Hearts without Homes: Coping with PTSD | HistoryNet MENU

Hearts without Homes: Coping with PTSD

By Merlene Reynolds
6/12/2006 • Vietnam

Voices echoed throughout my bedroom, disturbing the silence of a sound sleep. I rolled over in the bed to see if ‘Kenny’ was still there. He was — but instead of sleeping, he was sitting upright, in the middle of my bed. His left arm was casually wrapped around his left knee, which he had pulled close to his chest to improve his balance. He hadn’t leaned back against the headboard, as one might expect; instead, he held his knee, the way a boy cradles a football, as he began to rock in his primal rocking chair.

The words he spoke were vague, garbled and indistinct. His voice sounded different, too, as he whispered in his sleep. It was the voice of a younger man, even an adolescent, not the 38-year-old man I knew. I murmured his name. He didn’t respond. He simply kept rocking back and forth. I thought he hadn’t heard me, so I said his name again. No reaction. I waited.

The room was dark, except for the slight glare from a street lamp shining through the slats of the venetian blinds. Kenny’s face was camouflaged by the stripes of light. The wrinkles that had once framed his eyes now seemed to have disappeared. His blue eyes looked gray in the shadows; they shifted left, right and back again, as though he were comparing stars.

I watched Kenny rock back and forth to a silent cadence before attempting to speak to him again. It seemed impolite to interrupt. Several minutes passed before I decided to reach out to touch him, but changed my mind after recalling that it is better to let sleepwalkers or sleep talkers awake on their own. I didn’t want to frighten him.

As he rocked, he would speak and then pause, as though listening to words I could not hear. Watching him rock and talk was similar to watching a silent movie that had recently acquired sound. I watched him move with precision and persistence, yet when he spoke, his words seemed to linger before they could be heard. It was like listening to the soundtrack of a film reel that had started a few seconds too late and played in slow motion. I still do not know whether he spoke too slowly or I listened too late.

When I spoke, he didn’t react. He just kept rocking rhythmically. I felt like a helpless intruder, too polite to interrupt and too afraid not to. I also felt guilty for watching him, yet I didn’t know what else to do. So, in another attempt to waken him, I got out of bed and turned on the light. But when he didn’t respond, I turned it off again. Still frightened and unsure, I turned the light back on — then, off and on until it was clear there was no reason to continue. Then I left the room.

When I returned, Kenny was no longer speaking softly, as if sharing secrets with someone, but he was still talking. He now conversed with confidence. It was like arriving too late at a business meeting and missing the opening remarks. I listened carefully.

After concentrating for several minutes, I realized that he was telling a joke. I recognized it as the same joke he had told me a few days before. Only this version was slightly different. I was now hearing the original version, the one he must have told many years earlier, not the sanitized translation he had told me.

Kenny paused to light a cigarette halfway through his joke. I knew that was what he was doing because I had watched him smoke for months. He leaned forward to release his knee from the grip of his arm and then leaned back on his left elbow so that he could use his right hand to obtain a lighter from his pants pocket. He wasn’t wearing any pants, but that didn’t stop him from squirming around while he slid his hand deep into a side pocket, recovering something, and then reaching across his chest, pausing long enough to unbutton the top shirt pocket using only the index finger and thumb of his right hand, to retrieve a cigarette from the pack. I watched him light it with his Zippo lighter, then lean his head back while he inhaled the cigarette smoke deep into his lungs and exhaled slowly before he returned to his story. He told the punch line, and then smiled for a long time.

A few moments later, Kenny looked sideways, waved and said, ‘Take care.’ Someone else must have walked by, because the expression on his face suddenly changed from cordial to lonely as his gaze returned to the person who sat in front of him. It was an expression of mutual understanding. He sat silent for a long while.

Mesmerized, I also sat silent. I still didn’t know what to do. As I looked around my bedroom, trying to see what Kenny saw, I gradually began to realize that he was mentally reliving his first tour during the Vietnam War. The bedroom, once familiar, now seemed strange.

As I looked around my room, I noticed Kenny’s gun. His ‘weapon,’ as he called it, lay on my night stand next to Kenny’s side of the bed, reminding me of the conversation we had had the first time I had invited him to spend the night. As he had begun to undress, he had unsnapped his shoulder holster and placed it on the night stand, in the exact place where it now lay, before he gently and methodically removed the handgun from its holster and placed it underneath the pillow. I had watched from the bedroom doorway before asking with a smirk, ‘Is there any particular reason you need a gun in bed?’

