As chaplain with the 3rd Battalion, 60th Infantry, 9th Division, Jim Johnson didn’t carry a gun, but was in 22 firefights, 10 of which turned into major battles. Serving with the Mobile Riverine Force in the Mekong Delta for nearly a year beginning in July 1967, Chaplain Johnson was determined to be with his men when they needed him most, during combat. After Vietnam, Johnson stayed in the Army serving at Fort Bliss and in Germany. After 15 years, Lt. Col. Johnson retired from the Army and earned his doctorate in marriage and family counseling. Nearly four decades after serving in Vietnam, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) overtook Johnson, forcing him to give up his career. In his new book Combat Trauma: A Personal Look at Long-Term Consequences, Johnson and 15 of his comrades share their intimate experiences of the combat they waged in Vietnam, and that they continue to wage inside themselves.
You knew at a young age you wanted to go into the ministry?
I grew up in the country town of Albemarle, North Carolina. I felt at an early age a divine call to do ministry. And for some reason in high school, I learned about the chaplaincy been magnetized toward the military. Of course at that time there was no war going on. I was an all-state tackle on a state championship football team and was able to go to Wake Forest on a scholarship. I couldn’t have gone otherwise as I came from a poor family. The good Lord blessed me with a big healthy body at 6’ 6”—which also made me a big target in Vietnam.
After college and seminary you got called up?
I was 25 when I was called up in 1967 and I was prepared to go. I was eager to minister to the guys so I asked to be assigned to an infantry battalion. I figured if I’m to spend a year over there I want to be with the guys who are going to need my services the most. When I got there in July 1967 I was the second youngest chaplain in Vietnam at the time. Right away our battalion and two others became the Mobile Riverine Force and we carried out joint operations with the Navy in the Mekong Delta.
You were determined to see action?
I was going to go out on combat missions. I couldn’t stay back in base camp and wait for the wounded knowing they were going to be faced with terror. I wanted to be with them. That was my choice. Traditionally, chaplains would be stationed at the aide station, but that was when there were front lines and the wounded would be brought back. Guess what, in Vietnam we had no front lines and aide stations I wasn’t going to be twiddling my thumbs back at the base camp. I went out on every operations of my battalion, except when I was on R&R.
That was brave of you.
Or maybe I was too inexperienced and young to know any better. No, that was what I was supposed to do and I’m glad I did. That was my mission. And I decided I was not going to carry a weapon. The Geneva Convention precludes chaplains from carrying weapons, but many did. I decided that my job was to be with the guys out on patrol, wallow in the mud with them when they were getting shot at. My job was not to shoot but to be with my soldiers. Now, I knew how to shoot and I could take apart an M-16 and all that, but I figured if I needed a weapon, plenty would be available.
You spent all of your time on the Delta with the Mobile Riverine Force?
I was there for more than eight months. Normally you’d be taken out of the field after six months, however my six months would have ended at start of the 1968 Tet Offensive, so I stayed because I didn’t want to leave my guys when this really bad stuff was happening. I went out on every operation, except when I was gone on R&R. I have counted 22 firefights, 10 or which became major battles, and dozens of smaller actions.
You describe a particularly harrowing last operation—and how you relived it.
Once Tet started winding down, it was decided I would be taken out and put under division Headquarters. By that time, though, I was wrung out. I was dry, so to speak. I’d seen so many of my guys killed and wounded. The day before I got my reassignment, March 1, I tore up my shoulder real bad. It was during my very last operation. We got hit and all hell was breaking loose, we didn’t know if we were going to be overrun, there were explosions everywhere. I was blown into a small canal that, because it was low tide, was dry. I was in excruciating pain, totally immobile and absolutely petrified. Almost four decades later, I had injured my shoulder while I was in the hospital for minor surgery and I awoke in my hospital bed finding myself unable to move my arms. Suddenly I was back in Vietnam in that canal, the emotion and fear exploding out of control.
You were in an extraordinary amount of intense combat. Did you feel the effects of trauma while in Vietnam?
If you’re talking about fear, absolutely. But I didn’t know what PTSD was until years later. It didn’t even have a name. At the time, I had no idea the experience would be with me for the rest of my life.
