John Ortiz was a wireman on Hill 881 in Vietnam. In a guest post today, he shares his perspective on surviving both Vietnam and PTSD. For further reading, visit his blog, The Wireman, A View From the Hill.
My tour of duty as a young Marine in Vietnam sometimes pales in comparison to my tour of duty to survive Combat PTSD. I mean no disrespect to my service and especially to those with whom I served. However, another battlefield lay waiting far from Southeast Asia, far from the incoming and far from my wildest imagination of things to come. No medals are awarded on this battlefield. There are no heroes in this battle, only survivors.
Many refer to me and those with whom I served on Hill 881 South as "Heroes". Certainly among us were numerous heroes in the traditional sense. But, as for myself and others who were there, we simply refer to ourselves as "Survivors". Don't get me wrong though, we all know what we experienced on Hill 881 South. We all know and respect one another for the often 'heroic' efforts we made, the hardships, endurance; the fight we gave to the enemy and that we emerged victorious from that place.
But, why Survivor and not simply Hero? Because for most of us we gave our all well within the norms of that overall experience. Possibly those norms would be extraordinary in comparison to other battlefields, but all the same, we acted as a group in the face of that which was at hand. We didn't go out of our way in most cases to do much more than that. Here's some evidence of this:
On a recent visit to my commanding officer on the hill he responded to a statement I made that at first I took some issue with. Later, after deep reflection I understood and accepted what he had said. I had described to him the circumstances that existed while doing my duties as a wireman under extreme conditions on more than one occasion. It was my job to keep the communication wires intact and often I found myself crawling out from the relative safety of our trenches to make repairs during the slight lulls of incoming rocket, artillery and mortar fire. Not to mention while also being exposed to sniper fire from the nearby hills.
When I mentioned this in conversation to the Col., he looked directly at me and said sharply, 'That's what I was paying you for.' I took some offence but knowing there were few if any medals given to wireman who crawled out and spliced broken comm wires in any conditions in Vietnam, I took his words in the context I felt he intended. Splicing comm wire in any combat condition just doesn't have that heroic sound usually associated with earning a Marine any special recognition.
I guess I would have only liked to have heard the Col. say something like, 'Yeah, John, and I deeply appreciated you doing your job under those conditions.' I wouldn't have felt deserving of any unique award or being called a hero if he had said that and I would have felt a little better than being reminded that I was only just doing what I was being paid for. So, the comments stung some and later as I reflected more on them I came to realize that I had to agree that in the realm of all things I was just only doing my job. Just as the Col. had said, I was 'only' doing what I was being paid for. I was a field wireman and part of my job was to fix broken wires on occasion in the battlefield. Therefore, I could not see myself as a hero or as having done anything individually heroic. I was just doing my job. I did that job and I survived to tell about it.
In terms of PTSD I have similar thoughts and reflections and now draw a similar conclusion. I am not a hero for having had to deal with the symptoms of the condition. I have not done anything truly heroic in my struggles to defeat this enemy born of combat. I merely have been a survivor. I have merely been doing what I have been expected to do if not by others, then at least by my own self. I am a living, breathing example of a survivor.
I have survived Hill 881 South by doing the job I was paid for and I am now surviving PTSD by performing the duties of another job but, in this case to benefit myself. This job I simply must do and I must do it in the context of today, not yesterday. I have dealt with PTSD well within the norms of that condition. These are not the actions of a hero...these are the actions taken by a survivor. It does not take extraordinary efforts or superior strength usually only found in heroes. It can be accomplished by anyone who merely strives to survive.
We can survive our most difficult times. They don't have to remain as intense as those months that passed so slowly on that hill for me. They don't have to be frozen in time in those traumatic events that have led to our PTSD. Those things, as horrific as they were, are now in the past. The job at hand now is to survive PTSD. In a real sense, we are only doing what we are now being 'paid' to do.
We've survived our trauma from that time and now face PTSD. Let's keep the two situations separate and deal only with the one presently at hand. That's how we become survivors of PTSD. We handle what is in front of us. We know we did everything in our power at the time to deal with, combat, resist, prevent, and overcome the trauma at its onset. Now we only need face and conquer PTSD. This is the job at hand. There is no paycheck, no medal, no recognition to come. Pretty much the same as when experiencing the initial trauma for most of us.
So then why am I a PTSD Survivor and not a Hero? Because it's just not necessary to be a hero. It's only necessary to survive PTSD! I am a Survivor of PTSD and you will be too, if not already. There will be no medal of any kind for only doing this job..there will be no recognition......or, will there? Take a long close look and see yourself as a Survivor.... and wear that badge proudly!!
'Survivors Speak' is a weekly feature written by or interviewing a survivor and PTSD experiencer about some positive aspect of healing. If you would like to participate in the series (anonymously if you prefer), please email me thoughts, ideas, and topic suggestions: parasitesof.themind @ yahoo.com.
(Photo: Jerry Foster, Gulf War Vet)