Nightmares are a common event at my house. Even though the Vietnam War has been over for my husband almost fifty years, he re-visits those battlefields, nightly. It has become such a normal event that he rarely remembers the details of his dreams when he wakes up, only that he was back in the jungle fighting the war. I can tell when he is running through the jungle by his violent leg movement, tossing about, and groans, but as I said, these are normal occurrences and we have grown to accept it as part of our lives. Every now and then, he has more intense and vivid dreams, dreams that seem so real that they incorporate every one of his senses and cannot be forgotten in the light of day. Those are the dreams that haunt him, and will not allow him the luxury of just ‘putting the war behind him’.
Last night, my husband had one of those dreams. He could smell the mud, as he burrowed down into it to escape the rounds he heard flying past him. At one point, a frag hit his chest and he could feel the heat as it burned into his clothing and rolled down toward his crotch, burning his fingers as he tried desperately to brush it away from his skin. It was that desperation that sent him flying out of bed and up against the bedroom wall, where he found himself waking out of the dream. When I asked him about it, this is what he told me….
“….I was struggling to get up a small hill, a mound really, that was coated in black slimy mud. I tried to balance myself by sinking a hand deep inside that mud, to hold myself up. I remember that everything smelled of putrefaction, like the smell of old grain inside a barn.
I remember being annoyed because it was the beginning of the Monsoon season, and the rain had come early. The mud was very deep and thick, and as I stood up at the top of the mound, I could hear the rounds coming in on us, so I threw myself belly down, back to the base of the mound for cover. I heard this ‘flack, flack, flack’ sound of the rounds sinking into mud, making craters where they hit.
Something hit my pack, and I remember thinking to myself that it was a good thing I dived for cover, when I felt something burning, as it rolled around in my clothing. My fingers burned as I tried to brush it off. I was very scared, and I climbed to my knees, as I tried to find that hot thing, that chunk of metal that was burning its’ way through my clothes. As I desperately tried to find that frag before it burned into my crotch, I felt something very hard and cold against my ass. Then I had to fight like a demon to find out what that was and ever so slowly, I realized that I was standing on top of carpet, and I wondered ‘where the hell did this come from?’ I kept checking my hands for the burn marks, but they didn’t seem to be there…..then I knew where I was….back in my bedroom, leaning against the wall. Even though I knew it was a dream, I found myself checking my hands for blisters and burn marks, hours after waking.”
As I said, the instances of such vivid dreams have lessened over the years, and usually involve his team mates that died, calling to him as if they were just a few feet away. They are always together, back in the jungle, fighting for each other.
Even though we are decades past the Vietnam War, a part of my husband remains behind in those battlefields. No matter how much time passes, he can never fully escape that war. He just does his best to live with it.
In 1976, my husband suffered one of those ‘vivid dreams’. He woke up in a park in North Hollywood, California, surrounded by police who had tried for hours to catch him. He thought they were Viet Cong, trying to kill him. He spent the next thirty-six years writing about his experiences in Vietnam, as therapy, and in an effort to understand. ‘HEIRS OF HONOR’ was published in 2012.