Excerpt from: Train’s Coming: Our Struggle with PTSD
Chapter IV. “I Don’t Have PTSD, PTSD Has Me…”
I knew nothing about Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. “PTSD”. I didn't know about Vietnam when as a third grader, my father, a Navy sailor on the USS Bonn Homme Richard CV-31 wrote to my mom about their deployment to the Indian Ocean and to what we would later learn was in Tonkin Bay in the early 1960's when the public hardly knew that Vietnam existed. Mom's letters from him came back redacted in places where he attempted to recount his day to day activities on the flight deck, their location and where the ship was headed. I suspect, the carrier had been where they were not “supposed to be”. After his “WestPac tour” and the carrier’s brief stint in “dry dock” for maintenance and repairs in Bremington, Washington, my dad received orders to a Navy base in Subic Bay, located in the Republic of the Philippines. Because of his MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) as a catapult and arresting gear maintenance Chief Petty Officer, he was stationed at Cubi Point, the airfield located at Subic Bay Naval Base.
The summer of 1966, Mom, my brother and I flew out of Travis Air Force Base in California, stopping in Hawaii and arriving at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, 24 hours later. Dad had left the month before to secure housing for us. Initially he found a two bedroom home in Olongopo, the small town outside the base. When my mom saw it, I thought we were turning around and getting back into car to take us back to Clark AFB. The three months we spent out in town almost crushed our mother. She had never lived overseas before and her life as a young Navy wife did not prepared her for the poverty, the humidity, the open sewage canals that lined some streets, nor the strange customs, foods and language of the Filipino people. She had never seen such desperation in the people who made their living off the servicemen who spent their “liberty” dollars in their bars. Base housing was rotated. Families left and new families came to take their places. My brother and I were fine, as most kids can be in a new environment. To us, it was an adventure and we had no idea the trauma our mother was experiencing trying to adapt. It was there as a young six-grader, I saw young men on their way to Vietnam and those who were returning back to the states. My brother and I hung out at the base movie theatre, the library and the bowling alleys on the weekends. During those two and half years, my dad coached a softball team of young sailors. We attended the games on base and also traveled the island by bus when his team competed with teams from San Miguel Marine Base, Clark Air Force Base, Sangley Point Naval Station and even a local Filipino team in Manila. My memories of those months include the steam rising from the jungles after the incessant rain showers, getting caught on base during a typhoon “Condition 1” alert trying to get from one bowling alley to another on foot, the canopy of the jungle when we rode horses at the base stable, the brilliance of a sunset as seen from the stern of a fishing boat coming back to the harbor from a day of deep sea fishing. The view from our two-story base housing unit at dusk when the monkeys were visible hanging from tree limbs in the jungles just outside our manicured back yard, and the fruit bats filled the darkening sky always triggers the scene and the haunting score from Wizard of Oz when the monkeys were flying.
In high school, when I began to read books on Vietnam, first fiction and later non-fiction. I thought more of those two years in the Philippines and imagined Vietnam resembled the countryside I saw when there. The anti-war sentiment had evolved into a monumental distrust of government and the military, especially with the massacre at My Lai and the optics of the fall of Saigon causing many to wonder why America allowed itself to lose so many young service members to a war we could not prevail in. I would discuss/debate what I had read with my dad, a military man to his core, and a Republican politically. I didn't recognize at the time that my dad most likely suffered from PTSD. I found out years later after we had left the Philippines, his air terminal took in the dead encased in body bags in route home from Vietnam. He later recounted that he had been on duty when the USS Forrestal caught fire at in the Tonkin Bay due to a freak electrical surge that caused the discharge of a Zuni missile from one of its jets. The discharged missile landed in the fuel storage on the carrier’s deck near jets that were full of fuel and being loaded with ordinance for a bombing mission. A chain of explosions and fires erupted on a surface of a ship that is the size of three football fields and covered with fuel lines, fuel storage, ordinance, aircraft and was manned with five thousand officers and sailors. Nine explosions and a fire that lasted over sixteen hours claimed one hundred thirty-four souls before it was under control.
My father still speaks of the silence that surrounded the USS Forrestal as it limped into port in Subic Bay. Servicemembers who lost their lives were transported in body the hospital ship, the USS Repose, and taken to the air station, waiting transport home. Because my dad knew the dangers of fire on an aircraft carrier, having been on one for three tours, this tragedy particularly resonated with him. Even now, in his 80’s, he still recounts that event as if it were yesterday.
© 2017 by Elizabeth Torres Evans. All rights reserved.
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