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How PTSD Nearly Stole My Life

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 17/11/2015 Nico Pitney
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It has been 45 years since I returned to the U.S. from Vietnam. I was only 19, but the year I spent there made me feel like I had already lived 10 lifetimes. My family said, “Welcome Home,” but I have never fully come home.

Why do I still carry so much pain from that war? I have been told over 100 times: “Put it behind you and move on with your life.” But Vietnam hangs onto my innermost thoughts like a newborn to its mother’s warmth.

The friends I left behind wouldn’t want me to be in this bad state of mind. They would want me to cherish life. Sometimes I think: Why didn’t I die with them? They are the lucky ones. They are at peace now. I wonder if I will ever know what it is like to be truly at peace.

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The clinical name for what I’m struggling with is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an anxiety disorder where the “fight-or-flight” responses triggered by a terrifying event can’t be turned off.

PTSD reminds me of an evil thief who tries to steal everything from you—your life, your family, and your mind. It won’t let you get close to people. It eats you alive from the inside out. PTSD has no mercy and its only goal is to devour your mind, body, and spirit. It’s a beast that never sleeps.

The first 13 years after I returned from the war were tough. My first wife left me after we lost our second child to miscarriage; I think the miscarriages might have been related to my exposure to Agent Orange. I remarried four years later. My second wife and I had two beautiful children together, but she left me when they were 4 and 6. I wanted love and yet, I pushed it away. It was hard for me to show my emotions. My heart couldn’t take losing anymore, so I built a wall around my feelings.

I could go on and on about the things that went wrong after I came back from Vietnam, but that was nothing compared to what happened over Memorial Day in 1983. That is always a hard time for me, and in 1983—after years of just barely holding it together—I snapped. I was back in Vietnam. I could smell gunpowder and blood.

Every day when I wake up, the PTSD monster says, Just stay in bed. Don’t get up. I finally listened to the monster. I could not get out of bed. I became dead to the world. I shut down.

My schedule for nine months was: Wake up at 7:30 a.m. Take a hot shower for my crippling arthritis. Make a bowl of ramen soup and eat it. I was back in bed by 9:00 a.m., and I’d stay there until 7:30 a.m. the following morning, only to repeat the routine once again.

At the end of the ninth month, my brother knocked on my bedroom door. I had just finished my soup, and was back in bed and about to nod off. He insisted on taking me to the Veterans Affairs hospital in West Los Angeles. The next day, I was admitted to the VA hospital for severe PTSD. 

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Growing up in the Antelope Valley north of L.A., I wanted to be a priest. But at 17, I decided instead to serve my country. I joined the Marine Corps. In December 1968, I went to boot camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. The drill instructors really knew how to make men out of boys! Every day, we did hundreds of brutal squat thrusts, sit-ups, chin-ups, and pull-ups. There was lots of running, going through the obstacle course, and marching in formation.

The drill instructors called us “maggots” “pukes,” “scum bags,” “slimy worms.” And they always put motherf—– in front of everything. The verbal abuse was at full volume, from the time we woke up until we went to sleep.

Next I went through intense combat training at Camp Pendleton, California. That’s where they teach you tactical field maneuvers, weapons training, how to kill, how to survive, and—you guessed it—more running, physical training, marching in formation, and of course, verbal abuse.

They transformed us into “lean, mean fighting machines.” I became part of a polished, synchronized team. Your life depends on what they teach you in the classroom and out in the field. We were trained in a replica Vietnamese “village” with about six or seven palm huts, a fenced animal pen, a water well, an ox cart, and large woven baskets that contained rice and/or weapons. We were made aware of the areas of possible booby-traps and the fact that the enemy lurked on the perimeter of the “village.” They actually had us in Vietnam before we even left the States.

At the end of our training, we were told that we were prepared to enter the battlefield. That some of us might not come back—and that some of us might come back and wish we hadn’t.

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When we landed in Vietnam and the stewardess opened the door of the plane, I was blasted with the largest dose of high-humidity heat that I have ever experienced in my life!

By the time I hit the tarmac, I was drenched in sweat. I smelt a new smell, like nothing I had ever smelled before. It was a combination of campfires, diesel fuel, jet fuel, sweaty Marines, the stewardess’ perfume, a jungle smell, gunpowder, and burning rubber … Rubber? My boots? The concrete tarmac at that hour was about 130 degrees. Enough to literally fry an egg! I thought: This is going to be my home for the next 365 days? 

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After I had finished my Marine Corp training, I thought I was prepared for the Vietnam War. Looking back on that experience now, nothing could have prepared me for the death and destruction of that insane war. I saw more death than I could have ever imagined.

