Vietnam Veteran Ernie D’Leon lived with Post-Traumatic Stress for 25 years before a friend and fellow Veteran recognized Ernie’s suffering and encouraged him to get the help he needed to come back stronger. Across generations, we can learn much about PTSD from our Vietnam Vets. While the AO is different, these experiences ring true from Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan and beyond. We are so honored to highlight our Vietnam warriors this month and give them thanks from a grateful nation.
The Silver Bullet
by Ernie D’Leon
For 25 years, I lived with all of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress. I fought in Vietnam in the year 1968, but rarely, if ever, did I speak of the war. All of those memories had been compartmentalized and neatly boxed up into a safe little area, in the back of my mind.
When I came home from Vietnam, at the age of 22, I went back to college. It wasn’t easy, it was difficult to concentrate. My mind would constantly wander back into the war zone. It took me longer than most, but I finally graduated and I began to move forward in my chosen profession. I tried hard to fit back into society. I married, bought a home and had three children. The stresses that came along with that were normal for most; but at times seemed insurmountable to me. Stress aggravates PTS and my symptoms of anger and depression became chronic. I began to over react to everything that occurred in my life. I had night sweats and I thought that was normal, but nothing about me was normal anymore. Combat had changed me and the changes were dramatic.
As the years progressed, so did the memories. The façade that I had created long ago began to deteriorate. The recollections that I harbored of the war were breaking through the barriers and entering into my everyday thoughts.
I began to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. I was trying to sleep, I was trying to forget, but nothing helped.
It was difficult for me to relate to people, the war had made me different and I knew it and much worse, I felt it. Problems began to arise in my marriage and career. My life was spiraling out of control and the world I lived in now, began to collapse. Eventually, I lost my job and then my family.
I faced each day with a sense of dread and despair. The dimly lit essence that had flickered in my soul, was surrendering to the complexities of life.
The same recurring nightmares haunted me. I began to isolate. I knew that I was exhibiting abnormal behavior, but I couldn’t stop myself. The flashbacks of the war became more frequent and like a pack of hungry wolves stalking its prey, they soon began to follow me through the day. The physical wounds I received in battle had healed, but the emotional scarring continued to fester. It felt as if the flame that drove my spirit was slowly being extinguished and I began to get desperate.
My life became painful and I had fleeting thoughts of ending it all, but I was unwilling to surrender. I was a combat warrior. I had succeeded in performing the most dangerous job in the world and now I wanted desperately to come home. I wanted to belong.
I needed help, though I believed that no one, save another combat veteran, could understand my pain. I went to visit my friend Curtis, a former Navy Seal. We were in Vietnam in the same year. I wasn’t a Seal, I was Army Recon, but we were brothers-in-arms and he understood. He knew I was suffering greatly and that I was struggling with all of the symptoms of PTS. Curtis had also been wounded in the war and was already in therapy for post-traumatic stress. He advised me to do the same. With ominous feelings of guilt and shame I began therapy at the Vet Center in my area.
I was always reluctant to talk about my life. My behavior hadn’t been exemplary as a civilian and I wouldn’t talk about Vietnam. I didn’t want to be judged by someone who hadn’t been there. Instead, I blamed my depression and anger on everything and everyone around me.
Then one day, I spoke about my recurring flashback, an ambush, a firefight that took the lives of the two men on either side of me. I remembered listening to the screams for medic as I stood there unscathed. I had been in firefights before, but nothing this terrifying.
I remembered diving into the thick jungle carpet and firing my machine gun non-stop. The explosive outbursts of hand grenades and rockets jarred my body. My bones ached with the force of each impact. I could feel the heat of the enemy’s barrage of bullets as the projectiles danced around me. The sweet smell of spent gunpowder permeated the jungles lush, impassable surroundings. The crackling of the bullets whizzing past was bizarre and unnatural, like the noise a horse fly would make, if it traveled at the speed of sound. I heard the order to regroup and move out of the kill zone. In my haste, I grabbed the barrel of my machine gun. It was nearly white hot from the firing, but I couldn’t drop the weapon. As I spoke to my therapist, I again felt the searing in my hand go all the way up my arm and then I began to cry. I couldn’t understand why I had made it home alive, when so many of my brothers did not.
“They were all great warriors”, I told my therapist.
“Then honor their greatness,” she said. Be the best that you can be, the best father, the best son, the best friend. You need to fire one more bullet”.
“What‘s that,” I asked?
“A silver bullet, forgiveness, you need to forgive yourself,” she said. “You made it home alive; you survived the war and its ok, its ok.
So, I fired one last shot,” the silver bullet” and I began to understand.
These feelings I have, this abnormal behavior is all the product of serving my country honorably. I was acting normal, for having gone through very abnormal circumstances. War takes no prisoners, not even the survivors escape the aftermath. The things I saw in the war zone were horrendous and I was punishing myself for having survived it all. I know these memories will haunt me forever, but I felt now I had some choices. I couldn’t save anyone then, but I could save myself now.
When I left my therapist’s office, I felt as if a tremendous weight had been lifted from my heart. Something had ended or maybe just begun. It was an amazing feeling, both uplifting and calming at the same time. It was like the end of a storm, when the rain stops and the heavens open to sunshine and blue skies. It was an emotional breakthrough. I walked outside, closed my eyes and I literally felt the warmth of my spirit ignite. I looked up at the heavens and acknowledged my fallen brethren with a loving smile. I felt alive for the first time in many years and I knew that my life had changed. I had forgiven myself for surviving, and it was okay.
Ernie D’Leon: I was a reconnaissance scout with the 7/17 Air Cav. I was wounded in action in April 1968 and awarded the purple heart. After 17 years of individual therapy and 6 years of group therapy, I have a much better understanding of PTSD. I now volunteer at the VA hospital in La Jolla, CA with a group called ACVOW (American Combat Veterans of War). We are peer-to-peer mentors and help the new warriors through the transition after the war zone.