I listened to Arianna Huffington talking about the importance of sleep on NPR, and thought about my personal sleep experience as a veteran. There are now thousands of veterans experiencing the same sleep disturbances I went through, and I think it is important that they begin to understand the changes in themselves. My experience is from Vietnam. At the time, there was no clear definition of post-traumatic impact and sleep disturbance. Still, as the World War II veteran said, they take the same mud and move it from war to war – war remains the same, regardless of time and place. The following, then, is for my newly-minted Brothers and Sisters and their families – those who have been through it more recently and may not yet understand:
Consider the dreams of childhood. Effortless flight. Play with a favorite puppy. Race to fires and put them out as a child hero. Dreams of war and heroism; close calls and great sacrifice. Dreams of becoming, because that’s what we’re doing when we are young. Dreams heal who we are; they build us toward the person we will be.
Sometimes not knowing the price you’ve paid can seem better. I didn’t know. Late-night checks of locks were routine, and it was no big deal. No matter the season, I would wake in a cold sweat, unable to fall asleep again. I’d run a check on doors and windows to make sure they were locked. After all, in today’s world, there are a lot of threats. Locks may be for keeping honest people out, but it’s always best to make the dishonest work a little harder before they try to steal or kill. Better safe than sorry, I told myself as I stumbled around the house. A darkness deeper than night followed me then, trailing the smoke of an unremembered dream.
I didn’t recall the dream; I just sensed it. Deep night. Hiding behind large odd shapes, fearing for my life and the lives of others. Just a stupid nightmare, maybe, but it always brought me wide awake with a desperate desire to hold something. Something in both hands. Weight and comfort. Stupid damn nightmare - something about waiting to die. I dreamed it so often that it’d almost worry me if I didn’t have it. Still, there were other dreams that seemed to fill the gaps. I had a good supply of dreams I didn’t recall. Out-of-focus dreams, maybe, but things blew up and I died but I survived, and I woke up. Sweating. And I checked locks. And I wanted to feel the weight in my hands, because the weight meant I could …do something.
I beat myself up about it. Like a ten-year-old kid, I was afraid of the dark, dammit. Ridiculous for a grown man to have nightmares and wake up and be afraid and make sure things are locked. Stupid man. Stupid dream. Childish idiocy.
In my work life, the lack of sleep usually hit me around two o’clock in the afternoon, so I took to having a walk around that time. More idiocy. I couldn’t sleep for fear of the dark; couldn’t stay awake during the day because of it. Wherever I worked, I established a reputation as that guy who takes afternoon walks. People tended to tell me things couldn’t be that bad when they saw my expression. I didn’t know what they were talking about, but I’d try to adjust my expression to a happy one for the sake of maintaining some kind of normalcy. Who the hell were they to tell me I looked like things were bad? So what? I did my job, didn’t I? Jerks. I bet they slept just fine, and hadn’t carried a childhood fear of the dark into adulthood.
I was fortunate to have an understanding wife. She could tolerate my tossing and turning at night, and on the rare occasion when I threw a punch or kicked her in my sleep, she forgave me. I couldn’t forgive myself for such things, and I couldn’t understand her tolerance.
About four years into our marriage, my wife told me I would often say something that sounded like “gunner” in my sleep. I told her I was just mumbling, and that couldn’t be it, because the only ‘gunner’ I recalled was a kid who sat on our ship’s deck filing the noses flat on the full metal jacket rounds we used for board-and-search operations. When I told her that, she asked me if I had been in Vietnam, and I told her yes. She asked me what I did there, and I told her I floated around off the coast and came home. Period. End of subject.
My wife never pushed me about it, but my war experience began to come back to me in broken pieces and fragments of terror. The dark dream began to make sense, and things in my life got worse. The odd shapes I hid behind were equipment on the deck of a ship; the darkness was real, and every night, I low-crawled on deck, positioned myself carefully, and did a quick up-and-down check of the ship beside us, and then it blew up and everyone on it died and I woke up and knew that the weight I wanted so desperately to feel in both hands was a Browning Automatic Rifle, loaded with rounds that had been filed flat-nosed by Gunner, and I knew. Damn. I knew. And then I’d get up because sleep was impossible, and I’d check to make sure the windows and doors were locked.
Continuous employment was problematic for me, and I began to talk to the people at my local Vet Center. Maybe if I could tackle this bad dream thing head-on, I could keep a job for more than a year. It worked after a fashion. I began to stay employed at the same job for a couple of years, then three. At the Vet Center, a Marine cleared the lock thing up for me. He simply asked me what part of ‘perimeter check’ I didn’t understand. I told him to go to hell, because I was a sailor, and we didn’t do perimeter checks, so he could get screwed, and that couldn’t be why I did it. The Marine just smiled at me. The bastard knew he was right.