I saw a young boy, about 12 years old, on a bike toss a grenade into a moving jeep, killing a young officer and his driver. It happened right in front of my truck, but I could not stop. I was transporting ammunition, and the attack could have been an ambush for my cargo.

I lost a friend who died in my arms. We were in a firefight, and I was praying for him to live. But then the flares went off overhead, and I saw blood coming out of his eyes, nose, and ears. I saw where his skull was cracked. I realized if he lived, he would be a vegetable … And I found myself praying for him to die.

Of all the painful things I had to deal with in therapy, watching my friend die is up there at the top of the list. The camaraderie in a combat zone is stronger than even blood ties.

Once, while on a search-and-destroy mission, we had unknowingly set up our camp right on top of a Viet Cong underground tunnel complex. The enemy kept popping up in the middle of the night shooting AK-47 rounds into our camp and bunkers. After meticulously searching the area for two days, we finally found the trap doors that led down into the tunnel complex.

Someone had to go in and take care of business and I was small enough to fit into the two-foot wide trap doors. I became a “tunnel rat,” with a flashlight in my left hand, and a .45 in my right. My goal was to search and destroy, and to clear the tunnel.

Those tunnel complexes were heavily booby-trapped and designed to take out intruders. For every 10 military dogs that got sent into the tunnels, an average of only two survived. It was a low survival rate for soldiers, also.

When I went in, my movements were very slow. My eyes were trying to adjust to the darkness; my ears seemed to be able to hear the sand move under my body. My hearing seemed to stretch out into the darkness. I could hear myself breathing and thought, I’m too loud. As I moved forward, feeling with my hands the sides, the top, and the floor, I thought, Stay calm, careful. Be ready for anything. God, please help me.

There were trip wires and little grass mats covered by sand to conceal bunches of sharp bamboo sticks that had been dipped in poison. But they didn’t get me—I made it out.

I felt hands patting me on the back as we knelt down to examine the treasures I had brought up—some old, worn maps; three Chicom grenades; a M1 carbine rifle. After that day, everyone (including the officers) called me “Snake.”

It was the third tunnel I entered later that would haunt me the most. It had enemy inside. The three Viet Cong decided to escape through another exit and perish at the hands of my fellow Marines instead of confronting me—why they chose to do this is a question I can never answer. I acknowledge it as Divine Intervention.

It is a miracle that I made it out of that insane war.

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When I was at the VA hospital in 1984, part of my treatment was exposure therapy where you relive a painful experience to get control over your feelings about the trauma. In “flooding,” you talk about a lot of bad memories at once. It’s called flooding for a reason: the tears.

Therapy triggered so many memories and opened up my mind like a river. The sight of dead Viet Cong soldiers, especially the children and elderly, kept coming back to me. The Viet Cong child soldiers (some as young as 12) and the grandma and grandpa soldiers made it really hard for me to put the Vietnam War behind me. How can you really justify war? It was a no-win war for them and for us. They fought for a cause that they thought was right, and so did we. They fought with courage and tenacity, just like us.

Talking about what happened in Vietnam took me right back there. The adrenaline would kick in, and I’d go into combat mode. I felt locked up with anxiety and all these emotions. Then, instead of sleeping around the clock, I hardly ever slept.

Slowly, I started to talk with other patients, the therapists, and nurses. I was discharged from the hospital after three months of treatment. 

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But Vietnam remained at the surface. Once I was on the outside again, I was really afraid. Now all my issues weren’t buried and repressed. The flashbacks were just as intense as the experience itself. I was alone in a world that did not seem to care about or understand me as a Vietnam veteran.

I still had a hard time sleeping. I still felt extremely anxious in crowds. I had zero tolerance for listening to people talk—whatever they said seemed so unnecessary and unimportant. I completely shut myself off from my family, my (few) friends, and society. I was out of sync with everyone. Thoughts of suicide began to whirl about in my mind. I had no hope of ever living a productive life again.

On my way back to the States, I saw a jacket—I think it was in a shop at the Da Nang Airport. On the back of the jacket was a map of Vietnam and it said: “When I die, I am surely going to heaven because I served my time in hell.” I bought the jacket.

Vietnam was hell, but it turned out I had to fight in another war. In 1984, I headed into the war within.

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I Never Dreamed I Would End up Homeless

In my training to go fight in Vietnam, we lived and breathed these mottos: “Once a Marine, always a Marine” and “Marines never quit.”