When did PTSD symptoms start for you?
I stayed in the Army, went to Fort Bliss and right away started having nightmares and occasional flashbacks. But I didn’t know what to make of that, I just though it must be normal. But what I did do was I started writing, not a book or anything, but what I now call therapeutic journaling. Whenever I would have feelings or nightmares, I’d get a legal pad and just start writing my feelings down. It just seemed to be a salve for my soul. I probably filled up a three-inch thick stack of legal pads over the next year and a half. I did it because I didn’t have anybody to talk to about my experiences. I would have been embarrassed to talk about my feelings anyway. All the symptoms were there, I just didn’t know how to put them together or recognize them as being symptoms of trauma. I just thought it was normal, and began to compartmentalize, or stuff them down and thought I’d dealt with it. But for sure the real terror and trauma continues to come out in dreams or flashbacks, things that cause you to have an unusual feeling.
But by any measure you were successful in raising a family, pursuing a doctorate and having a career.
I functioned very well. I had a good career in the Army. I don’t think anyone had any idea what I was carrying around inside. Not even my wife, and we are very close, married now almost 50 years. She knew all of what had happened to me in Vietnam, I never kept that a secret. But no one ever knew the pain and anguish I felt in my gut, the same pain and anguish I think most combat infantrymen feel.
When were you officially diagnosed with PTSD?
Not until about 2003. I was in absolute denial for all those years. You know, I thought other people have problems, but this I’m experience is just normal. I had too much pride. Even as my life began to spiral down, I tried to diagnose myself. Intellectually I knew what it was, but dumb me was unwilling to make the connection from the intellect to what I was experiencing. It took a lot of pain and misery for me to finally say, “Johnson you dummy, why don’t you take your own advice you’ve given other and get some professional help?”
Did your role as a chaplain figure into that?
Yes. I’m a healer. I was unable to accept the fact that even though I’m a healer, I’m also wounded. Even though I was exposed to the same bullets, mortars, and combat terror as the men, I thought that since I was not doing the killing, I was somehow immune. It was part of my game: Look, I’m educated, I’ve got several degrees, I’m a therapist, I wasn’t one of them. Well that was pure folly.
But finally things began to unravel?
Even my wife did not realize what was happening. I was still good at the game, I was very effective as a therapist. But no one had any idea of what I was going through internally, the churning that was going on—just to keep all that stuff from bubbling up every day! But finally, I knew I couldn’t continue and I decided to get help, I knew I could not continue.
What does it mean to “Go till you blow”?
My therapist used the term in describing me when I was first having significant problems and went to see him at local vet center. The term coming from the old Southern stock car racing circuit: “Put the pedal to metal, if the engine blows, it blows.” That was what I was doing, how I was able to excel. I kept going and going, all but totally ignoring my own needs, until I finally “blew,” and basically had to get out of the race. I think it was a very apt description of what was and had happened to me, and what has and continues to happen to others.
How has reconnecting with your combat brothers been key to dealing with PTSD?
I had been reconnected for many years with guys I served with, before I confronted my problems. By the mid 90s we had started having reunions. Finally though, it was as a result of some of those guys who I reconnected with, guys I felt like I could talk to about what was going on with me, that I finally got help. They are my brothers. Even then, they’d tell me to go to the VA and talk to somebody, and I’d say OK but then not go. But finally I did and I’m very grateful to the guys who pushed me through the door. And I’ve pushed a lot of others through the door. That is part of the objective of the book.
So time doesn’t heal all wounds?
It heals most wounds but I think with PTSD we confuse suppression with healing. We do have the ability to suppress. We can keep it all pushed down. There are still tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans out there doing that, who really don’t know what’s going on with them, or may know part of what’s happening to them, but don’t know why, or who just don’t want to be labeled as mentally ill or whatever. They are not healing.
Is exposure to combat life changing, and does just one experience do it or does it require repeated exposure?
Yes it does change anyone. A number of years ago I thought you had to have a whole lot of exposure, but I don’t believe that any more. I think that one dramatic instance of combat exposure can create these problems. Unlike an athlete in training who gets better and more capable, with combat I think the more you are exposed the more vulnerable you get to have it then have it bubble up at certain times in your life. I speak to this more from the posture of a therapist than a victim. I do believe the more exposure a soldier has to combat, the more likely that he will have prolonged problems later on, but a single exposure can do it.
