Theodore's World: One Man’s Struggle with PTSD by Colonel Bob Pappas, USMC, Retired

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September 29, 2010

One Man’s Struggle with PTSD by Colonel Bob Pappas, USMC, Retired

One Man’s Struggle with PTSD

by Colonel Bob Pappas, USMC, Retired

What follows is a story akin to what anyone who served in combat; as a firefighter or policemen might have experienced.

Colonel Washington Sanchez, USA (Ret) is one of those exceptional human beings who when he sees a need or is called upon, steps forward without flinching. In a way Washington reminds me of Isaiah, albeit not in the same setting or context as the Prophet, when he wrote in Isaiah 6:8,

“Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here [am] I; send me.”

Although I don’t know it for a fact, I believe Washington’s entire life is marked by that characteristic; and, I can state authoritatively that it is true for the past fifteen years.

We became acquainted in the Regional Office of the Florida Department of Banking and Finance where he volunteered his service. Among other things, at my request, he shared insights with me on race and race relations about which I had lifelong interest but lacked the candid discussion to which Attorney General Eric Holder was referring in his infamous remarks that included,

“Though race-related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about things racial.”

Race was not on the horizon for me during my vocation as a U.S. Marine. During that era I gave no thought to skin color although I was sensitive to racial issues when they arose. My approach was to treat them as leadership and disciplinary issues rather than racial issues. (Aside: In my opinion too much is made of race and too little of leadership.) But after retirement, in the so called, “real world” I learned that race baiting and race were staples for politicians interested in acquiring and exercising power.

Washington was a Godsend when I was Regional Director of Banking and Finance. He illuminated my thinking and answered many questions. Suffice it to note that Colonels Sanchez and Pappas have been tested and forged as brothers in the finest sense of that word. In this essay I want to share a short vignette of this great American whom I am honored to know.

September 8, 2010 was as hot and humid a day as one might expect in Birmingham, Alabama. My friend Washington stood in the sweltering heat, (dressed in a coat and tie, sweat beading on his now fully gray head hidden underneath a Purple Heart Cap, and no doubt it was also running down the middle of his back), before a small group of family and friends 40 years to the day after Specialist 4th Class, James “Butch” Perkins was tragically killed during a North Vietnamese assault on his artillery battery in Vietnam. This day’s event had been long in coming.

That fateful day in 1970 Washington, along with everyone in the Battery except “Butch,” survived. After he completed that tour of duty he went to other military assignments that culminated in nearly 28 years of service, and promotion to the grade of Colonel before he retired. In the intervening years before retirement and since he shouldered the discomforting knowledge that he had not successful in preventing the loss of one of his soldiers, a man not that different than Washington, with similar dreams, hopes and aspirations. Like others who have experienced similar events Washington thought he had locked tight that compartment of his mind.

Oh, it wasn’t that he didn’t remember he did indeed, vividly! But he chose not to consciously dwell on it. Yet, despite his efforts to forget, life’s events would occasionally force the compartment open and he would relive the day, each time the memory of it as vivid as the event itself. All the while the same loss haunted, raised questions and inflicted grinding pain, doubt and unresolved agony on Butch’s family, brother, and wife owing to a lack of clear information about the circumstances of Butch’s death in what was definitely not a popular war and Washington was aware that they stood there in the shadows of his mind.

Now, at long last Washington and other members from Battery “A”, 3rd Battalion, 18th Field Artillery Regiment, Americal Division gathered with members of “Butch’s” family and their friends to conduct a memorial event dedicated to the memories of “Butch,” but as any psychologist knows, it was as much for the assembled group as it was for those memories of “Butch.”

Everyone in direct combat sees combat casualties and death; that is the inherent tragic nature of war. Washington’s first experience with it was in 1965 during his first tour in Vietnam. At the time he was a 2nd Lieutenant, Forward Artillery Observer assigned to an infantry cavalry unit. His first combat action was in the infamous Ia Drang Valley where he stopped two North Vietnamese Army bullets. Earlier he had seen his Company Commander take a round in forehead and watched as the Company Commander’s radio operator died from the shock of witnessing that event. Washington was evacuated and treated in a U.S. Hospital on the Island of Okinawa for months, and after recovering he returned to Vietnam to complete his one year tour there. This time he joined a unit that had a very experienced company commander. Among other things, the commander taught his unit defensive tactics and Washington never forgot them.