Intensive therapy at the Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital in West Los Angeles helped with my severe PTSD. But it also pulled up everything I had suppressed to the surface, and put me into a kind of limbo. I couldn’t go back to where I was before, but I was also “out of sync” with society.

I can honestly say that the VA saved my life. But even though I have only good thoughts about it, I still feel like I fell through the cracks. When I was discharged, I told a social worker that I didn’t have a place to live, and she dropped the ball, I guess. I left the hospital with no food, no money. I was given a razor, a deck of cards, a toothbrush and toothpaste, and a bag of medication.

In the ’80s, there were lots of veterans coming through the VA, but I remember hearing about budget cuts. I saw buildings being shut down and overworked staff trying to handle a three-person workload in one shift.

I saw so many homeless veterans during that time living on the streets, in parks, or under bridges. And I became one of them.

Once I was out of the hospital setting, I isolated myself. I had issues with anxiety and flashbacks and I was suppressing all those bad memories again. As soon as I dropped my guard, I was in trouble. I couldn’t trust people. I couldn’t trust the VA. I had a bag of medications, but a little voice in my head started picking at me: If you take those medications, they’re probably going to kill you. They’re not going to work. I had already been experiencing bad side effects, like nausea and headaches. I really felt my body couldn’t take all those medications.

The VA grounds became my safe zone—it felt protected so that’s where I was from sun up to sun down. On one of my first nights out of the hospital, I went out to the golf course. It was a clear, beautiful night. I laid down on one of the golf greens and looked up at the sky. And I actually fell asleep for a few hours! When it was warm, that was one of my favorite spots to sleep.

As a Marine, my life had been “search and destroy.” This was “search and survive”—search for a place to sleep and feel safe, search for food. For the first three weeks, I pretty much just ate crackers, jelly packets, and lemon slices from the VA cafeteria. I can’t believe that I went so far as to borrow food from the VA, but it was a matter of survival. Sometimes I’d follow behind a group of doctors—they always had to eat fast. They’d leave fresh, untouched toast on their breakfast trays. It was gourmet food compared to the crackers. Sometimes I got lucky and ended up with a piece of bacon.

This was the first time in my life that I was homeless. I never dreamed it would happen to me. But I had cut myself off from my family, and couldn’t reach out for help. I didn’t want to sleep in a bed at a homeless shelter because I didn’t want to be with smelly, loud, and rude people, or people who were on drugs.

My relationship with God was something I always hung onto. Over time, I realized that He continued to be there for me. So I made a promise to God that I would never quit and that I would do everything within my power to move forward. I would always expect a miracle, no matter how bleak the future looked.

Sometimes I’d think: God help me or take me out. I’m just existing. But then something would happen to make me keep going. Like the time I found an avocado tree and feasted on crackers and avocados that tasted like food from heaven.

One afternoon, I was headed to the cafeteria to get my crackers, jelly, and lemon slices when I saw a veteran in a wheelchair making his way up a hill to the VA hospital. I asked him if he could use a push, and he said yes. I thought, This is going to really hurt! He was a big guy, and my arthritis pain was real bad. I was biting bullets, but I pushed him the distance of two football fields up the hill. Miraculously, my pain that started at an 11 or 12—off the chart—dropped down to zero.

Someone once said: “The best way to forget about your pain is to help someone else.” I now understood the power of those words.

I started to go in for weekly physical therapy appointments at the VA for my arthritis. Another veteran told me I could get meal tickets if I volunteered. So I asked Wendy, a physical therapist at the VA whom I had a rapport with, and she let me make the beds and set up the rooms.

No one knew I was homeless. I was for sure the best-dressed homeless veteran in Los Angeles in my shirt and tie. A social worker I met a few weeks earlier let me help myself to clothes that veterans had left behind. I had a handful of decent shirts, a few pairs of slacks, and a nice pair of tennis shoes. I was also clean—I had found a bathroom where I could shower and shave.

This volunteer job was a turning point. I started talking to patients in physical therapy and began to come out of my shell. The positive feedback that I received was some of my best medicine. When the physical therapists acknowledged that I did a good job, it was a big push. I hadn’t heard anything positive in so long. I found a purpose, a reason for living, after so much painful wandering. It wasn’t about me anymore. It became about helping other veterans.

Outside of the VA, I earned $600 helping another veteran with a house-painting job. After about four months of being homeless and sleeping here and there, I earned enough money to buy a tiny Pinto station wagon. It was not ideal, but at least I finally had a place of my own to sleep in.

Little by little, my life began to change for the better. Just when I would reach the threshold, just when I thought I couldn’t take another day, God would give me a gift, a small chance at hope.

