Of course, the Emotional Roller-Coaster, is a metaphor for the emotional journey we endured in Vietnam. It loops like time, steep inclines and descents that carries us through sharp curves and sudden changes of speed and direction, sometimes we experience inversions and other aggressive movements. in the process the gravity powers much of the trip. Most roller-coaster rides end with a primal scream, but in the warrior world, our screams and rides never ends.
Riding a roller-coaster is something of a multi-sensory experience: from start to finish, we were assaulted with screams from casualties on the battlefield. The sounds of weapons, marines yelling orders, Helicopters flying overhead. But the thing about most of our senses is that they're largely pointed outward at the battlefield, not inward. And so, while we're distracted by the visual and auditory assault coming at us from all sides, we forget that there's a bunch of weird stuff happening on our insides as well: An emotional roller-coaster can't be controlled. It is like being strapped in and never allowed to leave something that makes you feel horrible, scares you, and makes you feel continually insecure. These are some of our emotions that I am talking about.
As an 8404-field corpsman in Vietnam, I often experienced many emotions all at once in combat. I lived on a daily rollercoaster of emotions that were masquerading my life. I had to give the appearance that all is well, and I was in control. However, I was a nervous wreck. So many times, I wanted to pull the cord and stop the ride; I wanted to get off the roller-coaster. To experience fear, fright, sorrow, sadness, depression, just to name a few emotions, day after day, month after month, often caused psychological problems for a lifetime.
The battlefield in Vietnam was a world apart from the world we came from. When we were in Vietnam, we spoke of America as, "the world". Our life now was a world far away from all we knew and cherished. This was a dark world, a sinister world. We could literally feel the presence of evil; we could even smell it.
This world was a place that evokes emotions that the civilized world could not comprehend or understand. There is suffering, agony, fear, exhaustion, anger and so much more. One of the most enduring adages in military memoirs since the late sixteenth century is that it is impossible to imagine what the battlefield is like for those who have never been there. Not only traumatic experiences are difficult to share, but many battlefield emotions are also loaded with taboos and sometimes shame and guilt, which I can literally attest to.
During the Vietnam area, western society turned our soldiers from heroes into victims of their uncontrollable emotions. Since the Vietnam War more American Soldiers have died from suicide than on the battlefields. Emotions can be lethal. It is difficult to live with the memory of violence, with fear, pain or with guilt. It seems to be even more difficult to reconnect emotionally to a world that does not share these memories and does not understand or appreciate what has been lived through.
Emotions matter in war, and the fear of pain is as much a weapon as physiological wounding might appear to be. Controlling fear, emotions and enhancing endurance has in recent times become medicalized by the military.
The difficulty lies also in the fact that in today?s everyday language there are practically no words expressing emotions and feelings. Sometimes it seems to me that the whole wealth of language capabilities has shrunk too "bad", "good" and "normal". But, for example, even negative feelings and emotions have a lot of names: rage, anger, resentment, sadness, depression, irritation, apathy, contempt, sadness, anxiety, disgust, hatred, sorrow, despondency, disappointment, loathing, boredom, resentment, indignation, rejection, pain, grief, abandonment, etc. Compare this with the mean: "Discomfort to me. Bad".
To understand emotions, first you need to know where emotions come from. Emotions are influenced by a network of interconnected structures in the brain that make up what is known as the limbic system. Key structures including the hypothalamus, hippocampus, amygdala and the limbic cortex plays a pivotal role in emotions and behavioral responses.
Naturalist Charles Darwin was one of the earliest researchers to scientifically study emotions. He believed that emotions are adaptations that allow both humans and animals to survive and reproduce.
He suggested that emotional displays could also play an important role in safety and survival. If you encountered a hissing or spitting animal, it would clearly indicate that the creature was angry and defensive, leading to you back off and avoid possible danger.
Emotions can also prepare the body to take action. The amygdala in particular, is responsible for triggering emotional responses that prepare your body to cope with things like fear and anger.
Sometimes this fear can trigger the body's fight-or-flight response, which leads to a number of physiological responses that prepare the body to either stay and face the danger or flee to safety. Emotions serve an adaptive role by motivating you to act quickly and take actions that will maximize your chances of survival and success.
