post-Traumatic Stress. PTSD was not a diagnosis until the 1980s, and many Vets from this era lived with undiagnosed PTSD for decades. They have first-hand experience of life with PTSD – and can speak to  the miraculous change in their lives once they sought the help they needed. Carl Hitchens truly came back stronger once he was diagnosed; his resilience is an inspiration to Veterans of all generations, and especially his fellow Marines. -Virginia

The Hero’s Journey – by Carl Hitchens

Since my childhood, I heard the cultural hero tales that every nation passes on to generations. I wanted to reach the highest human potential and join forces with World War II legend Lt. General Lewis “Chesty” Puller, the most decorated U.S. Marine in history. My idealism ripened as I pushed through my childhood rites of passage to that inevitable, act of daring – in November 1967, I joined the United States Marine Corps and headed to Boot Camp. Five months and two weeks later, I entered the crucible of the Vietnam War.

I am on the other side of that war now, forty-two years later, and through the benefit of a stubborn nature, a Marine Corps never-give-up attitude, and a late-coming Post-Traumatic Stress diagnosis and counseling, I can say that life for me is much sweeter, much fuller. There is a completeness to it, a sense of integration between my war and after war selves that was sorely missing.

Chesty and I went up against General Vo Nguyen Giap, Commander of the People’s Army of Vietnam. Battle joined, it was a combat mind that got me and my brothers in arms through each day and each month. Hyper-vigilance, hyper-sensorimotor response, and hyper-suspicion gave us the ability to anticipate danger and stay alive. The adrenaline-rushed instincts of this combat mind were necessary for our survival. When we returned home, however, a different norm existed; one taken for granted by those unconditioned like us to instant chaos and death.

War is always, ultimately, personal. The finality of premeditated killing strips away any casualness from war. It is serious business with serious consequences, the ramifications of which are borne by the individual Warrior. This prolonged exposure to stressful events took its toll. Like a physical wound or injury traumatizing the body, my emotions and mind were repeatedly shocked in war’s literal reality.

Once I returned from war in Quang Nam Province, confusion about any good I had done for myself or my country obscured my quest for human potential. My dream to elevate the human condition got lost in the details of war and was eventually replaced by ambivalence over my plunge into mortal combat.  Simple things like a car backfire, an overhead helicopter, the click-clacking of a child’s toy meant something entirely different to my senses: booby trap, medivac, gunship, AK fire is what went off in my mind. Quick movement of any kind, unidentified sounds and noises; crowds – spontaneous, excitable, unpredictable – were threats.

My stateside duty felt like a joke, compared to the real thing. Civilian life felt more akin to life imitating art than reality; all the rhetorical yakking, signifying assent or dissent to the war, was based on populace ideas and not reality.

GI educational benefits seemed like a good idea, until I got in school and had to contend with students my age that hadn’t seen anything of life, but “knew” everything – especially about the war and our innate bloodthirstiness. Other population groups were no better; they somehow knew, from journalistic reports and the rumor mill, everything about Vietnam. I might as well have been a door for their opening and closing arguments.

Then there was the working thing. I went through jobs with the same casual manner as shopping in a department store, merely going through the motions of wanting a career, of living in a nice neighborhood, of retiring one day and going fishing. When in reality, I wanted… Well, that’s just it. I didn’t know – aside from wanting some clue on how to fit in the accepted norm. I saw the unending pursuits requiring hard work, academic degrees, and meaningful relationships all ending the same way: aging, decrepitude, and death. Relative satisfaction in acquiring things, fortune or fame, felt empty. Compared to Vietnam, it all seemed dull and pointless; just some mediocre substitute for true contentment, whatever that was.

Still, connecting with others in some way appeared to be a human instinct. So I married around three years into civilian life, into an already-made family. I guess I was still used to being part of a “squad.” Marriage turned out to be a two-edged sword; I had no time to focus on my own issues, but didn’t know I had issues. Weren’t people just as mindless and stupid as I thought? This incompatibility led to divorce after an eight-year run. Tried again, different situation, same result – that’s when I decided companionship was overrated.

Serial unemployment, poverty, social isolation, and substandard living was my norm for several years, even when married (the marriages themselves were characterized by periodic separations). Maintaining distance seemed like a better solution than trying to mix it up with others and having the same unsatisfactory results. On weighing the dubious benefits of typical, upward mobility career options, resulting in forced association with colleagues and bosses who I had nothing in common with, I chose, for the most part, to rotate every few years to different employment. I was the perpetual short-timer, you might say.