I had to forgive my enemies, who were just doing their duty, like me. I had to forgive everyone who ever hurt me. I had to forgive my country, for the turbulent time when Vietnam veterans returned home and people spit on us at the airport, called us “baby killers,” and flipped us the bird. I had to forgive my family for not understanding my pain. Most important, I had to forgive myself and move on with life.

I was homeless for a total of four years. It was a hard pill to swallow. But, as strange as this may sound, I would not trade that experience for anything in the world. That experience is what made me more grateful.

It was only after all this time going in and out of the VA hospital to get treatment and thousands of hours of therapy that I started to gain the upper hand in the hardest battle of my life—the war within. I listened to every word the doctors and therapists said. I took notes. I took medication. This was a matter of survival! I was praying all the time. Somehow the doors kept opening.

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Gaining Ground in the Battle with My Memories of Vietnam

In the mid- to late-1980s, I spent a lot of time at the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs campus. I used to watch the sunsets from a sixth floor balcony outside a chapel in the main hospital. It was very peaceful. Sometimes, I put my arms on top of the railing, got up on my tiptoes, and looked over the edge. It had been over 10 years since I had returned from Vietnam, but post-traumatic stress disorder had turned my world upside-down; I was completely isolated and homeless. On that balcony, I often thought about how easy it would be to jump. The thought of giving up entered my mind so many times.

Vietnam veterans have the highest suicide rate of any other group of Americans. As a Marine, you’re taken down to nothing and built up again as a killing machine. After serving our country, many of us were just released back into society with all these intrusive thoughts and all this anger.

I could have given up or isolated myself—that’s what the PTSD monster wanted. In the end, I didn’t make that choice. As close as I got to suicide, and as many times as PTSD overwhelmed me just when it seemed like I was making progress, I chose to fight the hardest battle of my life. And I made it out alive.

I can see now it was the little things that gave me the strength to keep going. When I was living out of my Pinto station wagon, I never strayed far from the VA grounds. That is where I felt most comfortable.

One day in 1984, I found Jackie Robinson Stadium, where the UCLA Bruins played baseball. I have always loved baseball. I was in Little League and grew up going to the Los Angeles Dodgers games. I’d go to the baseball field when no one was there to pray in the bleachers or the dugout. Sometimes I lay down in deep center field and smelled the fresh-cut grass. Being out there with the high fence behind me, I felt safe.

Then, one day when I was heading to the stadium, I heard bats cracking and balls hitting gloves. The Bruins were there for practice. I crawled through the fence and saw this guy in a blue-and-gold uniform picking up balls inside the batting cage.

I probably looked more like a doctor than a homeless veteran—I had a volunteer job in the VA’s physical therapy department, so I wore a badge over my shirt and tie. The guy looked up and said hi. I asked if he wanted help picking up the balls. “Sure!” he said. I started putting them in a bucket. Then he picked up a bat and started throwing balls up into the air and hitting them. I said, “Wow, you have a nice swing. Hey, do you want me to toss you some balls?” Again he said, “Sure!” I took my tie off, rolled up my sleeves, and started pitching him balls.

I met some of the other Bruin players that day—a few of them went on to play in the Big Leagues. The high point of that experience though, was meeting “The Skipper” (Gary Adams, UCLA’s head coach). We hit it off. I became part of the team that day—an honorary Bruin! I also became a coach for his UCLA baseball camp. That was the beginning of a special lifelong friendship that I cherish to this day.

I started going to the baseball field every day after I finished my volunteer work to help with batting practice and the players’ gear. My back had been so locked up from spending almost a year in bed and from my arthritis. So it was good for my body to be working out.

It was also good for my spirit. Baseball was one of the tools that I believe God used to help integrate me back into society. It felt safe and familiar, and it was fun. Even though I have a hard time with crowds, I liked going to the Bruin games. For me, a baseball game is like going to church. Coach Gary and his Bruins were my therapists, and baseball was my best therapy.

The days started to begin in a different way. I would wake up and thank God for a new day. I would avoid all stressors. I would not let any negative thought play over and over in my mind. I learned to laugh. I learned to appreciate God’s creation and beauty. I would soak up the warmth of the sun. I would not complain about my pain. I had a new attitude, and with the feeling that things were finally starting to go right for me, I started to be more open.

Deep down, I knew I still needed medical help, so in 1988—after four years of being homeless—I jumped at the opportunity to go to the VA in Palo Alto, California, for a six-month inpatient program for combat veterans with PTSD. It was an intense program that was all about cleansing, acceptance, and rebuilding yourself. Sometimes I was so overwhelmed when I reflected on my past. Thanks to my fellow veterans, I got through those tough times.