Thirty years of dreams. Ten thousand days. Ten thousand nights. Fired from jobs because people seemed afraid of me. I walked through a building to clear it when everyone else panicked and ran away from the bomb scare; I talked to a Grenada veteran when others avoided him because they were convinced he would come in to work one day with his weapon. No one had reason to fear me. I was a nice guy. But still they feared me.
Three decades after I came home to America, I was fired from my final job. I went home with a box full of personal supplies and told my wife I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t work with people who feared me, who didn’t understand.
I caved inward. Considered suicide … and I went to a PTSD treatment program at a Veterans’ Administration hospital a hundred miles away from the home we were in danger of losing to foreclosure.
When I checked in to the treatment program, the nurse took my blood pressure. It was 174 over 129, and it occurred to me that I’d just die right then, torn apart internally by my own heart. Ten thousand nights of dreams about explosions, and then my damn heart blows up. So be it. Appropriate finish.
The VA put me in a dormitory bedroom alone. I went to sleep. At about 2:00AM that night, a light flashed in my eyes and I responded. I found myself in a dimly lit hallway with an orderly backing away from me as quickly as he could, saying over and over that he was just doing a bed check, hands open toward me to show they were empty, fear in his expression. Chu Hoi, I thought. Chu Hoi. Literally translated, it means “Open Arms” in Vietnamese. The expression was used to surrender or say that the speaker was a friendly. The orderly in the hallway was a friendly, and I didn’t have to kill him. Thirty years after the fact, I still had need for the ten-second rule; the one that says you are not responsible for your actions for a full ten seconds after someone wakes you up in a combat zone. Shit. I went back to bed, recalling the terrified expression on the orderly’s face.
The next day, a doctor interviewed me about a lot of things including how I slept. I told him. I’m sure the orderly had also told him how I slept. The Doctor talked to me about REM sleep and how important it is. I told the doctor I had no clue if I did any REM sleeping, but staying fully asleep for more than an hour simply didn’t happen for me. The Doc gave me two little pills and told me to take them before bedtime that night. I did.
Sunlight woke me. I had overslept. I sat up on the edge of the bed and stretched. I dropped my arms in my lap, and I saw them. Marks. Marks left by the small folds in the sheets I slept on. Lines of sleep put there by the passage of time. I grabbed yesterday’s pants and ran barefoot down the stairs to the Doctor’s office. I burst in and showed him. Marks, Doc. I have sheet marks. Look. Sheet marks. Tears streaming down my face, I held out my arms to show the doctor traces of lines on my arms that showed I had slept in a single position for the first time in thirty years. I hugged him; I thanked him.
The pills didn’t stop the dreams, but they seemed to lower my adrenaline response to the point that I could sleep through them. I have never again tried to put an orderly down since that first night.
I decided recently to hold a funeral for those ten thousand nights. Veteran friends encouraged me to do it. One day, I drove up to the barn and looked around on the ground. I found three stones. One was red sandstone, worn smooth into a triangle. I started to toss it back on the ground, but I didn’t. It looked like the triangular rice hats worn in Vietnam. It reminded me of something else. The second stone was white limestone, worn smooth by a stream, but broken in half. The third was a piece of cracked granite, hard, dark and angular. All three together fit in the palm of my hand.
I drove down to the creek bank, equipment rattling in the back of my mule. I stopped where our wonderful dog Jonah is buried. I got a small shovel out, but thought better of it and put it back. Instead of burying them, I simply placed the stones on top of Jonah’s rock. Three stones together. Goodbye, ten thousand nights.
I didn’t cry over the loss, because the first stone, the triangular one, stopped me. There’s no whining in a combat zone. I grieve the loss of ten thousand nights, but the triangular stone, the rice hat…
I lived. On a clear day, with napalm dropped around a coastal fire base, I saw the hat worn by a man who ran out to the beach, dropped his rifle, and rolled in the sand to put flames out. His rice hat fell off, but after he managed to grab his rifle, he grabbed the hat also. I watched through binoculars as he scurried behind a sand dune, smoke pouring from his clothes. I’ll never know who he was; I’ll never know if he made it, but I’ll always know there’s no whining in a combat zone. I can’t snivel over lost sleep, because. I lived.
Sheet marks. Yes, sometimes not knowing can seem better, because if you simply consider it a small thing, you think you can survive it. You can call yourself childish about fear of the dark for ten thousand nights, and fail to recall. Fail to recall watching a man put his own flames out. Fail to recall the comfort of the weight of a Browning loaded with flat-filed rounds that Gunner slams into your hands as you run past the gun locker on your way to die.
The United States has seen thousands more veterans come home in recent years. Give them understanding, America. Many of them dream things that are impossible for others to imagine. Always keep in mind that their dreams are the result of a simple act: they offered their lives to their Country.
Soldiers do not choose their assignments. They avoid political discussion, because such discussion takes attention away from their primary purpose, which is survival. When you encounter a veteran, you’re welcome to share the above with them. They might be carrying shadows that are too heavy to weigh.