I had come to Vietnam as a young, inexperienced Navy Corpsman, and I was leaving with mental scars far worse than my physical wounds. They clouded my mind and made me see how quickly life could be extinguished.
I had supported this war when I first arrived in Vietnam but seeing grisly deaths had seared my soul. So many Americans were dying, and there was so little support for us at home. Was the war worth the cost?
After leaving Vietnam we flew into LAX Airport in Los Angeles, California and then transported to Camp Pendleton Marine Base in Camp Pendleton, California. I was in staging area for three days before I was discharged from active duty; this is where we received our processing out physical and DD-214 form, this document gives our total military history including medals received.
The day we left the base, we were told not to wear our uniforms. We were instructed to wear civilian clothing due to the riots, protests, and unrest in the civilian population. We were advised not to mention we were returning from Vietnam. They told us to “stand down,” just go home and forget the war. Wow, what a statement: “Just go home and forget the war!” Such a concise processing-out speech. The Marine Corps was very proficient in training marines to be killers, but they were not so adept in counseling soldiers on how to stand down. There was absolutely no mental health follow-up.
We were supposed to get on with our lives and act like nothing had changed. They wanted us to believe that once we returned from combat, our lives would return to being normal and stable. We were expected to adjust quickly to the lives we had left. They believed time would eventually mend all wounds. However, it didn’t happen that way. Time actually made it worse for many returning soldiers. These soldiers spent years suffering and feeling different. Many were psychologically traumatized daily—and often they did not understand why. No wonder so many Vietnam veterans suffering PTSD and have committed suicide.
I remember taking a bus through the main gate when we left the base. There were several protesters throwing garbage at our bus and yelling at us. I thought to myself, why are these morons protesting us? We were going home, so what kind of message were they trying to send to us?
I also remember walking through the airport with my jungle boot strings tied together and the boots thrown over my shoulder. I was just daring someone to say something negative to me about my time in Vietnam.
Several hours later, I flew into the Joplin Airport and called home for my parents to pick me up. It was not much of a welcome home! At least no one was throwing garbage at me—at least not yet.
In December 1967, I remember our Joplin Naval reserve center participating in the Joplin Christmas parade. There were about 300 of us marching proudly down Main Street. The veterans in the front row carried different flags and a couple of rifles. They all wore white military leggings holding their pant legs in above their shoes. They honored me by having me ride in a convertible with a banner on the side of the car that proclaimed: “Silver Star Recipient.” The parade started at 20th and Main Street. We were set for a festive event, but it was not to be.
As soon as the parade began, we started hearing the insults and jeers! This verbal abuse continued all the way to First and Main. There was some clapping to be certain, but the protesters stole the thunder. The worse part happened at 6th and Main. A female ran toward me in the car and hit me with her purse. Some of the sailors pushed her back, and several others watching the parade were also upset with her. Even in a small town like Joplin, there were Vietnam protesters. I did not get mad at her. To be honest, I just felt pity for her. These were the same people we fought for! I remember tears forming in my eyes, and I wondered if these people would ever get it. I have always said, “Don’t blame the warrior, just the war.”
I really don’t know what the protesters expected us to do. Most of us were drafted. If we had refused to go into the service, we could have gone to jail. If we were in the military, we could have gotten court martialed and sent to the brig. We could have gone to Canada, but what kind of life would that be? Personally, I was not for the war, but I went because I was ordered to go. I had no respect for those who went to Canada. To me, they were cowards.
When I returned home from Vietnam, I was a loose cannon, I had no direction or plans for my life. Vietnam had left me an empty shell. During my first few months at home, I realized my life would never be the same as it was before I left for Vietnam. I was a different person. Old friends were now mere acquaintances. I felt like an outsider. I was a piece of a puzzle that couldn’t find its place. Even to this very day, I still find myself alone in a crowd and often feeling like I don’t fit in. The only time I am not alone is when I with another combat veteran.
The years that followed were a disaster; I still had no idea what to do with my life. I worked many jobs but was never content. I was fortunate as some of my jobs were professional positions. i.e., Vehicle inspector Missouri highway patrol, deputy sheriff in Alameda County Oakland, Ca. Fireman with the Joplin Fire Dept., Manager Joplin Globe, Coach/Teacher Anderson High school, Jasper County Coroner and Jasper County Clerk just to name a few, I was never content. In-spite of all my accomplishments, I never felt worthy or satisfied.
Talk about a mess. It was a stressful time, and I was a wreck! All this occurred before I had even heard of PTSD. During all these years I suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but I did not know it at the time. My rollercoaster emotional life made me think I was a failure. I knew I had problems, but I didn’t know why. My low self-esteem didn’t help matter out any. It seemed that nothing in my life was going right. The trauma I endured in Vietnam, the “Dear John” letter I received from my fiancée after four months in country, my job situation and my divorce and losing my son, in short, my life was screwed up, the emotions I was experiencing became overwhelming. There were times when I contemplated suicide, but I couldn’t do that to my family or to my God. For many years, I prayed that I would have a heart attack and just go away. Last year I guessed I got part of my wish because I had a heart attack. That was an old prayer, however, and I had forgotten to tell God I’d changed my mind. My PTSD is better today, but I know it will never be totally gone. I still suffer from depression, alienation, survivor’s guilt, and other emotions. Playing out life’s experiences with PTSD has given me low self-esteem, and this is still something I work through every day.
My PTSD has created so many problems for me and my family. The strange thing is that, when I was younger, the trauma and emotions didn’t bother me as much as they have in my later life. When I was young and with a family, I was too busy to think about it and focus on it. I had to put the trauma in a personal “black box” in the back of my mind. After work, I had hobbies that filled my spare time. I was also busy attending my daughters’ ball games and activities. When they left home and I gave up all my hobbies, I had time to reminisce. My mind was like the black box on an aircraft. It kept my entire history and trauma locked away. After the crash, the black box was discovered and downloaded exposing all the demons that have inflicted me.
I mentioned earlier about my thoughts of suicide, since 1975 nearly three times as many Vietnam veterans have committed suicide than were killed in the Vietnam. According to the Veterans Affairs Department, nearly 70 percent of all veterans who commit suicide are age 50 or older. This is double the suicide rate for the same age group in the nonveteran community.
We lost 58,240 who drew their last breath in this hostile place, and over 200,000 have committed suicide since the war ended. This figure is very alarming! What about the ones who did not die? The last figure I could find was that over 12,000 a year attempt to commit suicide!
300,000 warriors received physical wounds and many of those later lost their lives due to their complications. So, those names on the black wall in Washington DC should be thousands of more than recorded. Let’s not forget those warriors who received mental wounds, their numbers are much greater than e KIA and WIA warrior count.
Vietnam Veterans are dying at the rate of 390 per day, I don’t know about you, but this is a chill! Something else to keep in mind, COVID 19 does not help this number. To date, there are now less than 610,000 Vietnam veterans still living and to each of them, I say Welcome home brother.
I read a quote the other day from President Ronald Reagan that I really appreciated, “some people live an entire lifetime and wonder if they have ever made a difference in the world, but the Marines don’t have that problem” Be proud Marines and pat yourself on the back, job well done!
HMCM Ronald C. Mosbaugh
USNR Retired 31 years