The Palo Alto VA had a wall of success stories and photos—guys who left and got a job and a place to stay. They were heroes to me. That’s what I wanted. I felt as if I had the tools I needed to finally get my life back on track.

Others saw the progress, too. Five months into the Palo Alto program, my sister and her husband offered me a job at an air freight trucking company they were starting in L.A. County. This was my chance to get back into mainstream society—to be a success story and make it onto that wall.

So, in 1988, I got a studio apartment in Inglewood. I had a kitchenette, a little room, and a balcony. It was nice to be out of the elements and to have a job and a home. I put all my energy into helping to build the company with my sister and brother-in-law.

By 1990, our business had picked up. I moved to a nicer apartment in Manhattan Beach. My life at that time was work, go home, and repeat. It was 20 years after Vietnam by now, and I still sometimes had a hard time feeling comfortable with people.

Then Operation Desert Storm threw everything out of gear. I drove a truck, transporting laser guidance systems used on U.S. military jets in the war. I hung my Marine Corps flag in the cab of my truck. I thought: Wow. I was trained at 18 by the U.S. government to be a combat tactical driver—and I’m doing it again.

It felt good to be serving my country again. But it was a crazy schedule. Sometimes I worked 20 hours a day, making pickups at the airport and deliveries to the Barstow Marine Corps Logistics Base.

I was proud, but I was getting beat up. I wasn’t 18 anymore. Plus, I started watching the news. Somewhere in the combination of not eating right, pushing my body to the limit, and seeing the body count and devastation of war on TV—I snapped.

The adrenaline was full throttle. I started to flashback to the combat zone. I knew I needed help. So I went to the West Los Angeles VA for a month. The doctors put me on mild tranquilizers, sleeping pills, and antidepressants.

The end of the war didn’t make me feel any better. There were no more shipments to deliver. I remember thinking: Now what? It was almost the same feeling of emptiness I had when I came back from Vietnam. As a veteran, it can be hard to find a job that doesn’t feel trivial and meaningless compared to your military job assignments. I think this is a major reason why there is so much homelessness and suicide among veterans. It’s the emptiness … the void.

I went in and out of the VA hospital again for a few months. It was a fine line between feeling pretty good and losing it. Within a matter of months, I was on top of the world and the next thing I knew I was on the ground, feeling like I did not have the strength to carry on. But I kept that promise I made to God … I would not quit.

After I was discharged from the VA hospital, I couldn’t go back to the Manhattan Beach apartment. My friend Norman—who had worked for our trucking company and was a fellow Marine and brother to me—found out I was staying in a hotel near the airport. He came to visit me and suggested I rent the trailer on his mom’s property in exchange for help around the house.

This was another miracle for me. It was a nice, comfortable little trailer. And Norman’s mother, Maria, ended up becoming my loving and understanding wife.

We moved to San Antonio, Texas, in August of 2000 and live a pretty quiet life. Maria has been my pillar of strength. I’ve worked hard to chisel away at the wall I built around my feelings. It has not been easy, but Maria has stood by my side.

We travel whenever we can—this summer, we put over 20,000 miles on our Suburban. We like to sit in our garden, sometimes for hours, watching the hawks fly overhead and taking in the peaceful stillness of the morning. Our greatest joy is our family, and watching our beautiful grandchildren play baseball, participate in beauty pageants, and graduate from school. I want to experience everything I can with them, like coloring sessions, trips to the beach to collect seashells, dancing and laughing together, and holidays.

It has been 45 years now since I returned from Vietnam. I feel better, but I am still grappling with my PTSD. I still have a difficult time sleeping and find myself doing perimeter watch. In a corner outside of my house, I set up a bunker with military-issue olive drab sand bags. I go there to calm myself, on war anniversary days, every Memorial Day, or whenever I feel the anxiety reaching the threshold. As soon as I’m settled in, I feel safe. I meditate, reflect, and give thanks to God.

I’ve survived a few wars, and I feel that the worst is behind me now. I am alive and grateful. I look forward to growing old with Maria, and filling our life together with joyful chapters. Someday I want to hold my great-grandchild. On that day, with a tear in my eye, I will thank God for every miracle … There have been so many!

It’s hard for me to read that 22 veterans commit suicide every day. But if there’s one lesson I’ve learned from everything I’ve been through—and I especially want to it share with my fellow veterans—it’s that healing from trauma can take years, but there is so much hope in gratitude and forgiveness.

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Rick Martinez lives with his wife, Maria, in San Antonio, Texas. Together, they have 16 grandchildren.

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