Kenny had returned the smile before replying, ‘I never go to bed without my gun.’ At that point we had compromised by agreeing that the gun could sleep just as well on the night stand as underneath the pillow.

This night, however, I stared across the room at the weapon and wondered whether to retrieve it, fearing that he might unknowingly use it. I didn’t reach for it, though. I was afraid to touch it — and afraid to leave it alone.

I continued to sit on the edge of my bed, consumed by contemplation. Kenny leaned forward and then hesitated, as if he could hear my thoughts about his gun. He tilted his head slightly to the left, away from me, as if to let some invisible person whisper in his ear.

Then, abruptly, he leaned back and laughed so deeply and long that his entire body shook. I jumped out of bed. Kenny didn’t respond to my sudden movement. Instead, he continued to rock back and forth before he took the last drag of his imaginary cigarette and flicked the remainder of it into the night. The cigarette, it seemed to me, was still lit.

My eyes followed his cigarette as it floated through the air from his hand to the carpet. It seemed to land in the corner, next to the dresser. I reminded myself that the cigarette wasn’t real, but that wasn’t enough. I felt compelled to sprint from the bed to the corner to snuff out the cigarette. I inspected the carpet, rapidly rubbing my hands across the fibers to make sure that the rug was not smoldering. Soon I began to feel foolish. There was no cigarette. I returned to my uncomfortable seat on the edge of the bed.

Still afraid to lie down and try to sleep, I walked over to the wall and hit the light switch. Again, it had no effect on Kenny. He continued to rock in his dream world. Eventually, I turned off the light. Before the long night was over, I turned the light on and off several more times. I paced back and forth across my bedroom at first, and then I began to roam the house, moving from room to room like some kind of restless ghost. Finally, I sat down in the dining room and waited for morning.

As the hours crept toward dawn, sunlight slowly brightened the house. I sought solace in the assumption that Kenny would awaken at 5 a.m. In the months that I had known him, he had never used an alarm clock and had never overslept. I hurried back to the bedroom, hoping for the best. Sure enough, at precisely 5 a.m., Kenny awoke. He seemed fine, apparently unaware that anything out of the ordinary had occurred during the night.

‘Good morning,’ he cheerfully said as he walked past me on his way to the bathroom. Knowing that Kenny would be showering and shaving as usual, I went to the dining room and sat on my chair, the one I had perched on throughout the early morning hours. Exhausted from the long night, I seemingly sat there for hours. But then I glanced at my watch and saw that only a few minutes had passed. I sighed and headed for the kitchen to start a fresh pot of coffee.

In the kitchen, I silently rehearsed various phrases I might say to Kenny. I needed to question him about the night before, but I knew that he was sensitive to any form of conversation that might be considered an invasion of privacy. Finally, I hit on the right approach. Since Kenny was a security guard and a former police officer, I chose the type of question often used to interrogate a suspect. That way he would immediately recognize the setup and be warned to think before he spoke. It was the only approach I could think of to spare his pride while simultaneously inquiring about his heart and mind.

When Kenny arrived in the kitchen, he went right to the refrigerator, looking inside more out of habit than because he was hungry. ‘So … Kenny,’ I said, ‘when did you first start to talk in your sleep?’ He slowly turned sideways toward me and grinned. He wasn’t ready to say anything yet, but his smile told me that he knew what was going on — that I wanted to ask him a bunch of questions. To stall, he began to rearrange the milk carton, butter dish and other items before once again glancing at me. He had run out of things to inspect, but the glance told me that he would be continuing to rummage through the refrigerator anyway. At least he hadn’t lost his sense of humor about the situation.

I watched Kenny’s eyes dart from item to item. Clearly, there was nothing he was trying to find in the refrigerator. He was stalling for time, but also thinking. Maybe he was trying to remember something from the night before. Had he dreamed about another woman and called out that woman’s name in the night? He must have figured that couldn’t be it, because I wasn’t acting mad. I was giving him all the time he needed to collect himself. It had to be something else, but he wasn’t sure what. Still, it couldn’t have been all that bad, not with me just sitting there patiently.

Finally, Kenny resigned himself to addressing my question. He did this by asking me a question: ‘What did I say?’ I was not surprised that he had asked me a question instead of answering mine, because neither of us ever confirmed nor denied anything — no matter what we talked about. We always left everything to speculation. It was easier that way. It coincided with our agreement to avoid any appearance of commitment. Kenny also hated it when I had an advantage in conversation. He considered smart women a personal inconvenience.