Vietnam era service was different that WWII and Korea. Then, one served for the duration, but in Vietnam some would have made a career of cycling in and out periodically to get a proverbial “X” in the appropriate career box. Then, as now in the Middle East if one remained beyond the initial reserve contract or was a regular, one would inevitably go back. So, after a few years of stateside duty Washington returned to Vietnam in1970 for the second time.

He had been a Captain for a while and shortly after arriving back in Vietnam was selected for promotion to Major. His was assigned to the Americal Division as a Division Artillery Assistant Operations Officer with the 3rd Battalion, 18th Field Artillery Regiment or “3/18 FA.” 3/18 FA consisted of a group of five batteries: Headquarters Battery responsible for command, operations, administration and Service Battery responsible for logistic support. There were three operational firing batteries designated “A,” “B,” and “C.” The firing batteries consisted of two 8 inch (that’s the diameter of the bore) howitzers and two 175 millimeter guns per battery. Additionally, some batteries had 105 millimeter howitzers, 81mm mortars, vehicle mounted quad four 50 caliber machine guns and 40 millimeter anti-aircraft guns as well as M-79 grenade launchers. The 105s were equipped with offensive rounds consisting of general purpose, high explosive incendiary and smoke as well as defensive flechette rounds. A flechette round is comprised of thousands of barbs and fired point blank for close-in defense. Mortars were used for both offensive and defensive operations. In the offensive mode mortar crews fire explosive or white phosphorous marking rounds and could do the same or fire rounds for nighttime illumination during defensive operations. Finally, everyone had a personal weapon, either an M-16 rifle or a .45 caliber pistol. One might say that a firing battery was “armed to the teeth.”

One morning the Battalion Executive Officer called Washington aside and told him that the Battalion Commander wanted him to take over one of the firing batteries. He flushed hot at the thought of himself as a selected Major being assigned to a battery, a Captain’s billet. He wanted to remain as Acting Operations Officer as a Captain in a Major’s billet rather than go the other direction. He winced hard at the thought but on the other hand if it was important enough for the Battalion Commander to pick him for the assignment, he quickly decided that it was important enough to salute and do the job. It didn’t take long before his new “home” was Battery “A” located at Landing Zone (LZ) Cindy. Battery “A” was the northernmost of three firing batteries in the Battalion that was arrayed north to south, some twenty miles apart and inland about twenty miles from the coast.

LZ Cindy was a part of a small complex of several military and Para-military installations located in and around the District Capital of Tra Bong. The village, albeit the District Capital was situated in a medium sized east west river valley. At this point the Song Tra Bong River ran due east and west. This geography made the river a nice “highway” for enemy movement from the mountains in the west ranging into Laos to the coastal lowlands along the South China Sea to the east. The river emptied into the South China Sea north of Quang Ngai City and south of the Marine Base at Chu Lai.

The Tra Bong area was pretty heavily defended by American and Army of the Republic of South Viet Nam (ARVN) forces. Battery “A” was right in the middle of it all, with a Green Beret base camp across a single lane dirt road to the east and a Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) Headquarters Group several hundred meters to the south bordering on a long prefabricated airstrip for twin engine Caribou aircraft that re-supplied the Battery. A handful of American soldiers occupied a hilltop to the immediate north (Searchlight Hill. It was called “Searchlight” because those soldiers could turn night into day with their high intensity searchlight.) on the opposite side of the Song Tra Bong River. This area, at least on paper, gave all the appearance of being heavily defended and by all accounts was, but events would soon prove that large numbers as in this case, meant little.

When he arrived at the Battery in February of 1970 his first impression was that there was a lot that needed to be done. Initial inspection revealed that the Battery was not well prepared to repel a ground attack; and it didn’t take long before he learned that “A” Battery also suffered from an acute lack of combat veterans. Most soldiers, numbering perhaps a hundred men were on their first tour and did not have much field experience. Although he was troubled by the overall lack of experience he reflected on the defensive lessons he had learned years earlier, then set about strengthening the Battery’s posture.

