Tag Archives: guilt



“…The Huey was slowly rising.  The steady rhythmic thump of its engines smothered the screaming chaos below.  Looking down, I recognized pieces of men, wrapped in olive drab.  Moments ago, those things were legs, arms, and heads.  Mortar rounds were dropping everywhere.  Rounds were clattering against the bottom of the Huey.  It was so loaded with men, its’ engines were straining.  One of our abandoned dead moved and waved to us.  His legs were missing.  He waved frantically.  There was no chance of rescue.  Enemy ground movement was visible at the tree line.  No one was firing on them because we were trying to get out before we lost more men.  The Gooks had kicked the shit out of us on the ground, and destroyed three choppers unloading men.  I think our LTs were afraid to fire.  I heard, or thought I did, the legless soldier’s scream in my ear.  His motions became hysterical, as he tried to stand and realized why he could not.  The only thing in reach was my M-16, and even though it was empty and I was required to keep it that way, I could not help myself.  My motion was fast and automatic, as I took a full clip and reloaded my weapon.  Before anyone noticed, I was locked and loaded and hanging half out of the chopper.  I used it.  In that millisecond after my weapon jumped a couple times, I saw the man’s eyes glare into mine.  His face, locked in an unending scream, vanished into the swirling dust of his death.

I did not know the guy.  To this day, I can see his terrified eyes glaring their raging betrayal at me.  I hope he did not know me.  The warrant officer looked at me, and I knew he just watched me kill an American.  When he looked away, and would not meet my eyes, my shame multiplied, ten-fold.  He never mentioned the incident in his reports and I have remained silently grateful, ever since.  Jim was lying on the deck next to me.  His eyes caught mine, for a second, and he looked horrified at what I’d done, but he understood the why of it.  My eyes suddenly filled with tears at my act of kindness.  It was a violation of Army regulations and I could be in real trouble, since two men witnessed it.  This was insane.  I felt shame for doing it and knew I would do it again, no matter who was watching.  I ended his pain by taking the last few moments of his lost life.  I couldn’t stop my tears, so I hid them by taking a few shots at the victorious gooks running out of the trees.  I watched the dust and smoke drift over that unknown, unnamed place of death, until it was out of my range.”


A friend sent me this article last week showing ‘before, during, and after’ pictures of combat soldiers that have survived their tour of duty.  If it is true that ‘the eyes are the windows to the soul’, the photographs depicted in this article give a clear visual record of that fact.

My husband is a survivor of three combat tours during the Vietnam War.  Although the war was physically over for him almost forty years ago, he remains haunted by it to this day.  I can see it in his eyes and hear it while he sleeps.  The war will never end for him.  He still runs through those jungles, every night.  He still hears his dead team mates call to him in his dreams.  When he leaves the peace and safety of home and goes out into the world, he is on constant alert.  His eyes are always darting about as he scans his surroundings, always looking for possible threats and escape routes… always on guard and always ready for battle.

I have seen, first hand, how combat affects the human soul and permanently changes the soldiers that live it.  Innocence, once lost, can never be recovered.  My husband is still the same soul that went to war to fight for his country, but he is forever changed, hardened. At times he is seemingly inexplicably both filled with rage, and saddened.  He will never overcome his survivor’s guilt, he can never go back to the young man he was before his soul was forever scarred by war.

There was a time in this country when it was against the law to teach slaves to read and write.  The reason for this was that slave owners feared educated slaves.  They knew that once someone learned to read and write, they could not ‘unlearn’ it.  They knew an uneducated slave was easier to keep docile, while an educated slave could be downright dangerous.

The lyrics, “How you gonna keep em’ down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree” are from a popular World War I song and gives another example of that simple fact.   Once you ‘know’ something, you are forever changed by that information.

Even if they survive combat without physical wounds, the horror of combat and survivor’s guilt leave veteran’s permanently scarred.  They can never be the same as they were.  Their new personas are unrecognizable to everyone they knew, and far too often, to themselves as well.  The person they used to be is dead, buried under the burden of knowledge and experience they now carry.  The person that returns to the world has experienced sights, sounds, and horrors that loved ones cannot even begin to imagine, let alone understand, or relate to… so even though the veteran looks like the same person, they are not, and can never be, again.

I have met enough combat veterans to know that it is the same for each and every one of them.  They are all like my husband.  They all suffer permanently from the damage done to them by their experiences with War.  They all need help to return to the world.  They need the patience and understanding of people that love them.  More than that, they need the acceptance of those people to be unconditional.  The veterans who have been damaged by exposure to combat require acceptance for who they are now. For the most part, they are unable to cope with demands that they return to who they were, before they left home.  That is as impossible as unlearning to read.  The people that love a combat veteran must love them enough to accept the person they have become if they ever hope to help that veteran to heal. They must accept the fact that the person they knew before the war, is a casualty of that war, and will never return.