‘I like my women young and dumb,’ he once told me. ‘And you are neither.’

‘Thank you,’ I had replied. ‘In reference to the word `dumb,’ do you mean one who is stupid or one who cannot speak?’ ‘Yes,’ he had answered, laughing.

But at the same time he had been serious. That was his way. He was often trying to prepare me for our breakup, which he saw as inevitable. In fact, on our very first date he had warned me that he was a ‘love ’em and leave ’em kind of man.’ Many times after that he had reminded me of his warning, because, as he put it, he ‘had to be cruel to be kind.’

Now it was my turn to stall. I wanted to respond to his question in the right way. As I thought of a response, I wondered if Kenny would ever answer my question about his talking in his sleep. And I also wondered how our conversation would end this morning — perhaps with Kenny offering to leave.

‘It’s not what you said,’ I finally told him. ‘It’s how you said it.’

Confused, Kenny waited for me to explain.

I told him about his nightmares. Then I told him how I had paced the bedroom and the rest of the house and how, after that, I had sat up in the dining room waiting for him to wake up. I explained that I was concerned about him and asked if there was anything I could do to help. He shook his head. But I pressed him a little. I asked if he remembered his dreams and, if so, whether he would explain what they were really about.

Kenny listened to my words but dismissed my fears. He said that I needn’t worry, because it was ‘just a nightmare.’ ‘How long have you been having them?’ I asked.

‘As long as I can remember,’ he said. ‘So long, in fact, that now they are a part of me. I don’t even remember them anymore.’

‘But you know that you have them?’

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘but only because people like you remind me of it.’

‘Have you ever talked to anyone about them?’ I persisted.

‘No,’ Kenny said, ‘there’s nothing to talk about. It has taken me almost 10 years to finally be able to sleep through them, so I’m certainly not going to spend the rest of my life trying to remember them. I’d never get any sleep if I did that.’ Kenny then stood up and left the table, which was my signal that the subject was now closed. No further questioning would be allowed. ‘Done is done,’ as Kenny would have said at a different place or time.

Kenny and I continued dating, but it was no longer the same. He liked his privacy, and once it had been invaded, the situation had to change. It was a matter of pride and principle. I encouraged him to seek counseling as a way to cope with his feelings, but he disregarded my suggestion with the rhetorical question, ‘What the hell is some guy who has never been to ‘Nam going to teach me about feelings?’

Kenny hated the word ‘feelings,’ and whenever he used it he always found a way to emphasize his repulsion to it. He often said that ‘feel’ was ‘just another four-letter word — right up there with hate and love.’ Whenever I tried to discuss my feelings, good or bad, Kenny always said, ‘Just up and disappear — and never look back.’ This was always his advice.

When I first met Kenny, I agreed with his sentiments. I had met him several months after my husband abruptly requested a divorce, so I, too, no longer believed in ‘happily ever after.’ Kenny seemed like the perfect match. Both of us did whatever we could to avoid being hurt. We had dated for several months before Kenny ever said anything to me that remotely resembled a compliment. And when he did, it was one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me. Using his sweetest voice, he commented, ‘You fit me like an old pair of shoes.’

In 1968, at age 17, Kenny had left for Vietnam. He served three tours before returning to the States to become a drill instructor. He had lied about his age, he told me, claiming to have used his brother’s birth certificate in order to join early. He had wanted to be a Marine.

I met Kenny in 1989. After our relationship ended, I learned that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I felt better knowing this. It explained many things. It has been nearly 10 years since I last saw him, though I still remember the nights I watched him talk in his sleep.

Aside from the political and economic issues raised during the Vietnam War, the psychological suffering of the American soldiers who did survive seems to me to be the most devastating result of that conflict. A generation of men and women are confused, lost and seemingly hopeless about ever understanding the war and, more important, its effects on them.

The Vietnam War is probably the most talked about and written about war in the United States today, yet undoubtedly it will never be totally understood. After 1963, according to Douglas Miller, author of On Our Own: Americans in the Sixties, ‘The United States plunged deeper and deeper into what would become the longest, and most controversial, and only losing war in its history.’ Between 1965 and 1975, wrote Miller, the war ‘took center stage in American history and divided the country more than any other issue. Over 58,000 Americans perished in the conflict; Indochinese deaths surpassed 1.5 million. Combat deaths, however, were only part of the picture.’