Then destiny intervened in September 2004. While doing research on the 7th Marines, I stumbled on a website devoted to the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, my unit in Nam. In the roll call section of the site, I ran across an e-mail address containing both a machine gunner’s nickname in my old company and Hill 55. This particular gunner and I were in Alpha Company together and had run patrols off of Hill 55.

I e-mailed “Rican” and he e-mailed me back. It felt like things had come full circle; this was my first contact with anyone in my unit since I had left the war. Rican (Orlando Ramirez, that is) got me in contact with my old squad leader, Elmer Sangster, who lived north of me in Tuba City, Arizona.

Both Sangster and Ramirez, independently of each other, diplomatically suggested that my life description fitted PTSD symptoms to a tee. Naturally, I thought they were mistaken, but I knew they were well-meaning and concerned for me. They pointed out that my penchant for staying off trail, anticipating enemy contact, and locating cover were classic symptoms of PTSD. It was my combat mind, still on patrol, reaching into post-combat life.

I didn’t buy it, though. My life was disciplined, minimal by choice, and emotionally restrained for when the other shoe (jungle boot) dropped. Incoming rounds were inevitable, and the poor saps that didn’t get that were fools. Still, after all these years on patrol, I was exhausted, disillusioned, and damned depressed; living out a life of “quiet desperation” – too stubborn to quit and too tired to be hopeful.

But it seemed that my Alpha Company past had slyly maneuvered me into checking out this whole Post-Traumatic Stress deal. If nothing else, investigating this matter would at least put the idea to rest. I tentatively agreed to follow up on Sangster’s e-mail introduction to Carlena Hart, a PTSD counselor at the VA Northern Arizona Regional Medical Center in Prescott, AZ, where I live. Thirty-five years after Vietnam, I made an appointment to see Carlena and opened the door for the very first time to learning about PTSD.

Carlena asked me why I was there to see her; I floated the idea that I was indulging my Alpha Company buddies. During our conversation, she asked me to read a list of PTSD symptoms to see how many applied to me. Just about all of them did. Carlena said that, if I wanted help, I could start counseling.  Curious, I agreed, even if only to debunk the idea. By doing so, I had “tricked” myself into letting the cat out of the bag – a cat that I didn’t even know was there. Ultimately, I was diagnosed with PTSD and this changed my life for the better.

Eventually, I got up the courage to consider getting into a group counseling situation at the local Prescott Vet Center, and this was the start of my journey to fully recover the part of myself lost in Vietnam. Ken Hall, the director of the Vet Center, conducted some initial one-on-one counseling to get a sense of whether group counseling would benefit me and what group might be a good fit. Ken found a place for me in an appropriate group.

I ended up in a small, intimate group of Vietnam combat Marines and Soldiers. It was a good fit and I got a lot out of meeting with Veterans of my own era. Through these group sessions, I found acknowledgment, support, fellowship, and a reference point for where I had come from and where I was going on this Hero’s Journey. I found a place within myself for that idealistic, young Marine who went to war to make the world a better place, but got disillusioned and self-abandoned along the way.

I now fully occupy myself – the dream of who I wanted to be and the reality of who I have become; they’re not far apart at all. Family, friends, and complete strangers get the whole me now.

Thanks to PTSD counseling, I’m now better (not perfect) at coping with the ebb and flow of society and family life. I’ve become aware of those personal triggers that bring up anger and feelings of alienation, and of how to mentally shift from strongly conditioned reactions to reason-based responses. I KNOW there is a solid place for me within life – a place that is not lonely, painful, devoid of happiness or purpose.

By applying what I’ve learned through readjustment strategies, I have adapted Marine self-discipline that once served me appropriately in war, to serve me appropriately after war. Nothing weak about that: Once a Marine, always a Marine.

Just a little over a year ago, I married a wonderful lady, have left my sub-standard lifestyle and living situation, and became a first-time homeowner. We enjoy a compatible, mutually supportive relationship. Oo-rah!

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Carl Hitchens is a Vietnam Combat Veteran who served with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division: (Republic of Vietnam) April 1968 – May 1969.  Mr. Hitchens was born in Washington, D.C., and is the author of Sitting with Warrior, a historical-mythical journey of war and redemption. He currently resides in Prescott, Arizona.