Editor’s note: Eric Brown is a professor of social and behavioral science at Springfield Technical Community College. He teaches a course called The Psychology of Love.
My name is Eric Brown. I am a proud veteran. I served in the United States Army and was stationed in Vietnam from 1967-1968 with the First Calvary Division as a field medic.
There were many years where if someone told me that at the age of 75, I would be standing in front of an audience declaring that I am a proud veteran, I would have scoffed at that person. For 25 years I did not talk with anyone about my experiences. Then one night, during the first Gulf war, I was watching television. They were broadcasting the arrival of soldiers at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee. As they entered the airport, crowds of people were there to greet them: Instead of yelling “baby killers” they were thanking them for their service. Instead of shunning the soldiers as though they were toxic, the people were applauding and cheering. It was then that I decided it was time to start sharing with others that period of life. Little by little, I began to open up; I started to talk about what I went through.
One of the ways I get upset is when I hear someone say “I don’t know why they suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic disorder). I don’t believe they really have it. After all, they knew what they were getting into when they enlisted.” No, they didn’t. No, they did not. I do not care how many video games one plays. I do not care how many simulated battles in which one may have participated. One cannot understand or comprehend the horrors and ravages of war until one witnesses it firsthand.
I was very fortunate, because, I was never put in the position of having to actually kill someone. I am sure I would have suffered much if I had extinguished the breath of another human being (especially since I feel that life is so precious). I can fully understand why so many soldiers returned with PTSD. Vietnam, as with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was a war of terrorism. Often, the enemy wore no uniforms. So, you never knew who the enemy was – and sometimes it would be that child or woman who was trying to destroy you. Just imagine yourself in that situation. How would you react?
I was stationed in the northern region of South Vietnam. I worked in an aid station whereby we took the injured off helicopters, attended to their wounds long enough to evacuate them. I remember an incident where I had to work on a North Vietnamese who had been hit by a phosphorus grenade. Normally, when a person has been exposed to a grenade, the damage is complete after the shrapnel penetrates the skin. However, with a phosphorus grenade, the shrapnel, as long as oxygen is present, will keep burning through the tissue and muscle. As I am attending to this young man by applying as quickly as possible compresses to suffocate the points of entry, as I am listening to his screams, as I smelt the stench of burning flesh, I could not think of this person as a gook, as the enemy, as an object – I could only think of him as a human being with wants, desires, needs probably similar to my own. I wondered about his family – what were his parents like – did he have any sisters or brothers? What were his interests, his passions? In the end, we were too late and I watched him die. The most I could for him was to try to alleviate the suffering in the last few moments of life through shots of morphine.
Approximately thirty days before my tour was up, our camp was hit with an artillery attack. The shells missed our area by about 1,000 yards. As the bodies began to come in, there was one I can never forget. His leg was severely damaged to the point it was barely hanging together by threads of tissue and skin. The doctor told me his leg could not be saved and for me to finish the amputation. This soldier was yelling about the pain in his foot and would it be alright? What could I tell him? Not only do you not have a foot, you don’t have a calf and half your thigh is gone?
Back in the states, as I contemplated my experiences, especially after receiving little respect upon my return, it was extremely difficult to understand any purpose for me having been there. How could anyone justify such destruction, such killing? What was the point? Are we supposed to destroy life for some political ideology of which I did not understand and I am sure most of the Vietnamese did not either? Therefore, I needed to come up with some clear vision, some direction or I could be swallowed up in bitterness. As I pondered and as I read such books as Abraham Maslow’s Toward a Psychology of Being and Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, I came to the conclusion that the only word that could sum up human’s potential is love. For that moment on, in my early twenties until now, I have pursued the study of this phenomenon.
The greatest gift that we can give one another is love. Yet, that gift is so often overlooked with hate, mistrustfulness, deceit, jealousy, false patriotism. We, collectively, as human beings need to make ourselves aware of what we are projecting unto the world. With every act, we need to be conscious – are we contributing to the betterment of humanity? When we see someone in need, do we say, ”What will happen to me if I help him/her? Will s/he take advantage of me?” Or can we reverse the question and say, “What will happen to him/her if I do not intervene?”
Therefore, if you meet a veteran who is having a tough time reintegrating into society. If you meet a veteran who is depressed (the suicide rate is much higher than among the general population). If you meet a veteran who is having recurring nightmares. If you meet a veteran who is suffering from flashbacks. Reach out to him/her. Touch him/her. And listen. Yes, just listen without judgment. After all, in the final analysis, are we not all brothers and sisters? And should we not all love each other in the same way that we would want to be loved?
Thank you for listening.
And to all your veterans out there, thank you for your service.