Given his earlier experiences, he came to Battery “A” with probably more combat experience and likewise he respected the enemy’s capabilities more than anyone else. Suddenly, he felt alone with the full weight of the military axiom “responsible for everything his unit did or failed to do” resting squarely on his shoulders. He also knew that secondary to the mission, he was responsible for safeguarding the lives of those approximately 100 men.

Winter, if you can call it that in Vietnam melted into spring and summer. Time passed quickly and the Battery settled into a routine of firing “H and I” that is, Harassing and Interdiction fire missions at night while devoting its days to improving the overall defensive posture.

With the arrival of summer came a changed mission and the course of the war. U.S. ground forces changed from offensive to defensive operations with the additional mission to support the ARVN. “Vietnamization,” not much different than contemporary efforts in Afghanistan, was the new word around the “campus.” Americans began what proved to be a disastrous move of turning the war over to the ARVN and he correctly sensed that the Tra Bong area might well be involved in an early test of the new strategy. In early September, 1970 the Green Beret unit across the one lane road to the east departed turning the concrete reinforced base camp over to an ARVN Border Ranger Battalion. If the new arrangement could be disrupted and/or set to flight it would be a significant demoralizing effect and a major setback for the Allies. North Vietnamese commanders were well aware of this and the fact that Tra Bong was a politically important District Capital undoubtedly added to its appeal as a target.

It wasn’t long before the North Vietnamese would put to test the new strategy in a dramatic way. On September 7th, 1970, Washington learned that the Battery’s defenses along the southwest corner of the firebase had been compromised. Blasting caps had been cut from claymores but the wires were replaced to give the illusion of being armed; and safety pins were inserted into trip flare mechanisms. It was excellent sabotage work on the part of North Vietnamese infiltrators, but fortunately, Washington and his men caught it, just in time. It concerned him greatly that they were so vulnerable on an entire sector of the firebase; and, he quickly surmised that they were going to be attacked. He did not have to wait long.

That afternoon working parties corrected the perimeter deficiencies and that evening he doubled the guard putting the Battery on alert. The North Vietnamese did not disappoint them because at 4 a.m. on September 8th, as the saying goes, “all hell broke loose.” The entire area exploded with rocket and mortar fire followed by a violent ground assault on the ARVN Ranger group, MACV group, and firebase Cindy. The ARVN Ranger Battalion was quickly overrun, its ammo dump blown and the entire reinforced concrete base camp destroyed beyond repair. MACV Headquarters was mortared for nearly half an hour then overrun and the District Chief and his family were killed. Meanwhile an infantry frontal assault was reported on the southwest corner of the firebase perimeter and enemy elements were also spotted along the northwestern perimeter. Things were in a word, “dicey.”

The Fire Direction Center (FDC) was the Battery’s nerve center. Radios and land line communication to the perimeter bunkers were centralized there. The radio was vital to the Battery’s ability to request support from Division. During an attack, in addition to designating a place for everyone to go, the defensive plan was to protect the Battery’s vital area. Consequently once an attack started the FDC was immediately locked down for the duration; no one was allowed in or out.

Specialist 4th Class James “Butch” Perkins returned from Hawaii R&R on September 7th coming in on one of the Caribou resupply aircraft. As shift leader he immediately went back to work with his shift ending around two a.m. on September 8th. It was a common practice to hang around to discuss events, and at that hour when things were generally quiet to “shoot the bull.” “Butch” eventually left the FDC returning to his bunker to get some sleep and shortly thereafter the attack came. In the first few minutes while the situation was still confused and developing, “Butch” evidently decided to return to the FDC where in the darkness he was mistaken for an enemy combatant and was shot at the FDC entrance. Despite extensive efforts to save his life “Butch” died that morning of his wounds. Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, the same shot that killed “Butch” inflicted a lasting psychological wound on Washington; he kept it to himself.

