Monday, September 7, 2009

Not Your Usual Elsa Newman Story!!!!

But a story of a whole other kind...and one I cannot resist sharing.

Today I met a man, a grizzled, softhearted and kindly man, a Viet Nam veteran whose eyes and heart still fill with tears when he thinks, reads or writes about things that happened to him as the Viet Nam War was drawing to a close.

May I call him “Bill”? That’s not his real name, but although he gave me permission to write this and to share the story of one particular experience that left him haunted and hurting, he wants to remain anonymous.

Bill was among the last servicemen sworn in at the time of the Viet Nam War. Unable to see himself struggling through steaming jungles, he enlisted in the Navy. The Navy promised him that if he would take and pass certain classes, he could serve as an electrician. He took them. He passed. And he was on his way to the far east, aboard ship.

One thing you should know before you read further: Bill wishes there might be some way men--and now women, too--might learn even a little about what to expect in war--even when that war has ended. He was, he says, totally unprepared for the things he saw.

This is the haunting story that he wrote as he was trying to recover from the horrors of one of his last days in the Navy

As the fall of South Vietnam was taking place in late April, 1975, I was proud to be a crew member aboard the USS Blue Ridge (LCC19) [photo above] and be called upon to take part in “Operation Freedom Wind,” the evacuation of the last Americans and of loyal South Vietnamese civilians. I was in the Navy, on a ship and mostly safe. I was not out in the jungles fighting the Viet Cong, dodging bombs and gunfire, but I nevertheless had experiences that still, to this day, haunt and trouble me greatly.

As the evacuation was going on--escaping and frightened civilians--as they were swimming and floating on almost anything that could float, I had to watch helpless from the deck of the ship, as multitudes of them drowned. There were old people, young people, women with their babies and their other children--all of them fighting to get close to the ship, get to safety.

It was horrible for me that I could do nothing to help them. I know that I was not responsible for them. But the guilt and shame that I have carried for the last 32-plus years have been unbearable.

The ship quickly became filled to capacity with the people we could safely bring on board. Even the helicopters bringing out evacuees had to find alternate landing places--and then the helicopters were ditched, to make room for these fleeing swarms of human beings.

As more and more people were able to climb on board, we were busy throwing overboard weapons, supplies--anything we could find to get rid of--just to make room for more people.

We were about a mile from shore, and as people weakened and fell away from their flotation devices, I had to watch them drown. They were just too exhausted to hang on anymore. There were literally hundreds of people just out of my reach--out of our reach.

This event will stay with me for the rest of my life. I cannot escape it. Sometimes when I hear a helicopter--or even a spinning washing machine--it is like I am right back there on the ship, watching people who desperately needed help, people who were reaching out to us. But they were not within range of help, not by me…not by anyone else.

On that same occasion, one helicopter brought aboard a wounded Marine. He was pretty banged up, and I assisted the team to get him to sick bay. I never knew if he turned out OK, if he died or not. I just knew that I had seen another man in pain. And I realize that watching this guy, all bloody and screaming, created in me the same feelings of watching all those helpless people drown.

After the war I began abusing alcohol, just so I would be able to get to sleep without nightmares--the faces and the screams of those people, both the hundreds in the water and the single Marine I helped to sick bay.

After treatment for alcohol abuse, at the VA in Seattle, I no longer drink. But drinking was the only way I could cope back then.

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