Looking through some of the stories I have written over the past few years, many of these stories I concentrated on a single emotion of trauma that affected a warrior's life in Vietnam. Some of the titles were the nucleus of my stories; in most cases, it was the reason I wrote them. Examples were "Fear as a way of Life", "My Vietnam Grief", "Bored while waiting to Die", "Emotional Numbing", "Terror in the Cemetery", "The Final Moment", "Chaos After Vietnam", and "Have you ever been really scared?". I tried to single out these emotional words, such as, Fear, Grief, bored, terror, and Chaos. I wanted the reader to personally feel the symptoms the casualties were experiencing, to hear the weapons of war and the cries of the wounded and words spoken during their fear and to see the results of warriors who were wounded and dying on the battlefield and the trauma they experienced daily.
I am aware that there are far more emotions that are happening than the one emotion I am centering my story on. I am just trying to draw attention to that particular emotion. It stands to reason that every emotion we encounter gives birth too many other symptoms.
War definitely plays on our emotions, and these emotions can overwhelm us with grief, despair and depression. Subconsciously, I had to create a mental barrier that allowed me to isolate my emotions from the reality of battle. However, in retrospect, emotions are hard to handle, they just naturelly happen
I fought my grief because I wanted to survive, but it always persisted. Grief is the deepest sadness a person can feel. Do you know what it is like to live with no hope for the present or the future? I reached a state where I thought it would be best if I was killed in action. This is what depression does to warriors. Being a corpsman, in battle, me and the Grim Reaper had to be considered close acquaintances due to all the KIA's I treated. Many of the WIA?s went back to the world with pant legs or sleeves empty.
How does a young boy from age 18 to 22 handle the trauma that confronted us day after day? After a while it gets overwhelming! Personally, I had to find a way to accept it and move on, but that was not easy. Nightmares, flashbacks, and retracing battle zones where these events happened bought back bad memories. We had no doctors, psychologists, sociologists, or mental health guidance to help us, we were on our own. Nothing. Numbing is a skill learned in extreme situations, where fully experiencing our feelings would be dangerous to our sanity. We had to numb up and put our trauma to the back of our minds. This was not taught; this was learned behavior for survival.
When warriors are emotionally numb, they see, hear, and understand what our self-preservation is. I eventually felt nothing but numb. Another term for this numbness is emotional detachment. There is so much trauma, but we had to detach ourselves and move on. But we could not feel the experience of the emotions that go along with the reaction. Often Marines were killed during a combat mission, and some of us were close friends of those killed. It would have been easy to become depressed, experiencing sorrow. To survive and function as warriors, we had to become emotionally numb. After the battle ended and we were back at the command post, the marines acted as if nothing had happened.
As I said earlier, becoming numb was an adaptive skill during the trauma. Being numb helped us to survive the experience. Also, the fight, flight, or freeze response can deplete chemicals in the brain that are associated with feelings. The problem with this "numbing" response to trauma is that it can be as destructive in the long run as the horrific emotions one is trying to suppress. Grunts often stay numb long after trauma because they are afraid to have feelings associated with the trauma, such as anger, fear, and dread. Numbing is a learned behavior and we got pretty good at it in Vietnam. I remember when I returned to the world (USA) it was several years before I could cry. My attitude was still, "It don't matter".
Most of us in Vietnam combat zones were incapable of feeling emotion, or at least deficient in emotions and feelings. Numbing caused us to lose all touch with reality. Most warriors experienced this. For example, if someone called my name while I was "numbing" I might not respond, because I was experiencing the "thousand-yard stare." In other words, I was in la-la land, a euphoric dreamlike mental state detached from the harsher realities of life.
Another story I wrote, was "Fear as a way of Life". There are many events that will raise the pulse to the maximum, especially if your life is in jeopardy. The emotion of fear is one that could cause the heart to cease in the matter of minutes.
The trauma of war creates fear that causes havoc to our entire body; this changes from person to person, as we all handle it differently. I have witnessed grunts that, even though they were scared beyond belief, charged forward while others cowered and froze. What makes us different? I am not sure anyone could answer this question. There have been books written on this topic. As far as I am concerned, there are too many variables to consider.