That is the only hope a combat veteran has of surviving their return to the world.  Our veterans have sacrificed so much for us.  We must not abandon our soldiers.  We must accept them, love them, and do everything within our power to help them as they struggle to survive their homecoming.   Returning veterans may not be the same people we remember them as, but they are still our husbands, fathers, sons and daughters, neighbors, and friends.  They have put their lives on the line, and they deserve our support.

If you want to get a better understanding of what I am talking about, I suggest you take the time to read “Heirs of Honor”. The author, my husband, lived the Vietnam War. He still lives it. His experiences will help you understand YOUR veteran better.

Pete’s Story

In 1977, I had a friend that was opening a new business in Los Angeles. He needed signs made, so he asked his best friend to fly in from Anchorage, Alaska, to do the work. That was how I met Pete, a Vietnam veteran, who served four tours as a paratrooper. I only knew this because my friend told me.

Pete never talked about the war. He was uncomfortable around people, and had moved to Anchorage within a year of coming back to the world. He lived a quiet life as a sign painter, and spent his time off in the woods, hunting, fishing, and guiding others. Mostly, he spent his time alone. He liked to sit in a tree blind. When I met him, he had long since stopped killing the bears, but he loved to just sit and watch them. It gave him peace.

Coming to L.A. to do those signs was very difficult for Pete, but he could not refuse his friend, so he suffered the noise, the congestion, the people and their questions, with good nature, for the sake of his friend. He drank, and smoked a lot of pot, for survival’s sake. My friend never noticed Pete’s pain, and sense of alienation, being just so happy to have him there. But I noticed. Pete and I spent a lot of time together. He felt more comfortable in my presence, especially when forced into social situations. I never questioned him, and I never judged him. Pete finished the work in a few days and went home, but he and I remained friends.

In May of 1979, he invited me to visit him for a couple of weeks. We had a great time. It was my first trip to Alaska, and I could not have had a better guide. He showed me his world, tutored me in survival in the Alaskan wilderness, and took me up into his tree blind. I never forgot the advice he gave me,”….never come out here without a 44 magnum, these bears ain’t Smokey”….”never wear your hip waders into deep water, you’ll drown,” and “….mosquitos are the Alaskan state bird, so wear netting.” He was a passionate environmentalist, before it was fashionable, and hated all that did harm to the planet, but he cared very little for people.

The day before I left, he talked about the war, his pain and survivor’s guilt. Even though the life he created for himself was peaceful and isolated, life back in the world was very hard for Pete, and he told me that he often thought of just leaving it all behind.

My friend called me, a few months later. He was crying. Pete had been guiding someone and setting up a ‘fish camp’, when there was a flash flood. Without taking off his hip waders, Pete walked into the water, and drowned. I knew that he finally had enough, and decided to end his life. I knew him well enough to understand and respect his choice, but to this day, I still miss him.

By 1985, more than 80,000 Vietnam veterans had committed suicide. It is happening all over again, right now, right here in America. If we, as Americans, want to stop seeing this history repeated, we must do a much better job helping our veteran’s return to the world.

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A post submitted by E. F. Grossman’s Wife:

The horror of combat and survivor’s guilt, leaves veteran’s permanently wounded, even if they survived battle without a physical wound. They can never come home, at least, not as the people they were when they last saw their family and friends. They are unrecognizable to everyone they left behind, and far too often, to themselves, as well. That person they used to be is dead. The person that returns to the world has experienced sights, sounds, and horrors that loved ones cannot even begin to imagine, let alone understand, or relate to… so even though the veteran looks like the same person, they are not, and can never be, again.

My husband had a friend that was a former Navy Seal. Like most that served in the various branches of Special Forces, he had given years of service to his country, and had dedicated his entire life to that service. Since Seal operations are often ‘top secret’, and he took an oath to remain silent (like all special ops soldiers),. As a result, he was forced to swallow his rage and pain, and memories.

He began his service in his youth. The Seals became his only family. When one of his teammates, his closest friend through many missions, and many years, died in his arms, it hit him harder than anything else he had ever experienced. The trauma was so great, that he could no longer function. He was hospitalized, and eventually ‘retired’ from the Navy.

He came home to a world he could not recognize, and tried to blend in. He took a job as a mechanic, but could not hold it. He had a small pension that allowed him to live, but he could not work, or go to school, even though his benefits would have provided an education, he could not keep the focus required for college. Mind you, this was a highly intelligent man. The Seals don’t take dummies. He was just lost in wounds, so permanent that they would never stop bleeding.

His mother could not understand him, even though his father had been a military man. His brother, who had served twenty years in the Army on a base in California, had never seen combat, and could not relate to him at all. He had no friends in the outside world, having joined the Navy at eighteen. He felt most comfortable in that underworld of society, often referred to as ‘outlaw’; because so many in that world were fellow veterans whose experiences were close to his own. They provided him with a foundation of family that he could relate to, since his own family, and society in general, had driven him away. Even when he found a lady and fell in love, she told him to “…just get over it!”

He could not. None of them can.

If you love a combat veteran, you must love them enough to accept them as they are, if you are ever to be able to help them learn to cope back in the world.