What is the emotional cost of having to kill and destroy?
The primary one is guilt. You ask, “Was that necessary?” Another is anger—for a young soldier to be put in a situation like that. There is no other situation in life where we take 19- or 20-year-olds and put them in a situation of kill or be killed.
How else does combat trauma distort a personality?
You just become numb to the realities of what is happening around you. How else do you deal with knowing you’ve killed people, even though it was a matter of your own survival? Or deal with the death and maiming of your comrades next to you. Trust is another casualty. Can I trust my government that forces me to do these things? For the typically young and fairly unsophisticated soldier, there are just so many of these ideas and questions that suddenly get swished around in you gut. It affects every facet of your life.
“Most veterans were successful after Vietnam in many ways. But all have that place where the feelings can rise up daily.”
You use the Virginia Tech shootings as an example of how unnatural our expectations are for coping with combat.
Its like, after this horrific experience, you told all the kids to help clean up the mess and go back to class. Then it happens the next day, and the next, and the kids are expected to carry on. That’s what soldiers in combat, about the same age, have to do. Clean up and move on. “Get your gear together, we’re going to move out again.” And it might happen again any minute.
How did you cope with that?
I think everybody was numbed out. Glad we survived, sad we lost buddies, but we had to accept it all as a new kind of normalcy. At home you have a buddy killed in a car wreck, you go to a wake, you mourn with your friends, you talk to your mamma, you grieve. One of the most common sayings among GIs was, “It don’t mean shit.” That was actually a critical coping mechanism. You can’t do anything about it, and you’ve got to make sure if you get hit again you’re ready.
Seems like a necessity in combat?
That coping mechanism of combat may have been appropriate then, but it becomes one of real problems to come to terms with later. Because those things really did matter and those feelings were there and they can then be resurrected at any time. The feelings themselves are neither good nor bad, they just are. What becomes good or bad are the behaviors that may come out of those feelings, which can cause a wide range of problems. Part of dealing with this is understanding is that you can’t make those feelings go away, but you can make adjustments to behaviors resulting from those feelings. I think not being able to make those connections is why an inordinate number of combat vets succumb to drugs and alcohol.
How did you choose the 15 others whose stories comprise your book, Combat Trauma?
I know and trust them. And I want readers to understand the credibility of the fact that individuals can lead two different lives, one open and one hidden. Every one of these guys lived two lives. Most were successful in a lot of areas, with their families and careers. But each also has that secret side of where the feelings bubble up daily. What they have learned after much pain and suffering is that you don’t have to allow those feelings to cause bad behavior.
What do you say to someone who questions how these 16 generally successful men functioned so well, and then three, four decades, later can’t cope?
I tell them, “You don’t know what’s in the soul of the combat vet.” Nobody knew what was going on with me—even I didn’t understand it, and I’m a trained professional. Nobody can see what’s in the heart of another. Who am I to make a judgment about what’s inside somebody else. These are hidden wounds. Is it a mental illness or combat wound? It might be both.
Some say that combat didn’t affect them. Can you come through unscathed?
I’ve heard a lot of guys say that—who then say later, “I guess I was fooling myself.” I was that way. You can draw a parallel to someone who is depressed, but who says “I’m fine, I can function.” But they don’t know how better it would be if they got some help.
How hard is it to admit you’ve got PTSD?
I was not proud of the fact of my diagnosis. I didn’t tell anybody beyond my Vietnam brothers for a long time. I was ashamed, fearful people would see me as weak. I don’t know what it was, but after a while I got to the point that I wasn’t ashamed, that maybe I need to tell my story to help others.
How did the sudden dispersal of your brotherhood upon leaving Vietnam contribute to the severity of PTSD?
It was such an unnatural experience. Your buddy could be shot right next to you, dusted off and never heard from again. “Hey old Bill, he was hit and all you know is that he was from Detroit.” These were just kids trying to survive who didn’t think they might want to get in touch with each other years later. It wasn’t easy to track guys down back then like it is now.
