Alone in Vietnam

Fifty years after combat operations escalated in Southeast Asia, Vietnam veterans still live with the psychological impacts of battle and a homecoming that never was

By Justin Franz
Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Forty-eight years ago this fall, Tip Clark was shot down over the jungles of South Vietnam.

Clark’s fighter jet was hit with anti-aircraft artillery and the hydraulic fluid that keeps the plane flying began draining quickly from its lines. Clark ejected from the cockpit and was guided back to earth by a parachute.

“You are so well trained for when bad things happen that you do what you need to do without even thinking about it,” Clark said.

Once he hit the ground, he cut his chute and ran as far away as possible from the massive white cloth; Viet Cong fighters would have known that if they found a parachute, an American pilot was near. Clark hunkered down in a snake-infested swamp and waited for help, alone in the dense jungle of a foreign land.

In many ways, the word “alone” best describes the plight of the American soldiers sent overseas a half-century ago to fight in Southeast Asia. They were sent to battle alone and they came home alone where some sought solitude from society. Those factors led to the psychological health issues some Vietnam-era veterans still face today.

More than 2.7 million American soldiers served in Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s. According to recent studies, 300,000 Vietnam veterans, or about one in 10, still suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Statistics like these are especially important in states like Montana, home to more than 100,000 veterans (one-tenth the population of the state), a third of whom served in Vietnam. Flathead County alone is home to more than 9,000 veterans.

Although American combat operations escalated in 1965, the roots of the Vietnam War date back to the 1950s, when the United States was taking a hardened stance against the spread of communism. As a communist government took hold in North Vietnam and tried to spread south, the United States threw its support behind South Vietnam, first with military advisors and later by deploying troops. By 1962, there were 9,000 American servicemen on the ground.

After South Vietnam’s leader was overthrown in a military coup in 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson committed more troops to Southeast Asia in hopes of stabilizing the country. In March 1965, Johnson sent in combat troops as violence escalated and by June of that year 82,000 servicemen were deployed. As the decade wore on, that number would continue to rapidly grow.

While some soldiers enlisted, others were drafted to serve yearlong tours. The United States also did something it had never done before, called the individual rotation policy. Unlike previous conflicts where soldiers were trained and deployed together as units, during Vietnam, troops were sent overseas one-by-one and added to existing units. There were numerous reasons for the policy, but according to Jeffrey Heider, a psychologist in Kalispell who has worked with veterans for more than 30 years, one theory was that rotating soldiers on yearlong tours would lessen their exposure to the horrors of war.

But in some ways, it may have made it worse. New soldiers were frequently outcast by the rest of the unit because of their inexperience. Heider added that after seeing friends die, some soldiers would isolate themselves.

The idea that exposing soldiers to only a year of combat would somehow lessen the negative impacts of war was also unfounded.

“It was scary,” said Ken Trowbridge, an Oregon native who fought in the Marine Corps in 1969 and later moved to the Flathead Valley. “When I landed in Vietnam, the airport was taking rocket fire and when I left 13 months later it was still taking rocket fire.”

Flathead Valley native Terry Baker was 18 years old when he volunteered to go to Vietnam in 1970. During one of his first missions, he was sent to Cambodia to try to cut the Viet Cong’s supply lines on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Baker said of the 128 soldiers who went into Cambodia, only 14 walked out 59 days later, the rest either killed-in-action or injured. He was injured about halfway through the campaign and spent 10 days in a hospital before going back to the front lines.

When the soldiers came home to the United States they were not welcomed like their predecessors during the Korean War or World War II. By the late 1960s, the Vietnam War was becoming increasingly unpopular and protesters were common at airports where soldiers first arrived back in the United States.

Trowbridge and other veterans said that when they returned protesters spit on them and called them names. Trowbridge said it was hard to even find work because of the stigma of serving in Vietnam.

“I never got spit on, but people looked down their noses at me and they would call me a baby killer,” said Dick Cordell, a Flathead Valley native who went to Vietnam in 1968 at the age of 17. “I think being called a baby killer is a lot worse than being spit on, though. After that, I just shut up and never talked about the war.”

