Interviewed Febuary 11, 1988
Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.
War in Vietnam - Adjustment problems on return home.
I came home from Vietnam to a rocky adjustment that led to
prison. By talking about and learning to understand the problems
I share with many who served in Vietnam, I'm confident my prison
sentence is an experience I will not have to repeat.
A heightened consiousness by Vietnam veterans in prison led in 1978 to the founding of American Veterans in Prison by Staff Sgt. Robert Lee at Walpole. Today, the organization is part of Vietnam Veterans of America, formed in 1983.
A lot of us survived our combat experiences in one way, but not another way. We were fighting to stop communism; the war wasn't wrong. One of the proudest moments for many of us was serving our country. But the war created problems in people's lives that caused some to end up here.
At age 18, I married my high school sweetheart in Holyoke and worked as a truck driver. Like many of my friends, I felt it was my duty to enlist. The Navy turned me down because of high blood pressure, but I was drafted by the Army, and at the age of 20 was on a bus to Fort Dix, N.J., for basic training.
So many of us were unprepared for the experience of Vietnam. Soon after arriving I faced combat. I felt my heart pound and blood pump fast, my senses geared to survival. Nobody really handles what happens in wartime well. It is never easy to adapt to your friends dying.
As part of the 196th American Division, Light Infantry, I was a point man and lead man for the rest of the platoon on patrol in the Quang Tri Valley. There I observed and made initial contact with the enemy, looked for booby traps and relayed information back. It was Kit Carson scouting among peasants who could work in the fields by day and for the Vietcong at night.
When the Tet offensive busted loose, there wasn't much breathing space to come down. We were on an emotional roller- coaster everyday. You could die at any given moment. We dealt with rage and anger, trying to pay back a fellow soldier's loss. There was no time to question your motives and moves, no time to think. There are always innocent victims involved in any attack.
I was wounded in the leg by shrapnel and spent seven months at several hospitals, including a stay at Ft. Devens, where I received skin grafts. I returned to the States decorated with the Purple Heart for being wounded in action and the Bronze Star for action 'above and beyond the call of duty.' But I came home still feeling on the edge, and feeling anxious. I felt an outcast to society. We didn't have the counseling services then; some coped and some didn't.
I tried to resume my life and in 1971 returned to my former job, but felt I no longer fit into society. I had come from a close-knit family that included three sisters, but now I withdrew from social gatherings and became an outsider to family events.
My marriage failed. I wanted to be alone. Before I went to Vietnam I fit right in. Now I felt empty, that I was missing something. I couldn't tell what was wrong with me, just that I didn't belong.
I reacted to a loud noise as if it were a gunshot and in a crowd made sure there was an avenue of escape. And I pursued the risks experienced in war in other ways, through drink and the drugs easily available in the "hippie" era.
Like many other veterans of Vietnam, I never talked about the war. I didn't think anybody cared. It was a blemished war. Society didn't know how to deal with Vietnam.
Though I remarried and became a father, my life failed to stabilize, and drug dependancy led to robbery and arrest. A friend turned me in.
In prison I received the counseling I so needed but formerly distrusted and met other veterans with similar problems. In 1984, I joined American Veterans in Prison and I'm president of the chapter at the prison farm. Others, I learned from experts, shared what was termed "post traumatic stress disorder."
My own tormented silence was broken as I recognized there are those for whom the war created problems. With support areas such as the Vietnam Veterans Center in Lowell and the Northampton Veterans Administration, I feel I can make it when my prison term ends within two years.
The rehabilitation efforts of the penal system have worked for me. Rehabilitation, isn't that what prison is for?