In the book you describe the infectious nature of PTSD, including intergenerational impacts.
Many guys have projected a lot of their feelings onto their wives and children. They’ve passed on a lot of anger to them, which they couldn’t understand and certainly didn’t deserve. A family won’t have any idea of what’s happening and why. In many cases the disconnect started when the children were very young, and as a result they often grew up impacted by their father’s trauma—and never understanding why. Unfortunately, I think lots of kids now in late their 30s and 40s are still distant and harbor hostility and anger for their fathers as a direct result of the effects of PTSD.
Why is it so hard for combat vets to tell others the painful details of what haunts them?
In many cases you quickly learn that whoever heard the stories could be torn and shaken, judgmental or speechless. And, it is true that some people could be damaged just to hear the details. There are going to be people who start to read this book and won’t be able to finish it. Now I don’t want to be judgmental, but I sometimes think, “Hey, we lived it and you can’t even read about it?”
Has the way your book interweaves real combat details with subsequent trauma symptoms been done before?
Not from the perspective of a collective group. The book idea arose in 2003 when I wrote some articles on PTSD. My literary agent said, “You need to write a book about PTSD, since you were a victim and are a clinician.” But at that point I could not follow through. A few years later, after I began getting my life back together I realized a lot of this needs telling but didn’t know how best to tell it. We found a lot has been written by clinicians, but here I was, a clinician and a victim, on both sides of this trauma and terror. Some individuals had written about their own story, but we couldn’t find where a group had told their intimate stories of combat trauma’s long-term effects. It is hard to discount that the16 of us were generally experiencing the same kinds of things. The more we looked, the more compelled we felt our stories needed to get out there. I don’t think any of us could have done it by ourselves.
What are the prospects for PTSD sufferers today, from Vietnam and later wars?
I think that we have to start with the VA. They are the ones charged to give help to vet. In some places the VA is very progressive, in others it is not. Some districts of the VA are very responsive, but others actually act like it’s their mission to avoid giving someone a rating. The standards are not the same across the system and that is a big inhibitor to many guys following through to get treatment. Many don’t know where to even start. I’ve helped dozens of guys just to understand the process and how to get the paperwork through. Then, once it’s though, some people might get a rating right away some may languish for months or years. I think the VA has a way to go before there is some sort of fair standard across the board. The recent ruling basically is to try to make it easier for someone to get paperwork in and done and get a quicker response. I think the media has helped, with articles about symptoms, treatments, suicide rates. It is definitely being talked about more and I think that’s got to help.
What do you tell that person reading this who thinks maybe they’ve got something like PTSD going on?
If you have a VA card, go to the your local VA now and tell them you want to be screened. There are people there or at your local Vet Center who will talk to you. It’s their job, so just go and do it. Don’t continue to suffer. There is help out there. If you have a headache you take something or get treatment. If you have heartache from combat, why not do the same?
What if it’s a loved one or friend who needs the help, but won’t talk about it?
What you can do, if the person will not talk about it, is contact the local Vet center or VA and tell them what’s going on and why you are concerned. Depending on the situation, they might have someone there who can help and do outreach. But it still boils down to the fact that the person themselves have to be compliant. Reaching out through other combat veterans is another avenue. If the person has been isolated from brothers, go to their pastor or another trusted individual who may have some influence with them.
Even though it’s been 40 years, is it ever too late to reconnect and get help?
I encourage everyone to reconnect, especially for those who were in combat. There are big organizations that people can join, such as the VVA and VFW and smaller groups where guys can get back in touch. It is much more than just getting together to tell old war stories. It can be very therapeutic for those who may need help.
It must be hard to see the new crop of combat veterans, suffering through the same trauma.
The military today is making efforts to prepare the men going in and doing extensive screening when they come back. Many will still fall through the cracks or deny anything is wrong. They need all our help, and my colleagues and I are donating all royalties from our book to the Wounded Warriors program.
Why did you insist on having your personal email address is on your book jacket?
My publisher tried to dissuade me, but I said the whole reason for this book is to help people. If I convince just one guy get some help, it will have been worth it. They can contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Combat Trauma: A Personal Look at Long-Term Consequences is available today at www.HistoryNetShop.com