Recently, Thomas Murray read a piece in The New York Times about the high number of suicides among members of a Marine battalion that had served in Afghanistan. It sparked something. It sounded familiar, the story about the never-ending agonies of war.
He’d been there.
His was a different war, but the stories of veterans broken by their experiences, the deep wounds never healing, were remarkably similar.
He knew the stories.
He is a Philadelphia native and moved to York with his family when he was 12. He graduated from York Country Day School and went on to Haverford College, earning a degree in history. In November 1967, his student deferment expired, he received his draft notice, and in January 1968, he was a member of the U.S. Army. He had hoped that having a college degree would make a difference in how the Army assigned him. It didn’t. He drew infantry.
The Army offered him a chance to be a commissioned officer, but he declined it. He didn’t want to be in the Army, and going to Officers Candidate School would have extended his enlistment by 10 months. He wanted to get out as soon as possible. He chose instead to go through Non-Commissioned Officer training.
He went to Vietnam on Dec. 3, 1968, a sergeant, a squad leader called upon to replace squad leaders who didn’t make it home. He was assigned to a replacement company, awaiting orders. Among his first duties in-country was riding shotgun on a garbage truck, hauling the Army’s trash to a dump on the outskirts of Bien Hoa, near Saigon. He remembered seeing Vietnamese civilians scavenging the dump for scraps.
From there, he took a C-120 to Chu Lai, a Marine base on the coast that also served as a base for the Army’s 23rd Division. From there, it was off to a fire base in the field, leading a squad with A Company, doing search-and-destroy patrols in the mountains and jungle about 25 miles inland, looking for VC and caches of weapons and supplies.
The squad would come under fire now and then, usually sniper fire. They’d hear gun shots and everybody would hit the deck. There was a constant anxiety.
The first death he saw was a child. It was daybreak, and a member of his squad saw someone in the brush, spying on them through the jungle. Other soldiers opened fire. Murray didn’t. His M-16 jammed, something that later led to him cleaning and oiling the weapon on a nightly basis. After the burst of fire, the squad investigated. They didn’t see any blood trails, but just beyond the edge of the jungle they spotted a hut. Inside they found a woman and her child. A bullet had passed through the woman’s arm and struck the child in the neck.
His unit operated in a rural area. There were very few villages, just small clusters of huts, occupied by rice farmers mostly. They would encounter the enemy now and then, mostly hearing them in the brush as they patrolled.
In March 1969, his unit was assigned to be a blocking force, digging in to confront the NVA as other units flanked the enemy and forced them toward their position. They started receiving heavy mortar fire and moved to a new position by a stone wall. They could hear the enemy in the jungle, a bad thing. If you could hear them, he recalled, they had you.
Night fell, and by morning it was quiet. Another NCO, just 18, a new guy, went over the wall to go to the bathroom. The NVA set up an ambush and shot him. Another soldier who went over the wall to retrieve the new guy was also shot.
A couple of days passed. His unit was pinned down. Heavy fire. The tactics he learned in training called for a frontal assault, laying down enough fire to suppress enemy fire. Another sergeant took an M-60 and went over the wall. The gun jammed, and he was shot in the buttocks. Murray went to retrieve him, and that’s when it happened.
A round zipped in front of his face, splitting his left nostril and slicing his cheek. He couldn’t see. He was bleeding profusely. The medic bandaged him up, and he awaited med-evac with the other wounded.
It was March 3, 1969, 90 days after he had arrived in Vietnam.
In a way, he felt lucky. One inch and the round would have taken his head off.
The first med-evac chopper was shot down. The second, accompanied by helicopter gunships, got him and the other wounded out.
He went to a field hospital. Got to sleep in a bed. Had decent, albeit Army, chow. He was feeling good. One morning, though, as he ate breakfast, the hospital came under rocket attack. He remembered the other soldiers dove under the tables. He sat there, frozen.
“They were out to get me,” he thought, “no matter where I was.”
The war was over for him. He spent some time in a hospital in Japan, and after he healed he was assigned to a supply warehouse in Korea.
He came home just before Christmas 1969.
When he returned, he felt lost. He spent a year on the lost highway, living off $50-a-month G.I. unemployment and hanging out with buddies, traveling, drinking, smoking weed. He went on a long road trip to San Diego — and then into Baja, Calif. He didn’t know how to deal. He felt alone. He wouldn’t talk about his service.
After his unemployment ran out, he got a job as a case worker with child welfare in York County. He got sober, got married and went to grad school at West Virginia University to study social work.
In the early ’80s, he began working with Vietnam veterans. Now 70, he’s retired. But the stories of veterans and their difficulties dealing with the consequences of their service still resonate with him.
Their stories are his story. The alienation and the feeling that people didn’t understand them or appreciate them and their service and sacrifice.
And when he read the story in the Times about the Marines who served in Afghanistan and their difficulties dealing with their PTSD, he had to respond. He wrote a comment in response to the story on the Times website. The Times later published it as a letter to the editor.
He wrote, “The places we fought are different, the times separated by years, but the anguish, pain, isolation, distrust, sense of shame, anger and alienation are the same.”
The new war, same as the old war.
This letter was published Sept. 24 in the New York Times:
To the Editor:
Re “A Unit Stalked by Suicide, Trying to Save Itself” (front page, Sept. 20):
Reading this brings me so much sadness. I am a wounded combat veteran from the war in Vietnam. I worked with other combat veterans over a 30-year career as a social worker and therapist. The places we fought are different, the times separated by years, but the anguish, pain, isolation, distrust, sense of shame, anger and alienation are the same.
We now have “evidence-based” therapies, so we lightly train newly graduated therapists in them, people who have no real understanding of the military, war or combat, and ask them to solve a riddle they don’t understand.
That these veterans are helping one another is a good thing, but not enough. Vet Centers, run by the V.A., are often staffed by therapists who are themselves veterans, often combat veterans. I hope these men reach out to them for help, as they try to help themselves.
THOMAS W. MURRAY
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Mike Argento’s column appears Mondays, Fridays and Sundays in York Daily Record (York, Pa.). He can be reached at 717-771-2046 or at [email protected]. Read more Argento columns at www.ydr.com/mike. Or follow him on Twitter at @FnMikeArgento.