Postscript To Tour of Duty In Vietnam
I suppose if there is any time to free associate this would be the occasion. How else would one capture the last 50 years of survivor experience?
50 years after the war, the whisper voice says. My God that sounds like our grandfathers speaking. Oh yeah, I am one! And soon to be a great grandfather by way of our corpsman grandson Devin and wife Nydia.
That is the best segway to trying to capture what life has been like since the war. Family and friends and an unconditionally loving good wife have been the ticket to sanity. Yes, miraculously I have only been married once! And blessed with 3 children who all showed compassion for their fathers stint in the Marine Corps and the residual effects of war. They have volunteered for veterans events of all strands, both ceremonial and social since their early teens. My wife, Lydia has also been engaged in veteran advocacy over the years by supporting our involvement in fraternal organizations, eg, Marine Corps League, Vietnam Veterans of America, Point Man Ministries. VFW and American Legion. She also was one of the managers of a website for wives called, “Living With PTSD Vietnam Wives,” that at one time was in the top ten veteran websites. I was trained as a Veteran Service Officer by both the VVA and American Legion, and then course work through the San Bernardino Veterans Affairs. Lots of phone work, lots! And lots of home visits. That is where a supportive spouse is tantamount to peace in the home.
But now let me get real. It has been a long journey home with many speed bumps and psychic pot holes along the trail. I like to quote my Marine pal Pete Bourret the award winning author of Physics of War. “PTSD is shrapnel through time.”
Like many, the search for a vocation that fit did not come easy. The GI Bill helped in the exploratory world. First a major in philosophy and religious studies. Then a formation program with the Franciscan Order. Then Nursing school with work on a mental health unit and suicide prevention team. And then a total career switch to commercial property management—oddly all of them somewhat pastoral at the core. It was in property management where I became a workaholic and the proverbial “wounded healer.” That meant too many happy hours—all to be helpful ya know!
I had a number of office buildings and shopping centers under management and just kept moving all the time. A fellow veteran shared with me one day a rather poignant metaphor, “you were always fine Mike, moving from village to village, office to office like being on patrol and taking care of the, “villagers-tenants.”
Soon thereafter the numbed out amygdala and memories of war stored in the bird brain basement surfaced with constant intrusive thoughts and some crummy nightmares. My wife informed me that I would stab my pillow at night. Fortunately never her.
As a long time soccer coach, both youth and high school, I was always fond the phrase , “feedback is the breakfast of champions.” I was getting a ton of feedback about my mood shifts and unsolicited anger. I took my own medicine and sought help at the Tucson Vet Center and a 19 day PTSD program at the Tucson VA. That was the proverbial paradigm shift that has been the fuel for a life of service to returning veterans for the last 18 years. Addressing the latent and stagnant post traumatic stress that flowed like a river beneath all conscious life has been the catalyst and cord connecting most all my activity and behavior since that day forward. From the first Vietnam Veteran support group at the University of Arizona in 1971 to the current retreat circuit for returning veterans at the Merritt Center in Payson Arizona to the Elder Warrior Program at the Franciscan Center in San Juan Batista. California, I have found purpose and meaning. And ironically all as result of war. There is light at the end of the tunnel, without bullets.
“Excellence is the result of caring more than others think is wise, risking more than others think is safe, dreaming more than others think is practical.” Anonymous
A Funeral for Remembrance:
Or So it Seems
Michael Patrick Brewer USMC
Mortar Platoon Squad Leader
1st Battalion 7th Marines,
1st Marine Air Wing/MAG16
Vietnam 1968 – 1969
How, for God’s sake, will I ever be able to write about one of the most defining experiences of my tour in Vietnam when I have been diagnosed with neurogenic amnesia from a combat related head injury? By trying, so here goes…
Near the very beginning of my tour of duty in 1968 with the 7th Marines on Hill 10 in Quang Nam Province in the Republic of Vietnam, in an area known as Dodge City and Arizona Territory, I was assigned to stand watch over an NVA woman who was a prisoner of war captured that sweltering hot jungle day when Marines were on patrol.
The assignment seemed simple and was clearly relegated to the FNG, (f- -king new guy). It is evident that someone needed to watch a POW or they may flee. Why me? There was no training for this duty. No Military Occupational Skill. This woman was neither restrained nor placed in any quarters. It was just me and her glaring at one another. Two humans with eyes of sadness dedicated to killing one another.
So, here I am trained to be submerged in the Vietnam War as a lean, mean killing machine, and I am sitting on a wire milk crate gazing into the deep, dark brown dilated eyes of a squatting woman who is the prettiest woman I have ever seen. Ivory skin, high cheek bones, long shiny black hair. She offers me a small book of her poetry. There is no one watching me watch her. I am alone, and there are no Marines in sight at the front gate of Hill 10. I have no specific instructions for this task and I am becoming mesmerized by the gaze of this woman, even a bit disoriented as it was my 3rd week in-country. Marine Boot Camp training kicked in, not sure how long it took, but the blustery voice of my drill sergeant seized the moment. “Do not ever engage or involve yourself with a Vietnamese woman as you will not know whose side they may be on. They have razor blades in their vagina. And never accept a cold coke as it will have ground glass in the bottom.” I instantly snapped out of my mini fugue state—that I now know this highly trained NVA soldier was skilled at creating. This woman is here to kill me, says my newly combat indoctrinated brain. It was on that day I entered the real war and became numb to all polite society and the inner altar boy.