Heider said it was common for veterans to distance themselves from others after the war. Some would even hide the fact from others that they were in the war, only to learn years later that those acquaintances also served. Trowbridge, the marine from Oregon, said he lived off the land for a number of years just to avoid interacting with people. The sparse population of Montana is what attracted him to the Flathead Valley later in life.

Clifford Nielsen, a soldier born and raised in Somers, said he turned to drinking, or “self-medication” as he called it, after the war. On his birthday in 1988, Nielsen went drinking with friends before breaking into a sporting goods store in Evergreen. When the police arrived he grabbed a gun off the wall and started firing into the floor. No one was injured and Nielsen was arrested. He was sent to the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs. After receiving treatment there he went to a special therapy school for combat veterans, and since then Nielsen said he has stopped drinking and is in a better place.

For other veterans, it took years for the psychological damage to emerge, according to Heider.

“They came home, they worked hard and they had a family and so they suppressed what they saw overseas,” he said. “But now as more of these guys retire and they have more and more time on their hands these bad memories start to come back.”

In 1979, Congress established the Vet Center Program to help Vietnam veterans who were still suffering from the trauma they experienced overseas. The facilities offer readjustment and counseling services free of charge to any service member who saw combat or was sexually assaulted. The Vet Center started with 65 facilities across the country but today there are more than 300. The one in Kalispell opened five years ago and since then has helped nearly 1,000 veterans. Heider is one of four psychologists who work at the Kalispell Vet Center.

Heider said one of the most common issues his clients deal with is PTSD; feelings of anger, nervousness, depression, nightmares and guilt are all signs of the disorder. Although post-combat depression is not new (during the Civil War it was called soldier’s heart, during World War I it was known as being shell-shocked and by World War II it was referred to as combat fatigue) it is especially prevalent in Vietnam veterans and some studies say they are 10 times more likely to suffer from PTSD than other combat survivors. Heider said much of that has to do with how the soldiers were not embraced when they came home. He said that some soldiers even received scorn from World War II vets because they weren’t in “the big war.”

“How someone is treated after a traumatic experience makes all the difference,” he said.

Some veterans are also frustrated with how the war ended. Two years after the United States started to withdraw troops from the conflict, the South Vietnam capital fell into the hands of the Viet Cong, leading the reunification of the country under a single communist government.

“The darkest day of my life was when we evacuated Saigon in April 1975,” Baker said. “It felt like 58,000 of us had died for nothing.”

Heider said when vets first arrive at the center they are screened and then meet for weekly or monthly therapy sessions to talk about their feelings and experiences. Heider said the goal of the therapy is not to make the soldiers forget what they saw but give them tools to cope. For example, being in crowded places can cause extreme anxiety, so Heider gives clients methods to deal with that so they can try and lead a normal life. For some however, the process is difficult.

“I don’t go through a door without looking around,” Trowbridge said. “I don’t go to the grocery store when it’s crowded. I wait until 11 at night to go shopping. I always sit with my back to the wall. I guess you could say I never left guard duty.”

Trowbridge said the best thing he has done in recent years to cope with his experiences is to join a local veterans group, the Northwest Montana Chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America.

John Burgess established the group two years ago, soon after he visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 2013. Burgess, who served overseas in 1972, said he felt compelled to do more to help his fellow veterans and started the group to do various service projects, including helping get vets to the memorial in Washington and navigate the complex Veterans Affairs system. Nielsen, the veteran who was arrested in 1988, said helping others has been incredibly rewarding.

“It’s been a long journey for me but I’ve been able to help myself by helping others,” he said.

But more than helping veterans, the group offers service members camaraderie. Trowbridge said spending time with his fellow veterans is often the best type of therapy.

“With this group it’s different because I know I have friends here who will watch my back,” he said.

Baker said being in the veterans group reminds him that he’s “not alone.”

However, he said some of the side effects of his time in Vietnam would always be there.

“I still have nightmares,” he said. “I will until the day I die. That’s just life.”