‘Combat spared far more men than it wasted,’ said Michael Herr, author of Dispatches, ‘but everyone suffered the time between contact, especially when they were going out every day looking for it….I can remember times when I went half dead with my fear of the motion.’ The soldiers who survived always talk about the fear, either directly or indirectly. Kenny often referred to the ones who died as ‘the lucky ones.’

Search-and-destroy operations were known as suicide missions in Vietnam. ‘The grunts themselves knew: the madness, the bitterness, the horror and doom of it,’ said Herr. The enemy was notorious for his invisibility, compelling soldiers to instinctively fear the unknown.

Larry Heinemann, a former Vietnam combat infantryman and author of Paco’s Story, described the fear and its effects in much the same way: ‘Don’t you know, a month or six weeks later, when the company came back through the gate and up that hill, those f — in’ new guys would be indistinguishable from the rest, except for the eyes. But the eyes took longer.’

The look in a man’s eyes was often used to describe the change in him after witnessing or performing a killing that was so horrendous the soldier only remembers it in his dreams. ‘It was the eyes: because they never had anything to do with what the rest of the face was doing, and it gave everyone the look of extreme fatigue or even a glancing madness,’ said Herr.

The eyes, the ‘look,’ the walk, expose the soldier’s pain for the rest of us to see, but it is the nightmares that keep him awake and afraid. ‘And the next morning,’ wrote Heinemann, ‘Paco would always waken from these dreams in the full, warm light of day with a start, tangled in the sheets and turned every which way in bed. And, we … the dead, the ghosts who haunt him — long gone.

‘And 10, 12, 15 years later,’ Heineman continued, ‘the medic will rock back and forth, night after night, in a chair near the wall of cases of bottled beer at the back of Weiss’s saloon, telling his stories.’

Kenny hasn’t been the only PTSD victim I’ve met. ‘Bama’ was also a Vietnam veteran and a former Marine. He was nicknamed Bama because he was big and from Alabama, and when he fought a man, it only took two punches — bam, bam. ‘Just like in the Flintstones cartoon,’ his friend Doug said.

I met Bama while shooting pool at a bar. He was a friend of a friend, an excellent pool player, but still enough of a Southern gentleman to try to let a girl win. He was just too good a player to let me win, though. As we played, I asked what he had done while he was in the military.

Bama was surprised by my question and asked how I knew. ‘Aside from the fact that you have the shortest haircut in this place,’ I said, ‘I see it in your walk.’ By his walk, I was referring not only to the way he walked but also to the way he watched the front and back doors throughout the entire game. It seemed as though he were expecting someone to walk in. He seldom took his eyes away from either entrance. He watched the doors with the same intensity a cop does, even when off duty.

I knew the look. Earlier I had asked if he was waiting for someone, but Bama said no. He offered neither an explanation nor an apology, though I could tell that he suspected the reason why I had asked. To be more polite, he had tried to refrain from watching the doors — but he couldn’t. The trait was now deeply ingrained. So he simply said, ‘No.’ No more, no less.

In an attempt to keep the conversation going, I asked Bama where he had learned to play pool so well. He responded by telling me that he had been a Marine. ‘I spent my free time in the pool hall,’ he explained. ‘What did you do in the Marines?’ I asked. At that point Bama looked to our mutual friend Doug to answer. ‘He was in search and recon,’ Doug explained. He already knew that Bama would not want to talk about it.

Whenever I saw Doug, I usually saw Bama, too. Bama eventually confided in me that he was concerned about his marriage. He was afraid it was falling apart, and he didn’t know how to stop it. He knew it was his fault — he knew he drank too much, partied too long and too often. He was on his fourth marriage and feared that it, too, would soon come to an end. He loved his wife, he said, but he couldn’t be the man she wanted.

Two years later, when I last saw Doug, I asked about Bama. This time, instead of saying ‘Fine,’ as Doug usually did, he responded, ‘He disappeared himself.’

By the shocked look on my face, Doug realized that I thought Bama had committed suicide, since he had once discussed it as an option, but Doug denied it. Instead, he explained, the day after Bama’s wife moved out of the house, the big Marine had disappeared. No phone call, no trace, just gone. He hadn’t even packed a suitcase. ‘Bama’s specialty is disappearing,’ Doug said, ‘and that’s exactly what he did.’

Although two years had passed since the day that happened, Doug explained that Bama was still gone. ‘He’ll just show up again someday,’ said Doug.

I hope so.

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