After 35 years of seeing this woman’s face in my dreams, I addressed the boogie man in a PTSD 19-day educational program at the Tucson VA Hospital on December 3rd, 2001. It was the same date that I entered the Marine Corps in 1967 and the same date in 1968 that I was sent out on Operation Meade River—the largest helicopter assault in the history of the war. I was a mortarman, and somewhere, somehow, I would incur a concussion from incoming enemy mortar rounds. I am told that I was unconscious for an indefinite period of time with white puss oozing from my ears.
Other than periodic evening nightmares of being glued up against a mortar pit, alone, like a human sandbag, clasping at my rosary, while listening to enemy rounds being stair-stepped in on my position, and then silence, I recall nothing from December 3rd 1968 to March 10th, 1969.
I was then transferred to the 1st Marine Air Wing/MAG16 for military police and perimeter security duty. Poof gone—a memory that was suddenly KIA.
My hope was that the 19-day PTSD program would help retrieve that lost ark of my tour. The VA Neuro-Psychology doctors informed me that, “there is no index card to be placed in your filing cabinet. There is no meme, so do not try to retrieve it.” So the un-bidded, un-announced amnesia subsumed the place of my Self for those 90 days.
That cloud of unknowing lingered for three decades accompanied by a confused, quizzical, unfocused, and obsessive state of mind to the point of wondering if it ever happened. I had often wondered if Rod Serling wrote my life script. There is a reason I have always been fond of a phrase that Tim O’Brien, the award winning author of, “The Things They Carried,” would tag on the end of his combat narrative. He would say, “or so it seems.”
This is what is meant by parallel lives for veterans of war. Way down there in that poor little amygdale; deep in our bird brain bank of war; live experiences that may well be locked away for life. When a veteran says, “I can’t talk about it,” there is a possibility that there is a neuro-physiological component to that oft-heard comment. They cannot speak of it because the conscious mind cannot access it. We have come a long way in this arena and it is now well known to be a symptom of TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury)—a signature wound of our past 16 years or war.
I learned decades later at a Battalion Marine Reunion that many of those POW’s (such as the one I was guarding) were assassinated following their interrogation in the rear. “That’s war,” says an Old Breed Marine, “those RVN and Korean Marine Interrogators were not given copies of the Geneva Accords.” The residual altar boy in me says, good thing we are a moral nation, and do not do anything like that. But then we never stopped it either; it’s called culpability.
Fast forward to another one of our Marine Reunions for 1st Battalion 7th Marines and I am kibitzing in the lobby bar of a Washington DC hotel. Many attendees are gathered and I am sharing the experience of my POW-watch-duty, when a former S-2 Intelligence Officer overhears me and chimes in. “Was that you Brewer who was guarding that woman?”
“Yes sir”, I crisply answered…with a tag, “I was scared shitless that day when the starkness and sullen truth of war hit me like a sucker punch. I was thinking this woman is here to kill me, and there is no one around to watch.”
The officer says, “Job well done Marine! Did you know that she was one of the biggest catches of the war? She had letters of commendation on her from Ho Chi Minh praising her for all of the Marines she’d dusted.”
It was this experience that initiated me to the induced emotional numbness that had a 40-year half life.
“Man’s problems are puny bantams, small and irrelevant, when viewed against a force of nature, or against a world at war.” Ron Capps, author of “Writing War”. Ironically, without forethought, and mostly resulting from the procrastination that is inherent in writing about war, this is being completed on December 3rd, 2017, 49 years after my memory was KIA.
Michael Patrick Brewer was in 1st Battalion 7th Marines in Quang Nam Province on Hill 10 south of Da Nang in 1968-69. He was raised in Dixon, Illinois and moved to Tucson, Arizona in 1959. He attended Nursing School at University of Arizona on the GI Bill and later majored in Philosophy and Religious Studies with a Bachelor of Science in Business/Sports Management. He was a B Licensed Soccer Coach for 24 years, and part owner and manager of Tucson Amigos USL Soccer Franchise. He was a blogger with Tucson Citizen, a Gannett owned paper/Veteran Veritas which is currently DesertNewsPost.com. Michael is the past State Coordinator for Point Man Ministries of Arizona, and a retired commercial property manager and private investigator. He is a past Commandant of Apple Valley Marine Corps League and currently their Chaplain and VSO. He is a member of VVA, VFW, DAV, and American Legion. Michael is married to Lydia Diane Benson/Brewer with 3 children, 3 grandchildren, and 1 great-grandchild. They currently reside in Crestline, California.
Not so sure anyone gives a hoot about where I have been, but we moved to Crestline,Ca six months ago today. Still unpacking and looking for stuff! There has been no lack of Veterans affairs and shenanigans in recent times, so when I fire up again and get back to the CP in a week or so, I hope what I bring you is compelling and timely. Be well, Mike/Ret./USMC