How The Vietnam War Affected Me

Many Vietnam veterans struggled upon returning to the United States. They wrestled with the psychic trauma of the war and felt isolated and out of place, rejected by their country and their previous friends.

I had stepped outside of the American hip culture and mainstream society by the end of July 1968 and arrived back into it near the beginning of February 1970.  I came back to a different world that I had left, I was in shock and dismayed at how things had changed.  I actually thought everyone I knew had also grown up like I did when I was away.  Little did I know then that my friends and their world had drifted into moral decay with drugs, alcohol and immorality.  College life for them was wild, with drugs, sex, and entertainment, anything but being educational, responsible, or mature.

At the same time, the Marine Corps had changed me into a lean, mean-fighting Marine.  I learned survival.  It was kill or be killed.  The war had also changed my thinking about life forever.  Within a few months of being home from the service, I found myself mentally and emotionally torn apart with the dichotomy I saw of compromising lifestyles and bad attitudes of past friends versus my more serious way of life.  The war had made me more serious, more conservative, more respectful, and more responsible.   On the other hand, those friends I had left behind two years earlier were “carefree” and were focused on their own pleasures in life.

I had come to a crossroad, I had a dilemma.  No one understood what I was thinking and no one even cared about any of my experiences in Vietnam, not my friends, not my own family members.  I became a recluse and began staying away from people.  I felt rejected.  Within a few weeks, I had pushed away all my past friends which I didn’t understand and rejected their friendships and their lifestyles.  I became angry.  I became angry about what I had become, a killing machine.  I was still in survival mode, do or die attitude, but living stateside as a civilian.  I was thinking that the enemy was still there close by and going to kill me if I wasn’t careful.  I was still in a warzone mode but found myself now living in a large Southern California Metropolitan area.

I began to get more angry.  I hated my past friends and church who had rejected me and wouldn’t take any time to listen to me and my struggles.  I hated the government for drafting me into the war.  I hated everyone who disrespected the American flag or any soldier who had been in Vietnam.  I was angry because I couldn’t shut out the horrific memories of my experiences in Nam.  I was angry about all the guys that died at my side in those battles.  I was angry because many, many of my fighting buddies had permanent wounds and physical scares they would have to live with for the rest of their lives.  I was angry because I was alone and angry about the war.  I was angry because our government and the American people had lost the purpose of winning the war in Vietnam.  No one cared.

I was angry at the world because of the evil I saw in the war.  I was angry with everyone at college and at work because they had no clue about what I was feeling, what I had experienced, nor understood the commitment I had made for freedom and its cost.  The Vietnam War was debilitating.

Nightly in my dreams, I saw the constant death I had experienced, the rotting flesh, the body parts, the blood that was spilled on the battle scene.  Sometimes, it was my blood.  I remember during the early months after I returned home from the war, washing my hands over and over for weeks every day trying to keep the human blood off my hands.  There were weeks and weeks when I didn’t want to go to sleep at night.  I had a serious problem and needed help.

After being home only 16 days from Vietnam, I was discharged from the Marine Corps and flew home to New York to visit my parents.  I’ll never forget that first early morning when I was sleeping in the guest bedroom and my mother, bless her soul, decided to present to me breakfast in bed.  Unfortunately, as she began to open the door to the bedroom with a tray of food and coffee.  I jumped up the second she opened the door and knocked her out cold on the floor.    After she came around, she understood then that the Marine Corps and the Vietnam War had turned me into a killing machine.  She told me that she loved me and was deeply sorry for what horrific experiences I had been exposed to.   I told her that I loved her but please don’t ever approach me when I am sleeping.  During her lifetime, she always wanted to know about my combat experiences and feelings about the war.  She passed away many years ago now at the age of 82 and I never told her much about the war in Vietnam.

The mistake I made when I came home from the war was that I tried to pretend that the war never happened.  I felt sorry for myself and never talked much about my combat involvement in the Nam war for over 40 years.  I am now trying for the first time to write about my combat experiences in the “Arizona Territory” during my year of combat service in Vietnam in 1969. My wife says I’m beginning to open up more and talk more about it.   That’s good.

Over the years, sleeping has never been normal.  My arms and legs always twitch while I am sleeping.  Some nights, I still kick the covers very high in the air as I am performing hand-to-hand combat with the enemy in my dreams.  I’ll wake up from a sweat, shaking, then shake it off knowing it was only a dream, that same dream I’ve dreamt ever since I’ve left Vietnam.  Over forty years has gone by and I still have nightmares about the trauma of being overrun in a firefight, the crashing of a helicopter, or seeing my Marine buddy explode upward in the air from stepping on a booby trap.   I still jump when I hear firecrackers or a loud boom-sounding noise.  These repeated PTSD reactions I’ll take to my grave someday, and then the Vietnam War will truly be over for me.  Fortunately, I’ve never decked my wife or my children.

Over forty years have passed since I was in Vietnam as a combat Marine.  I still have vivid memories of the war as I continue to deal with the emotional battle scars.  The pain and suffering of my war experiences aren’t as emotionally painful as they were the first ten years after the war.   I continue to pray that the scares will continue to be distant memories of a different life.   I am forever grateful to God that I had the experience to serve my Country and my God, even in such a controversial war as Vietnam.

I live in peace with God and man and don’t physically or mentally fight PTSD, nor have anxiety.  I liken my Vietnam War PTSD to a mental scar that I see but realize that it is only a scar and scars can’t hurt me.  Like the scar on my finger where I had nine stitches from when I cut it when I was a kid.  It hurt back then, but it’s only a scar to remind me of what happened back when I was young.  Likewise, the mental scars of the Vietnam War are only scars, not painful anymore, and they can’t hurt me now.  They were events that happened back then, not now.  My PTSD has never affected my inability to function well in business or in my family life.  My faith in God has kept me strong and mentally well.

Larry D. Tyler

1969 Vietnam Veteran