I can attest that the emotion of fear, at times, was beyond description. When you get to the point that you cannot control your bowels or bladder, to say that you are scared is an understatement. When one thinks, he is going to die or fears for his life, the body organs take over. In war, I witnessed marines fainting due to the trauma they were experiencing; the mind could not process the situation. There is fear and than there is real fear. There is a difference. I don?t mean frightened by seeing a scary movie, hearing a scary story around a campfire or waliking through a spook-house. Warriors on the front lines were always exhibiting fright at the back of our minds; we could be killed at any moment. When on patrol, our expectancy of death rose significantly. After the enemy shot his first shot, we instantly hit the ground and then our troops went forward. Our heart rate rose to the max, and we prepared for what was to come. Our adrenalin increased and our breathing accelerated, our throats became instantly dry, our eyes were instantly scanning for the enemy and our hearing was on alert.
Another story I wrote was, "My Vietnam Grief". Daily we experienced grief, and this symptom bought on other symptoms, such as sadness, loneliness, depression. Grieving is a personal process that has no time limit. We all handle grief differently. There is no single "right" or "wrong" way to do it.
Imagine, if you will, a 19-year-old boy leaving home for the first time and traveling over 12,000 miles to a war zone in Vietnam. So much was going through my mind, and I was scared to death by what lay ahead. Every day we saw newsreels on TV showing us the carnage our soldiers were facing. I knew, within a few days, I too would be part of that destruction.
When I left my home in Joplin, Missouri, the airlines were on strike. I was forced to take a bus to Camp Pendleton, California. It was three days of traveling, and I do not mind saying, I was grieving a lot. Not only was I leaving my family and friends, but I was also leaving my girlfriend, and we were engaged to be married when I returned from the war. This initial grief was compounded three months later when I received a ?Dear John? letter. A few days after the letter, I received my first Purple Heart. Subconsciously, I think I was hoping for the million-dollar wound so I could go home.
The grief that a warrior experiences when he loses a buddy is intense because you know that his family's and friends lives will be changed forever. Eventually, such grief takes its toll. We become battle hardened. I believe such an attitude is necessary in order to survive. It was not uncommon after a battle that we soldiers would talk among ourselves, and it might appear as if nothing had happened. The camaraderie would be mixed with laughter and casual conversation. The loss of marines would not be mentioned. This is an attitude and focus that cannot be taught. It is learned on the battlefield. We had to accept life as it was presented to us.
I ran hundreds of patrols. Many times, we ran from can-see to can't see and set up for night ambushes. Each time I was scared beyond belief. No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear. Often, I wondered if this would be my last day on earth. Every day was like the movie Groundhog Day with more and more killing each day. I had a gutted feeling all the time; I just functioned. Grief has no end there. It changes over time but does not end. It is exceedingly difficult to accept, but that is the bottom line. Grieving is such a personal process?what helps one may not help another. Prolonged grief can trigger anxiety and depression in our troops; it also causes difficulty in completing daily tasks.
War definitely plays on our emotions, and these emotions can overwhelm us with grief, despair and depression. Subconsciously, I had to create a mental barrier that allowed me to isolate my emotions from the reality of battle. I fought my grief because I wanted to survive, but it always persisted. Grief is the deepest sadness a person can feel. Do you know what it is like to live with no hope for the present or the future? I reached a state where I thought it would be best if I was killed in action. This is what depression does to warriors.
During my "Emotional Roller-Coaster" story, I have given you examples of many of the symptoms we exhibited in a war zone. Running over 300 patrols and treating countless casualties have brought on uncontrollable tears but to heal, I must face my fears, accept my war. It is what it is.
During my tour in Vietnam, I learned that an emotional roller-coaster cannot be controlled. It goes any way it chooses. It is like being restrained and never allowed to leave. It is something that makes you feel confined, scares you, and makes you feel continually insecure. Eventually, you keep telling yourself, the ride must end, it just has to.
At some point, the emotionally turbulent roller-coaster ride is going to wave the white flag and ask for the operator to stop so I can get off, but in most cases the conductor is not paying you any mind. He is doing his own thing. So, the trauma continues. However, the roller-coaster finally stops and as you are walking away the conductor, says, "See ya tomorrow".
Life is a roller coaster; this does not mean to say what we are all strapped into little boxes at a carnival. As a roller coaster takes us through many ups and downs, in most cases we have a choice of either a roller-coaster or a merry-go-round throughout our lives. For some of the more adventurous people would choose a roller- coaster, while others are risk-averse, and simply go around and around on the same track. We all make our own decisions in life, to an extent that is.
The life that we led in Vietnam was forced upon us, we did not have a choice in that decision, we were thrown in the roller-coaster car and were strapped in, and the ride began fast and furious and never ended until our tour was completed, the ride took us through Hell itself.