Special Forces Veteran, Doug Abernethy, Returns to Civilian Life
After serving in an elite military force for four years one would think that this refining and testing experience would pave the way for success in civilian life. After all, to be a member of the U.S. Special Forces, as was FFB resident, Doug Abernethy, in the years 1958-1962, an assignment that came from the recognition by his commanders of several of his excellent attributes as demonstrated from the very beginning following his enlistment into the Navy. They saw that Doug was a quick learner with phenomenal retention ability; that he was full out in all his efforts; that he was physically and mentally gifted in the areas required of an effective combat fighter. He was seen as loyal, a team player and onw who bonded well with all the men of his squad.. Once in the field, Doug proved his commanders correct as he accepted and performed valiantly in all his many challenging assignments. So how could he not in civilian life move smartly ahead with similar success? The answer is “yes” – but it took a while for him to overcome the psychological damage generated by his participation in the Vietnam war. His story continues…..
Doug was not the same person coming out of the service in late 1962 as he was when he enlisted in the Navy some four years earlier (right out of high school as an 18 year old). His twelve months of combat in the jungles of Vietnam built up layer upon layer of emotional scars, slowly changing him from a loving friend to an indifferent loner; from a secure person to one plagued with paranoia. His emotional descent began early, in his first two weeks in Vietnam when he experienced the loss – with many more to follow – of one of his S.F. buddies for the past three years. After Doug’s first six months in Vietnam losing of one dear comrade after another, to protect his psyche from further damage, he gradually withdrew from most every emotional attachment.
This mode of coping was common to the many men who served in Vietnam. While Doug and most others bore their pain on the outside stoically and heroically, inside, they were shutting down. One example of this was when a new soldier arrived as a replacement for a dead or wounded man; he was called “Joe” and nothing else as the veterans did not want to know his last name, where he came from or anything else about him. It was too painful for them to care about someone who – like so many before him – was soon to die, some to be blown apart right in front of them.
Another psychological disorder that often invaded the psyche of the men who served in combat in Vietnam was paranoia. This crippling mental disturbance arose from the constant fear that was part of the unrelenting daily campaigns in jungles and villages with their ambushes and traps around every corner; from the fear present from the persistent sniper fire, grenades, and mortars being fired at them every hour of the day and night; from the fear of “innocent”village men, women, and even children approaching them, not knowing if these people had dynamite charges hidden in their clothes; from their fear of not knowing what to do: kill or be killed. An overload and accumulation of these fears would often leave a person with a damaged ability to trust anyone or anything, pushing them into further unhealthy emotional distancing.
In spite of the mental destabilities affecting the soldiers (that is inherent in such close combat warfare), Doug and his comrades performed bravely and faithfully throughout their full, one year tour. When he returned to the States to serve out his remaining four months of his four year enlistment, Doug and the others were “debriefed,” a month long process used to evaluate their psychological health. At this early stage (1961-1962) of the Vietnam War, there was not much attention paid to the psychological problems of the returning Vietnam veterans, including Doug. Most of the these early participants were seasoned men from which a certain level of “toughness” was expected. Post Vietnam War studies indicate that approximately 50% of the Vietnam combat personnel suffered some form and degree of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, better known by its acronym, “PTSD.” Doug Abernethy was one of 50% affected.
Next Time: Doug tells of his inner battles and his hard-fought victory over PTSD as he finds healing for himself and then, for many others.