The attack by elements of the 406th NVA Sapper Battalion was intense and after it was over Washington surveyed the damage finding that the Battery was struck by more than 100 mortar rounds and hit by extensive heavy automatic weapons fire. Fortunately, the Battery was ready and his efforts to improve Battery defenses proved invaluable in minimizing damage. When compared to nearby forces the Battery suffered the least, took a prisoner and found evidence that the friendlies had inflicted numerous NVA casualties that had been drug away. The perimeter remained secure and although there was NVA blood all over the place, no American soldiers were wounded, and there were no other fatalities, as the news would report might summarize, “there was just one soldier killed in the action.” That “just one soldier” was “Butch” Perkins who was so tragically mistaken for the enemy.

Most would think they were fortunate since the Battery survived such a violent attack and got off so relatively light. However, for Washington there was no joy or feeling of elation, only remorse and sadness because he lost a good soldier. “Butch’s” death was a tragedy that has bothered him ever since. “Butch” returned home in a flag draped coffin to a grieving family and widow while he went on to a full and successful Army career, serving in Europe and the U.S., and never looked back or gave a second thought to Viet Nam, except! Except when something would trigger it, to that fateful night when a great American soldier lost his life. When it happened, Washington would flush hot, twisting to escape the unseen enemy until he could force the event back and out of sight in the dark recesses of his mind.

The South Vietnamese fought a good fight until the Congress cut funding in 1975 and the end for that beleaguered, free people came quickly. The rest is history, but that didn’t change the physical and psychological scars inflicted on Washington who retired as a Colonel with almost 28 years of service in the early 1990s.

Despite what might have appeared as a normal and happy life, the layers of protection that he had so carefully applied against the shock and pain of loss began to involuntarily peel back. In quiet moments he would reflect on his life in the Army and would turn over in his mind what he might have done differently to achieve a better outcome for everyone…especially for “Butch” Perkins. At the time he thought he had covered all the possibilities, but not so, one had slipped, he had failed and it never let him rest.

He wasn’t even conscious of his effort to keep it bottled up but buried it with a variety of activities. One of them was becoming involved with a real estate investment group; another was as a volunteer at the Regional Office of Banking and Finance (which is where we met) and to focus on his now widely separated family.

Washington and I became close friends through our work. Among other things, we were asked to participate in a Statewide Task Force whose charter was to study and recommend legislation that would address the issue of Abandoned and Neglected Cemeteries statewide. It was a successful effort. Not long after that project was complete I was asked to temporarily head up one of Florida’s if not the nation’s, most challenging Districts involving Children and Families. I asked Washington if he would go along and he did. Although he never spoke about it, in retrospect I have no doubt he did so in large part to keep the “guilt and pain” genie in the bottle. Eventually though it would emerge to consume his marriage and separate his family.

One might think that Washington would become a broken man, brought down by an insidious enemy that attacked from within the confines of his mind. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or “PTSD,” manifests its effects in as many different ways as there are people afflicted by it. He suffered much over the years, yet Washington managed with steadfast determination and dignity, finding ways to overcome. He chose to expend himself extensively in the service and interest of others rather than escape through alcohol, narcotics or collapse into extended depression and withdrawal. Now, years later, he is remarried and has managed to live an exemplary life, providing an excellent example of how to deal with his own pain and help alleviate the stress and pain suffered by others.

The Memorial event in Birmingham on September 8th went far to heal Washington and other troubled lives and to fill in missing information for the family. Washington at long last was able to directly confront and deal with the “demon” that had been closeted in the deepest recesses of his mind. His excitement and expressions of relief incident to working on and conducting the Memorial Event have gone a long way in healing those psychological wounds that have been festering for forty years. Washington’s struggle was unique and personal; he has overcome much although there remains much progress to be made.

The good news is that the Veterans Administration has established PTSD treatment programs and help for Veterans suffering from the unseen PTSD enemy. Wittingly or otherwise Washington did on his own what others have not been able to do. If one needs help it is available and those needing it should go to the following website, for acute cases contact the VA at 1-800-273-8255 or seek help through the nearest VA Vet Center Counselor.

Semper Fidelis


Wild Thing's comment.........

Thank you Col. Pappas.

....Thank you Mark for sending this to me.

3rd Mar.Div. 1st Battalion 9th Marine Regiment
1/9 Marines aka The Walking Dead
VN 66-67

Posted by Wild Thing at September 29, 2010 03:48 AM