By Jack Estes
It’s windy, wet and raining as I look out the window on our old oak tree. Squirrels dash and dart and crows rest on long limbs. The season’s changing as we celebrate the holidays and head into the winter season, like I am. It’s been over fifty years since I killed someone. Today I’m remembering.
In December of 1967 I was eighteen, flunking out of college, with no money or job and my girlfriend was pregnant, so I ran…into the Marine Corps. At the time, I didn’t even know where Vietnam was or what we were fighting for. I thought I’d grow up. I figured if I was in the Marines I’d have some income and the military would pay for the birth of our baby.
Following boot camp and training, I was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines as a rifleman in Vietnam, close to the DMZ. I carried an M-16 and was placed in Kilo Company. Most of our time was spent in the bush. We would chopper out to the base of mountains, carrying 70-pound packs and climb through jungle so dense the sky would disappear. We could easily lose the Marine in front of us. We would dig in, run patrols, set ambushes and fight when we were attacked. Gurney was the first to die, lying close to me. His head was back, and his mouth was open. There was a hole in his throat and he had a stunned look in his eyes. His face is still with me.
On that operation we found one of the largest enemy caches ever, with a bloody underground hospital, rockets, artillery, AK-47’s, ammunition and SDS tee-shirts, from the Students of a Democratic Society. We carried our dead and wounded for two days, before choppers could come and lift them away.
In December of 68, I applied for, and was transferred into, a Combined Action Platoon, consisting of ten Marines, a Navy Corpsman and about a dozen Vietnamese villagers called Popular Force soldiers. It was a counterinsurgency concept that was deadly but effective in winning hearts and minds. I wanted to know the people and thought there would be less combat. It might be easier living in a small village, I reasoned, imagining fewer firefights and less humping. Unfortunately I was wrong. We set ambushes and ran night patrols every night. Some nights we ran four men night killer teams, searching huts, which was harrowing.
During the first three months of 69 we were hit hard by NVA and Viet Cong, coming out of the mountains, trying to launch attacks against US bases in Da Nang. Many Marines were killed and wounded. My best friend Bob was shot four times while we were moving a wounded Marine. Running out of battle dressings I tied Bob’s shattered arm together with my sock. After that I could feel myself changing. I became flat and unemotional.
When I came home my young wife left me. She took our child. She was scared of me. I had trouble in my mind. I found this power of being able to look at people and have them fear me. It was the 1000 yard stare. I developed deep hatred for the anti-war movement. They burned flags, and draft cards and carried signs crying out that we were “Baby Killers.” Walking alone I seethed and swore. My mind would see a hole in the ground and think of a firefight and see Gurney dead and Bob wounded. In CAP I pulled a wounded corpsman into my hole one night and he was shot again lying on top of me. I had survivor’s guilt. I wished someone would shoot me because my wounds were so slight. I was hyper alert 24/7, always checking who was behind me or looking ahead for possible ambushes. I thought of getting on top of a building and firing down on protesters and dropping grenades, because I was angry and they were hurting me.
I drank and fought in bars or in the streets. Then I tried therapy at the VA, rap groups and writing about it. What saved me was writing and meeting my future wife, Colleen. She was a real estate developer and I was just starting my real estate career. She showed empathy for me, even though she had been a protester. We had long conversations over the phone. I sold a building she owned and we went out on a first date. That night she asked me to marry her and I still had nothing. She said she would pay for all our bills for the first year. We were married a few weeks later. Even though I was thrown in jail on our wedding night and two more times that year, she stayed with me. And directed me to seek help.
For years I was in therapy at the VA and with private counselors. We attended retreats and seminars. We went to a Dalai Lama conference, and later studied with Deepak Chopra. Danaan Perry led us on a weeklong retreat in the woods. He had worked in Ireland with Catholic and Protestants soldiers, to help heal their pain from war. Louise Hay, who wrote “You Can Heal Yourself,” held a symposium we attended. While my wife sat in the audience I stood at the back guarding the door, thinking how easy they could all be killed without me there.
When we argued I wanted to hang myself in the garage, thinking she would understand how sorry I was. During this same time period my wife and I created the Fallen Warriors Foundation, to honor American Soldiers and help heal the pain of war. It started with a trip back to Vietnam with Colleen and our two young children. When I stepped off the plane it was shattering. I could almost feel the molecules in my body separate. We carried medical and educational supplies and toys. We delivered them to run down hospitals, clinics, schools, and orphanages. I felt a sense of purpose.
I was taking medication and doing more cognitive behavioral treatment and my PTSD symptoms were easing. We expanded our work with FWF returning four times, taking back other veterans and doctors and nurses, which was healing for me. Back home we held sweat lodges to help veterans deal with their pain. Imagine eight veterans, inside a four foot high canvas shelter, now in their 40’s, sitting shirtless, in a circle around glowing hot rocks, their bodies scarred, from bullet holes and shrapnel. For seventeen years we held annual silent retreats for veterans and their families, guided by a Zen Buddhist monk named Claude Anshin Thomas. Claude had been a helicopter crew chief in Vietnam and was shot down several times. These were incremental steps to combat PTSD.
Now there are newer modalities to treat PTSD such as Psilocybin from mushrooms and a shot in the back of the neck with Stellate Ganglion. Some call it the God shot. There is however, no magic bullet that will cure PTSD permanently, but I have learned that it is better to reveal pain then trying to conceal it. Returning to my battlefield helped ease the pain. Helping others was good therapy. Writing, medication and love all helped to save me.
Jack Estes is a military author Marine Corps veteran who served in Vietnam in 1968-’69. His latest book Searching for Gurney is available now, following his acclaimed memoir, A Field of Innocence, and debut novel, A Soldier’s Son. Learn more about Estes and connect with him on his website.